Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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Are you the type of writer who has to keep editing your work-in-progress because you believe it’s never good enough? Is your waste basket overflowing with crumpled pages because you thought the opening of your story was garbage? Are you afraid to show your work to others because you think it isn’t good enough to be shown?

If this sounds like you, read on.  

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that striving for perfection is overrated. Perfection is a goal you can never achieve. Instead, it might be more beneficial to strive for excellence.

How do you define ‘perfection’?

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? “Because it’s a vague standard,” writes Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice blog. No one really understands what it means. It also can zap the fun and enjoyment out of writing, Reid says.

Try this exercise. On a sheet of paper, write your definition of perfection. What does a perfect piece of writing look like? How does it feel when you read it?

I’m willing to bet that once you attempt to define it or draw a picture of perfection that you realize there is no satisfactory definition. Whatever concept you come up with is likely to be fuzzy and indefinite. That’s because the concept of perfection is vague and subjective. No two people will draw the same picture of it or define it the same way.

How perfectionism holds you back

To understand how perfectionism may be holding you back, ask yourself: what drives your need to be perfect? Is it to please that person from your past who was overly critical of your efforts? Even if they’re no longer around, their words may ring in your ears. If so, stop looking at yourself through their eyes, and envision yourself as the writer you want to be.

Or perhaps you want to emulate the success of a particular acquaintance whose work you have always admired. Gosh, you think, I’d love to write just like them. But each time you sit down to write, the words come out all wrong. You keep starting your piece over and over because it doesn’t read like anything so-and-so would write. If this sounds like you, stop comparing yourself to others. You will always come out second best.

The truth is perfection is an illusion. Perfection doesn’t exist except in your own psyche and imagination. Nobody is born perfect, nor can it be achieved with hard work and talent. Stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. Further, you will never write like anyone else, so stop trying. Instead, forge your own path on your own terms.

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

If perfectionism is interfering with your writing efforts, it’s time to take control of it (rather than allow it to control you). There are ways to work around perfectionism in your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

* Use freewriting to get into the flow of writing. Every morning before you begin your day, write for five or ten minutes without stopping. Allow the ideas to flow from your brain to your pen, no matter what they are. Don’t stop to judge or critique them. Just keep your pen to the paper and don’t lift it up until your timer goes off. You may surprise yourself at how much you are able to write in a short amount of time.

* Acknowledge that your piece isn’t perfect – and publish it anyway. Be willing to publish your work even if it isn’t perfect, says Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog.  Every author has published stuff that they knew wasn’t perfect. That’s actually good news for the rest of us toiling away on our masterpieces. It means your writing only has to be publishable, a more modest goal.  

* Name your critic. In fact, put a face to them too. Identify the one person whose voice you hear when you critique your work, Penn says. Acknowledge their presence, then quickly and swiftly banish them from your work space. Once those critics are out of the picture – and out of your head – you can reclaim your space so you can write more freely.

* Recognize that no writer is perfect. Every writer struggles with self-doubt at times. You are not alone in the way you feel. This is especially true if you’re new to writing. Realize that your initial efforts will not be very good. That’s okay, because you are learning along the way. But by writing every day, or as often as possible, your writing will improve.

* If you struggle with over-editing your pieces out of fear that your work isn’t perfect, try putting a cap on your editing passes. For example, I give myself three revision passes for my projects. Three revisions is more than enough to help me figure out where my story is headed and whether it worth pursuing further. If that doesn’t work for you, have a trusted friend or colleague review your work with you so you stay on track.

* Remember that first drafts always stink. They’re never very good, but you can still find a few nuggets of good writing within them. Think of first drafts as brain dumps – the process of dumping the overload of ideas piling up inside your brain. Use the best ideas for your stories, then discard the rest.

Remember that perfectionism can hurt you more than help you. So do what you can to release your deeply-felt need to be perfect before it derails your writing dream.

