Has anyone ever called you a perfectionist?
How do you feel about perfectionism?
Is it a feature player in your life or just a vague concept—something you read about and dismiss as irrelevant?
If you’re unlucky enough to develop it, perfectionism makes everything a struggle:
- You have to look good.
- You have to be nice to everyone.
- You have to be the best in every situation.
Worse, you won’t tolerate mistakes, personal flaws, or periods of adjustment.
You go all in, demanding success, mastery, recognition.
You never tire of the saying, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
The words “good enough” have never crossed your lips.
On the surface, perfectionism may look benign, like a useful motivational tool. You might even embrace it, calling it your superpower. Over time, however, it’s going to create trouble for you—lots of trouble.On the surface, perfectionism may look benign, like a useful motivational tool. You might even embrace it, calling it your superpower. Over time, however, it’s going to create trouble for you—lots of trouble. Click To Tweet
When it swings out of balance, you’ll find yourself procrastinating. Terrified of failure, you’ll avoid important tasks—things that could bring you great joy.
You’re going to lose your perspective, too, wondering why you can’t be happy with your accomplishments.
Unless you face up to it and push back, you’re going to miss out on the benefits of your hard work. Instead of feeling confident, satisfied, and hopeful, you’re going to feel empty—wondering why everything leaves you disappointed.
Still not convinced?
Let’s take a closer look at perfectionism and the myriad ways it affects writers.
Writer be Warned: Perfectionism is Sneaky
Perhaps, you remember having feelings about it since childhood.
You remember spending substantially more time on your class projects in elementary school. Later, you found yourself losing sleep over your grade point average in middle and high school, studying well past midnight to keep those A’s rolling in.
Or, your perfectionism may have manifested itself in sports.
You had to be fit, fast, and first. Failure was never an option.
As an adult, you’ve learned to accept this part of yourself, the part that needs to work harder, smarter, and longer than your peers. You tell yourself you’re healthy, though. You’re aware of the tendency, and you keep it in check
It’s rarely in check.
Perfectionism is the consummate shape shifter, and it’s dreaming up new ways to mess with your game.
Each time you take on a project, you tell yourself it won’t happen again. This time you’ll be vigilant, kind to yourself, balanced in your commitments. You’ll leave well enough alone.
The worst part is the number of ways it avoids detection.
- It’s the voice inside your head that tells you to reread your latest draft, an hour after you’ve saved it.
- It’s the nagging feeling that the thesaurus always knows a better word.
- It’s the compulsion to compare yourself with your favorite authors.
The Writer-Specific Brand of Perfectionism Convinces You that You’re Doing the Right Things
How many times have you succumbed to one more hour, one more revision, one more edit?
How many times have you deleted perfectly good because something didn’t feel right?
The feeling part tricks you into believing your feelings are accurate—especially the negative ones.
A perfectionist relies too much on feelings, especially the feelings saying, “if it doesn’t feel right, you’re not doing it right!”
After all, wouldn’t things feel different if they were right?
Not so fast.
Enter the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a common cognitive bias. Studies show that people with low levels of ability and experience tend to overestimate their capabilities, exhibiting a false sense of security—an overconfidence in their ability. Perhaps it’s because they’re new to a task, and they’re starting to get results.
I know; that doesn’t sound anything like you.
Stay with me.
The opposite holds true, and this is where it gets interesting.
People with above-average ability tend to rate themselves lower in terms of competence. Because something may seem easy (or easier) for them, they assume it must be easy for everyone.
This chronic low self-assessment compels you to overthink and overdo.
So, every time you feel the need to re-evaluate, tweak, or outperform yourself, it feels like you’re doing the right thing.
This feeling right thing can be dangerous—especially for a creative person.
The right thing may be to let your draft sit until you’ve had sufficient time and distance to evaluate it objectively.
Perfectionism Sounds Like a Positive Attribute of a Writer
I can hear you now…
But perfectionism is a good thing for a writer, right?
History is full of examples of writers who didn’t believe in themselves or their work:
Stephen King, convinced he’d written utter garbage, threw Carrie into the trash. His wife retrieved it, and it became a phenomenon.
Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck’s diary entries revealed nagging fears about his work slipping into mediocrity. Imagine abandoning The Grapes of Wrath!
How does one recover after receiving rejection letters from 144 publishers! Somehow, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, persevered. The famous book series went on to sell over 500 million copies worldwide.
