How to Stop Perfectionism From Ruining Your Writing

There is a risk trying to make things better will only make it worse, so keep perfectionist tendencies at bay.

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All writers are perfectionists to some extent—we all strive to make our work better, or at least produce it in a form which (we hope) our readers will enjoy. This means many writers may go to enormous lengths not just to write, but to re-write, to draft (and to re-draft) countless times, until such a point where instead of improving our writing, it risks having ruinous effects if we don’t keep it in check.

How can we ensure that our perfectionism doesn’t hinder our efforts as writers? How can our creative visions be protected from our very human need to fashion the best possible expression out of our thoughts? The truth is there’s no 100% guarantee. The temptation is always there and it will be difficult to resist our compulsion to shape and remould our work. However, that said, here’s a few tips to help you keep your perfectionist tendencies at bay.

1. Trust your immediate instincts

There’s a lot to be said about spontaneous creativity, so when you’re producing your first draft, let your stream-of-consciousness guide you. Do you think Jack Kerouac cared a jot when he fed a 120-ft continuous scroll of paper into his typewriter and produced an uninterrupted draft of On the Road? Nope, Kerouac simply wrote as the thoughts came to him, and his mistakes often formed as much part of the process as the final product.

The lessons the Beat generation taught us (Kerouac et al) are that our unfiltered, uncorrected instincts are often right, so writers should trust them. Don’t feel the need to self-edit or self-censor your writing while you’re in mid-flow—simply follow your thought process and focus only on getting from A to B. Don’t try and invent extra letters of the alphabet between the two. They don’t exist. Just churn out your first draft in any form it takes, and rely upon what your gut tells you.

2. Try not to tinker too much

We all know what it’s like. We read our own work as we write it, and our inner voices will continually keep telling us that it needs changing slightly. Maybe we use a different word. Maybe we copy and paste this line into that paragraph, or we tweak the dialogue between our characters somewhat. Seriously, stop it now. Your overall focus should not be on chasing little tangents like this—a writer’s goal should be to get to the end of your chapter. That’s it.

If you keep agonising over the small details, obsessively tinkering and tweaking like this, you’ll soon forget exactly what you’re supposed to be writing in the first place. A sculptor will soon find that if you keep chiselling little bits of stone from an angel’s face to make it more beautiful, it’ll only end up looking no different from a gargoyle. Don’t create a monster. Let it develop organically, just as nature intended.

3. Retain the spirit of your original ideas

This is the hard part. Once you’ve finished your first draft and you finally do summon up the courage to revisit it, don’t maul it to death. There’s obviously going to be some sloppy habits which slip through the net, so (of course) feel free to correct those, but be generous with how the bigger picture shapes up. There’s a reason why most of those elements are there, however ugly they may first appear. It’s the imperfections which represent you best.

In the end, writers should use re-drafting as an opportunity to accentuate the best qualities of what’s in the original draft. If you try to over-embellish, or add some glitzy decoration to make it look prettier, it’ll only provide more distraction to the reader. You need substance, not style. There’s a reason why you trusted your original ideas in the first place. Don’t lose sight of that. If you do, it’s possible nobody will see the point in reading your work in the first place, and no writer deserves that.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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