Seven Signs That You’re Sabotaging Your Writing Practice

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A writing practice is only as successful as your level of commitment to it. The more committed you are to a regular writing practice, the more consistent your output. Makes sense, right?

But what happens when you get oh-so-close to finishing your manuscript, but never seem to get around to finishing it? What happens when you do finish a story, but never seem to get around to submitting it to editors for possible publication? What if, instead of finishing your manuscript, you suddenly find other more pressing things to do, like clean the garage or spend more time with your mother-in-law? Is it really a matter of changing priorities? Or is something else going on?

I’m certainly guilty of these behaviors as I’m sure many other writers are. Psychology experts suggest that these patterns of behavior – procrastination and self-sabotage – are inbred in us. No one is immune to them. Even the most successful published authors have admitted that they have utilized these sabotage tactics.

It’s tempting to blame your tendency for self-sabotage on external factors, such as a demanding family life or a faulty computer. But unfortunately, blaming outside factors is a waste of time and energy. The only thing that is standing in the way of your own success is you. It’s time to get out of your own way.

From my experience, I’ve noted seven signs that you may be sabotaging your writing practice.

1. You stop writing indefinitely. You could be coasting along with your writing practice, meeting your daily writing goals and making steady progress on your story. You feel confident about your accomplishment. But then you stop writing. Why? What went wrong?

Maybe you got a negative review of your latest work that stops you in your tracks. Maybe you look at your life and question whether anyone else would find stories of your childhood interesting. Maybe you’ve read so much about writing that you feel overwhelmed and feel unsure how to begin your next project.

Giving up on your craft is not the answer. Letting your ideas fade into the distant past and collect dust isn’t the answer either. If you stop writing, but you still want to write, you need to figure out why. Give yourself a deadline of, say three days, to regroup and contemplate why you have stopped writing. Maybe it is a need for a mental break. If so, then when you are sufficiently rested, get back to work. The important thing is to keep writing. Ironically, it may be the very act of writing that breaks you out of your malaise.

2. You focus on the negative. You overanalyze your own writing and decide it’s simply not good enough – You’re not good enough. You constantly look for what’s wrong with your technique than with what’s right. All this focus on the negative qualities of your writing can undermine your confidence. Too much analysis can freeze you in place. The next time this happens, have one or two people review your work and give you positive feedback – something to keep you motivated so you keep writing.

3. You take criticism too personally. It can be disheartening to hear negative feedback about a piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Don’t let it paralyze you. Some critique is necessary. See the feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. Most important, don’t take it personally.

4. You constantly compare your work with others. So what if other writers have more experience than you do or they’ve had more stories published. You need to remember that they started at the beginning at some point. Stop comparing yourself at the beginning of your career to someone else who is further along. That’s like comparing apples to bananas. You will never get ahead that way. If possible, try to stay in your own lane.

In this situation, you might also need to re-evaluate your goals and expectations. Have you set them too high? Are they unrealistic? It may be time for a rethink of your expectations to make them more manageable.

5. You don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to write about. Everyone has stories to share. Just because you think you don’t have anything interesting to write about doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting to write about. It’s all perception. When you feel your work is not worth reading, it can be tempting to stop writing. Again, keep writing until you find a story worth telling others. If needed, ask someone to read your work.

Every experience in life counts for something. Every experience is worth writing about. The story is your perception of events as they unfolded and how they impacted your life. Believe that there’s a story everywhere you look. Believe that you do have something worthwhile to share – then start writing about it.

6. You focus too much on the past. We’ve all suffered failures in our lives. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had situations that did not work out. Understandably, we don’t want to repeat those mistakes. Learn from those mistakes, then move on. Just because you made them once before does not mean you will make them again. Stop focusing on the past and stay focused on the present.

7. You focus too much on the future. Perhaps you dream of earning your own byline in a high-profile magazine or you are determined to get your manuscript published. But those goals are meaningless if you haven’t written a single word. It’s easy to get way ahead of ourselves, but just as in point #6 above, it’s imperative to stay in the present moment.