And it’s not just writers. Michelangelo, DaVinci, and Van Gogh suffered with self-doubt.
Perfectionism isn’t really about trying to perfect something; it’s about struggling with self-doubt, trying to quell the fear that your work isn’t good enough, that you’re not good enough.Perfectionism isn’t really about trying to perfect something; it’s about struggling with self-doubt, trying to quell the fear that your work isn’t good enough, that you’re not good enough. Click To Tweet
And yes, in case you’re wondering, you can edit your work dozens of times without feeling satisfied.
Perfectionism Destroys Your Writer Output
Ever wonder why you have so little to show for your writing efforts?
You work hard, right?
And you’re constantly focused on improving your craft. You aren’t afraid to start over, either, ditching that mediocre work-in-progress to deliver something amazing.
See where I’m going with this?
It’s time to get real.
When you’re obsessed with quality, your quantity suffers. And “quality,” in your case, has become another easy avenue for perfectionism.
It sounds simple, but it’s a big deal—especially for someone like you, someone who lives and breathes writing.
If your output isn’t commensurate with your input, you’re holding yourself back. These recurring thoughts about readiness, growth, and quality may be robbing you of your potential.
Perfectionism Erodes the Quality of Your Writing
I know, it sounds counterintuitive.
Perfect means better, right?
Since you believe perfection exists, you keep chasing it, like a hamster on a wheel, never achieving your goal.
Since nothing measures up, you stop exploring. You stop taking risks. You stop working on your craft. You stop pursuing serviceable ideas. Instead, you wait for something ideal to land in your lap.
And it never arrives, does it?
You give up, again and again.
And you change course, telling yourself “one last time,” or “the next shiny idea will be the one.”
Over time, you lose the most important thing of all: your motivation.
When you lose your motivation, you’re left with avoidance:
- “What’s the point?”
- “All the good ideas are taken.”
- “I’m just not cut out for this.”
So, what can you do, when perfectionism takes you off course?
Nurture and Follow Your Better Writing Instincts
While perfectionism may be hard-wired for you, you still have better instincts. You’re just not used to listening to them. They’re often quiet and subtle. Sometimes you have to slow down, to be still and open enough to hear them.
Find and follow the path with heart, the writing projects that inspire and nurture you.
Think back to the beginning of your writing career. What subjects grabbed your attention? What projects seemed effortless? Can you remember a state of flow? What was happening around you, inside you?
Was it the absence of deadlines, or an indifference toward outcomes?
Remember when the practice of writing was enough?
Write down your thoughts. Try to reconstruct a time and place when writing was invigorating and rewarding, a time when writing was enough.
Remember, Writer, Done is Better than Perfect
The saddest consequence of perfectionism is never finishing. Without manifesting a finished product, you deny yourself the rewards of writing. These rewards are manifold:
- The feeling of accomplishment
- A product you can share with others
- Proof that inspiration + hard work = a book
Without finishing, you never know what you’re capable of. You never experience success. And make no mistake—finishing a writing project is a success. What happens afterward takes nothing away from your accomplishment.
Without finishing, you’re stuck at the bottom rung of the ladder. You’ll never get to enjoy the view from the top.
Imagine what never finishing does to the psyche—denying yourself the rewards of your labor.
Done is magnificent.
Worrying about perfection keeps you stuck, unrealized, miserable.
What’s the best way to finish?
Set SMART Writing Goals, and Keep Them
You’ve heard of SMART goals. If you’re succumbing to perfectionism, you’re most likely avoiding them. Here they are:
Specific: Make your goals clear
Measurable: Make sure you can accurately measure your progress
Achievable: Makes sure your goals are possible/practical/attainable
Relevant: Create goals that are meaningful to you
Time-Bound: Set and adhere to deadlines
Final Thoughts On Writing and Perfectionism
Too often, perfectionism gets a pass.
We brush it aside, allowing it to erode our progress, to erode our self-confidence. We pretend it’s harmless and insignificant.
Hopefully, you see it differently now.
It’s dangerous and deceitful. The price is steep—especially for creatives.
I’ll leave you with some final recommendations for beating perfectionism:
- Give yourself permission to fail (always). You’ll find that failure is only a feeling, rather than a reality/event.
- Decide what’s good enough—on your terms.
- Consider creating a rubric before writing. Use it, and stick to it.
- When in doubt, get some feedback.
Now, it’s your turn. Share your thoughts on perfectionism below.