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Writing and Perfectionism

You’d think that if you’re a writer with a perfectionist streak you’d have the best, well-thought-out pieces, right? No problems, no road blocks, no grammar issues, nothing.

That’s rarely the case.

Being a perfectionist is a hindrance to writing, a lot of times. NOT a perk.

Back in middle school and high school, I always excelled in language arts. I received good grades on my papers. I liked writing, and I was good at it. But, we were urged to follow steps.

  1. Research
  2. Outline
  3. First draft
  4. Edit
  5. 2nd draft
  6. Edit and peer review
  7. Final draft

For me, I made it a habit to stop after step 3. I’d get all my research done, make a rough outline, then fill in the blanks. I wasn’t like some students where they’d type out word vomit, whatever came to their mind first, with the intention of fixing it all later. No. I’d sit at my computer, look over my outline, and think over all the possible ways I could write something before getting anything down on paper. When I finally decided, “This is it! THIS is how I want to say X,” it would get typed out. Then, rinse and repeat for the rest of the paper. After it was all said and done, I’d read over my paper and think, “Ya know, this isn’t half bad for my first draft!” So, I’d turn it in and make the smallest, most insignificant changes for future drafts, because nothing really needed “fixed.” My final draft was essentially my first draft, with maybe a couple things switched around. And it worked. I don’t think I ever got below a B on a paper in high school. I used this for creative writings too, not just research papers. Mental first draft, hard copy and “perfect” final draft.

Fast forward a few years to when I want to start writing a book. Mind you, it’s 2018, and I’ve had a couple book ideas since 2014. However, things have barely gotten out of the planning stages. Why? Because I’m a perfectionist, and my previous methods do NOT work in this realm. I can’t just think up the entire plot and dialogue for 300+ pages and write it all down straight from my head. Hell, I can’t even think up 3 pages ahead of time in “perfect” detail. Books aren’t concrete like research papers–they’re fluid. Each page builds on the last, and you’ll never know what page 10 is going to be until you’ve finished page 8 or 9. Sure, you can have a rough idea, but once the words hit the page, things can (and will more than likely) change. Sounds easy enough. Just write it piece by piece, what’s so hard about that? Well, if you have the privilege of being a PROCRASTINATING perfectionist like me, everything. Everything is hard about that.

The way my mind works is this: if I don’t think I can do something perfectly the first time around, I don’t want to do it at all. I’ll keep putting it off and putting it off until before I know it, weeks, months, and even a couple years pass by. Remember how I said I’ve had a couple book ideas since 2014? What happened? Procrastinating perfectionism happened.

I’ve built up bad habits. I’ve conditioned my brain into thinking I can’t write unless things are “perfect” (I’ve been quoting perfect, because there’s no such thing as perfect. There’s always room for improvement, as my old band director used to say). So, nothing gets written. Absolutely nothing. And it’s not even as simple as, “Oh, it’s not going to be perfect. Guess I’ll just put it off til the right idea comes to mind.” There is physical anxiety that comes with all of this. I become afraid and get a pit in my stomach at the thought of getting something “wrong.” That’s not an easy feeling to overcome. Being a perfectionist tends to be glamorized, especially online on sites like Tumblr (looking at you, studyblr/studyspo communities). But for a lot of people, it’s a form of anxiety that can be debilitating. So, how do you overcome the writer’s block that inevitably comes with perfectionism?

You write. You just have to fucking write. There’s going to be a LOT of self-talk that comes with it. You have to re-wire your brain, and the only way to do that is to accept that your first draft is going to be shit and WRITE. No, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to cause stress, and you’re going to want to fight it. But you have to keep pushing yourself without backing down until it finally happens. Once you finally get some words down on the page, you may hate it. But you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction that you actually wrote something, for once. Or, you may get lucky and be able to say, “You know what? This isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” and not have to re-write that part 8 times. No matter what outcome you get, you wrote, and that’s big.

There’s this quote I found online a few years ago that I absolutely love:

“For a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen: a gaseous nebula must collapse.

So collapse.
Crumble.
This is not your destruction.

This is your birth.” -Zoey Skylar

 

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