You can’t change the past and you can’t control the future. So you might as well stay in the present and make the most of it – by writing.

Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.

There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.

So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.

1. Close friend or spouse
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.

Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.

2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.

A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.

3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.

Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.

4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.

There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.

The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.

6. An agent
If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.

Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.

Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.

The Cautious Writer’s Guide to Writing Groups

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Do a Google search about writers’ groups, and you’ll find a plethora of articles and resources touting its benefits for aspiring writers. But dig a little deeper, perhaps seek out discussion boards about writers’ groups, and you’ll get a very different picture. For example, a discussion on Quora reveals mixed reactions from participants about writing groups. Some had positive, even transformative experiences, while others expressed dissatisfaction with the groups they were part of, citing disinterested or dysfunctional members.

Certainly writers’ groups have their place. They provide a safe space to experiment with your writing, for example. They provide an outlet for socializing with other like-minded people so you can escape the solitariness of your writing life. They provide an opportunity to share resources and best practices, seek motivation, and help yourself and others to stay on track toward your writing goals.

But despite the positive impact they can make on your writing, they can also prove troublesome, according to Script Magazine. If getting too involved in writing groups, they can become a form of procrastination, taking you away from your real work as a writer. There can be a certain competitiveness among members, even jealousy, if one person is perceived to monopolize the conversation or if one person is published while everyone else is still trying to find their writing voice.

Most group members will tend to be at the same development level in their craft, usually just starting out or if they have been writing, still unpublished. As newbies, they may not have the perspective to share meaningful insight about your work. For more experienced and confident writers, writers’ groups may offer little value because they have passed that phase of their career.

Sometimes, members will comment just for the sake of commenting or to appear as a constructive member of the group. But that doesn’t mean they understand your work or can provide any meaningful suggestions.

Many people join writing groups for the socialization. That’s certainly a bonus. But writing is not a group effort. You still have to do the work, and that work requires significant alone time. The sooner writers accept and learn to tolerate the solitary nature of the work they do, said one of the Quora participants, the less need they will have for writers’ groups.

If you still believe joining a writers’ group is good for your career, think about these issues:

1. Decide what you want from the writing group. Do you want your work critiqued? Or do you want a place to gather and socialize, learn new techniques, share best practices and get encouragement for your work? If you are not clear about your expectations, you may join a group whose goals do not align with yours, or they don’t provide the support that you’re looking for.

2. What is the level of experience of the other members? A group consisting of people of different ages and backgrounds can offer alternative perspectives that can benefit your writing. If all group members are at the same level of development, that could limit the depth of knowledge and experience exchanged among group members.

3. Will the group members represent different writing genres, or are they all from the same genre? No matter what genre you work in – novels, screenwriting, short story, memoir – you can benefit from other writers of other genres. The only exception might be poets, who may not understand the nuances of narrative writing. Likewise, novelists and essayists may not understand poetry well enough to provide meaningful feedback to poets.

4. Will one person be moderating the discussion at each meeting, or will members rotate? A rotating schedule can ensure each member has a chance to lead the discussion and be engaged in the learning process. Conversely, having one person facilitate the discussion can provide consistency to the group. Some members may simply not want to take the leadership role.

There are other guidelines for starting and joining a writing group, including this piece of advice from author Jane Friedman. If you do decide to participate in a writing group, make sure you are clear about your own goals and expectations. As you become more successful in your career and gain more confidence, you may find you no longer need to be part of a group. They may not meet your needs as they once did or that you’ve simply outgrown them. Sometimes, group members simply grow apart or life gets too busy.

Writing groups are not for everyone. Critics of these groups say they can do more harm than good, hinder your progress as a writer or provide unnecessary distractions. There is no rule that says you have to be part of one in order to enjoy success as a writer. Only you know what is best for your career path.