Perfectionism is not about being perfect.
We tend to think that perfectionists obsess over word choice or comma placement simply because of incredibly high standards, but it goes deeper than that.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains, “There’s a significant difference between perfectionism and healthy striving or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.”
Perfectionism in writers is motivated by the fear that if our work isn’t flawless—and if we can’t execute it easily and effortlessly—it means that we are not good enough and that others will judge us.
We believe this for two reasons. The first is that perfectionists tend to tie our self-worth to the outcome of our work. If we produce a messy draft or struggle to write a novel, it feels like a sign that we are failures.
The second reason is that perfectionists tend to have a fixed mindset, meaning that we believe we cannot significantly improve the skills, intelligence, and creativity we have. As such, mistakes seem like proof of our inadequacy.
Perfectionists develop habits that keep us from putting in a full effort. If we don’t really try, we don’t risk failure. But we also can’t possibly write a book without making mistakes and persevering through uncertainty. So, we feel stuck; we feel like we’re doing something wrong or that we’re not meant to write a book. Perfectionism keeps us safe, but it also keeps us from achieving our goals.
One of the most challenging things about recognizing and overcoming perfectionism is that it’s sneaky. There are many different ways it can show up for different writers, but here are five common ones:
1. Procrastinating on writing by researching
Perfectionists procrastinate when we’re afraid. For example, we’re scared that if we attempt to write the next scene and it doesn’t come out right, it means we just don’t have the skills it takes. Thus, we put off starting.
But doing something “productive,” like researching, can also be procrastinating.
This is especially true if you find yourself thinking that you can’t possibly start to write until you understand every intricate detail of the historical period your novel is set in or you’ve researched every possible method to plot your story. You may convince yourself that you have to know these things to get your story right, but it’s more likely that the fear of getting it wrong is keeping you from starting.
If this has you stuck, remember that the method you stick with will be the one that works, and you don’t have to know everything before you begin. There is no amount of research that will allow you to write a perfect story on the first try.
In fact, the thing that can help you move past this is to intentionally write messy. Tell yourself that you’re just practicing the scene that has you afraid or you’re just making notes about what will happen. This takes the pressure off.
2. Writing only when motivated
Perfectionists often see effort as a sign of inadequacy because we believe that if we were meant to write (i.e., we were born with the gift), writing would be easy. This fuels the idea that we should only write when we’re motivated. If we don’t feel like doing it, we think we won’t produce good work.
Of course, the case with motivation is that it often comes after we get started.
Furthermore, if we don’t learn to write when we’re not motivated, we won’t stick with a project long enough to finish it.
Developing a writing routine can help you learn to start without motivation. Consider scheduling your writing sessions at the beginning of the week (keep your expectations realistic about how much you can do) and work on just opening your laptop at the designated times. That’s all.
But you’ll probably find that you get some writing done because staring at a blank screen gets old quickly.
3. Waiting for the right time or idea to get started
This is similar to waiting for motivation, but the underlying thought is that if the time is right or the idea is perfect, it will be easy to write the book.
Again, we’re trying to find a way to complete a novel without making mistakes, but the writing process is inherently messy. No matter how free your schedule is or how good your idea is, you will have ups and downs.
Writers who finish their books learn to develop a so-so idea into a really stellar concept. Additionally, they learn to work with the resources they have and to fit their writing practice around their life.
If you find yourself thinking that you should wait to work on your novel, get curious about the thought. Ask yourself why you feel that way and try to dig down to the underlying emotions.
Consider freewriting about what comes up and why it doesn’t have to prevent you from starting now.
4. Feeling like mistakes are a sign of failure
Because of the fixed mindset that perfectionists have, we tend to see mistakes as proof that we are not capable of writing a book. And that translates to the idea that we are a failure. That kind of thinking is all-or-nothing, meaning your efforts either lead to success or failure with no in-between.
In reality, the in-between is progress, and even mistakes count as progress. Because the opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset—or a belief that you can develop your intelligence, skills, and creativity through practice.
When you embrace this mindset, mistakes become a learning opportunity, and they help you see where you can grow and improve.
5. Resisting getting feedback
Many writers struggle to get feedback on our work because we often feel that it is personal. It’s that much more difficult for perfectionists who have tied their worth to their writing. And when we believe we can’t get better, that negative feedback feels like a spotlight on our flaws. Who’d willingly subject themselves to that?
But feedback doesn’t have to be personal.
In fact, what helped me change my relationship to feedback is the idea that it tells you more about the person offering the critique than it tells you about yourself or your work. Feedback shows you what your reviewer’s preferences are, and—if they represent your ideal reader—if your work is connecting. It is not a sign that you’ve done something wrong or that you are wrong.
I share this because I spent too long thinking that I wasn’t perfect enough to be a perfectionist. But all along, it was perfectionism—my fear of being imperfect—that was keeping me from finishing every writing project I started.
It made me feel like I had no hope as a writer if I couldn’t produce a flawless draft easily. And even though I knew perfection wasn’t possible, perfectionism still drove me to avoid making mistakes.
The good thing is that perfectionism is not a trait you’re stuck with. It’s just a mindset and set of habits, both of which you can change.
The key is to remember that overcoming perfectionism—like writing a novel—is a messy process and it doesn’t happen overnight. But with consistent effort and a willingness to persist through setbacks, you can do it!
Tell us in the comments: What helps you get over your perfectionism?
Heather Campbell is a book coach who helps writers develop tools to overcome their perfectionism and mindset blocks so they can create lasting and effective writing habits to complete a novel. When she’s not immersed in fiction, she’s running in the fresh mountain air of Colorado or snuggling with her rescue dog, Chase. Find out more at www.thewriterremedy.com and follow her on Instagram