Monday, July 25

Write Now: Let Go of Perfectionism


We want certain people to be perfectionists. We want them not to rest until their work is exactly right. Brain surgeons, chemists, geneticists, movie projectionists and, of course, accountants.

Writers, though, not so much. For a writer, perfectionism leads to missed deadlines and ulcers. Which isn’t to say that we don’t want our prose to sparkle. But perfectionism leads to second-guessing oneself and that’s poison to a writer’s muse.


Perfectionism Can Kill A Writing Career


Professional writers can’t miss deadlines. (Well, I’m pretty sure that writers like Stephen King or George R.R. Martin could miss a deadline or three, but most of us are light years away from being anywhere even remotely close to that particular ballpark.) 

If I contracted to write an article of a certain length by a certain date and then didn’t turn my work in on time or if it wasn’t to spec, then not only am I not getting paid, but I’m probably not getting another job from that person. If that happens enough times, it can kill a career.


Accept That You See Your Writing Differently Than Anyone Else


I’m often surprised by readers’ comments on my work. Especially on the first draft, what a reader will say they read and what I thought I wrote can be very different things.

But of course that’s the case! These are my thoughts and ideas. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, this thing we do is really an odd sort of telepathy. Let me demonstrate:

There is a cat on a mat.

Simply by virtue of you reading, “There is a cat on a mat,” you thought of a cat on a mat. (Here’s my favorite: Don’t think of a white bear. But I can’t help it! To read and understand the sentence I inevitably think of a white bear.) So just by virtue of you reading those words I’ve transmitted my thought, my idea, to you.

Of course the idea of a cat on a mat is a general idea. Many of the details, the specifics, are going to differ between my cat and yours. As it happens, my cat is a tabby cat and it’s laying on an oblong, white, braided mat. Your cat might be a Siamese, or Persian, or perhaps a sleek Russian Blue.

And let’s not forget about the place in which the cat lies indolently upon the mat. I pictured my tabby curled lazily in front of a lit fireplace in a rustic cabin out in the woods. Where is your cat? In a building? Outdoors? Is it grooming itself, sleeping, or perhaps it’s looking intently at something you can’t quite make out just to the right of you, a space which seemed empty a moment ago. (mmmmmwwwwahahahahahaha)

In any case, I hope I have convinced you that, although there are differences in the specifics of the thought I wrote down (“There is a cat on the mat”) and the thought that you had after reading what I wrote, I successfully transmitted my thought to you.

How cool is that!

Anyway, my point is that no matter how obsessively you craft your writing—words that go together to create a sentence, a unit, a thought—you will never have full control of how your reader fills out the thought, how they complete it. 

I try to write with an awareness that I don’t have anything like complete control over how my thoughts fit into the teeming ecosystem of a reader’s mind, of the nuances that they bring to any text, nuances that subtly—or not so subtly—shade the meanings of my words.


How To Beat Perfectionism AND Defeat Writer’s Block



1. The Trial By Fire Method


I’ve done this. Write a blog post a day for a month, giving yourself a strict time limit. Say, two hours. After two hours, publish what you’ve written, even if it is incomplete. (Though if it is incomplete I would add an explanatory note about the 31 day challenge you’re on so your readers understand what’s going on.)

Toward the end of the month, you’ll get a feeling for where you are in the creation of a blog post. You’ll have a sense for how much more time it will take you to finish and so will be able to judge whether you need to narrow the scope (or perhaps expand the scope) of the article. Also, you will have to—you will be forced to—let go of any thought of being perfect and focus on whether what you have written accomplishes what you set out to do. If it does, and it’s spell checked and there are no grammatical mistakes, then click the publish button!


2. Freewriting


I don’t do this exercise often, but the times I have it has been very effective. Set a timer for five minutes (it can be any fairly short period of time) and begin writing. When the timer goes off you don’t have to stop that very second. Finish your thought and then read what you have. Chances are it’s a decent (though very short) rough draft.


You Have To Write A Rough Draft Before You Can Write the Finished Product


For myself, writer’s block comes from wanting to skip all the rough drafts and just write the finished perfect draft the first time through. While I’m sure there are writers who can do that, the overwhelming majority of professional writers can’t. Most writers need to vomit out a rough draft—several rough drafts—first. 

When I have a rough draft, even one that makes me cringe, I have something I can make better.

That’s it! I hope you’ve found something here that inspired you or helped you in some way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on perfectionism. Have you ever had writer’s block? What happened? How did you get over it? Please take a moment to share your tips and experiences, I’d love to read about them.

Until Thursday, good writing!

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