The trouble with being a perfectionist

Are you a writer-perfectionist? Here are some ways that I knew I was:

  • I had to ask one of my bridesmaids for a pen five minutes before I walked down the aisle because two sentences in my wedding vows were “redundant.”
  • I once copyedited the text on a napkin. That’s right, a napkin. (I resisted the urge to tell the waitress, “Do you know there’s a typo on your napkins?” But just barely.)
  • I develop facial tics when I find errors or formatting inconsistencies in my work post-publication.
  • I have trouble letting go of work because it’s not as good as it can be. Nothing is ever “done.”

It’s almost a joke that, when asked by an interviewer what we consider to be our greatest weakness, many of us respond, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” That’s usually followed by a laugh and a look from the prospective boss that says, “No, seriously.”

We often equate being a perfectionist with being a hard worker and having high standards. Neither of the latter two is a bad thing. Making a career as a writer, deciding that, in fact, this isn’t a hobby but a genuine and feasible vocation, is hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart. And readers, editors, and agents will have high expectations for our work, so we need to hold ourselves to those same standards.

But sometimes perfectionism is an excuse. We keep piddling with a work revising and revising and revising, until our brains seem to be made of Jell-O or we feel like a dog chasing its tail. We don’t query agents, submit to editors, or even send work to beta readers or critique partners because the WIP isn’t the best it can be. Or maybe we do share it with our trusted critiquers, but hold off on sharing it with the larger world. Is it really perfectionism that’s holding us back? Or is being a perfectionist really a stand-in for fear: fear of success, of failure, of being judge?

WARNING: Unnecessary, crazy-making perfectionism can lead to hair-pulling, premature wrinkles, and a general sense of angst.

Here are two scenarios in which perfectionism stood in the way:

One of my friends is working on her thesis. She spent years working on it before finally sharing it with her thesis committee, holding off until the very last minute. Why? Because when she writes something, she wants it to be perfect. I urged her to just write a crappy first draft and then revise, but every page she wrote, she revised as she went. It took her longer to write this way, in my opinion, because she constantly had to switch roles from writer to editor, back and forth. Being a perfectionist meant she took the long route.

I was once charged with writing an article about our university’s role in the wine industry. A lot of higher ups were very excited about the article and had high expectations. I’d written for a few issues of the magazine, but this was the biggest project I’d worked on to date. Deadline arrived and I had a ton of quotes and background research, but no finished product. I was frozen, paralyzed by the thought of disappointing readers and my bosses. Finally, a friend told me, “I think if you settled for what you consider to be mediocre, your standards would still be five times higher than most people’s.” Huh. Her words allowed me to let go of expectations and just write. And you know what? To this day, I’m proud of that article and consider it one of my best. I gave myself creative freedom and wrote a strong, engaging article. My department VP even gave a rave review—and he’s not someone who doles out compliments easily.

Perfectionism can be the mask worn by plenty of other creatures. It can really be self-doubt, or it can be that we’re not sure how to proceed. We allow ourselves to get lost muddling through details because the big picture or the next step overwhelms us. In short, perfectionism can be procrastination. And procrastination can be fear in disguise because, let’s face it, it’s easier to admit that we’re lazy than it is to admit that we’re scared.

Overachievers will always be overachievers. And there’s nothing wrong with high standards–as long as they don’t prevent us from writing, finishing a manuscript, sending it to agents/editors, or even posting on our blogs. Not even the best book is “perfect.” A book can be riveting, suspenseful, well-crafted, engaging, provocative, excellent–an all-around great read–but it can never be perfect.

Somewhere inside of us lurks a a perfectionism beast. If it escapes from its cage, it can slow us down or, even worse, derail us. I’m starting to learn that if left untamed, this creature can, at the very least, be a one-way ticket premature wrinkles and stomach ulcers.

How do you confront your inner perfectionist?

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