Perfectionism will kill your writing

Image of snooty man
Perfectionism isn’t excellence, diligence, or accuracy. Neither is it tenaciously doing the best you can. Perfectionism is intolerance of a necessary learning process.

Think about how an infant learns to walk. He doesn’t give up the first time he falls down. He doesn’t think to himself, “This walking stuff is not for me. I’m no good at it. I’ll crawl through life.”

All of us are incompetent before we gain competency. That’s the process of learning. Competency is gained through doing.

Perfectionism is an attempt to avoid criticism

We adults can be quick to judge ourselves. The thinking goes like this, “Some people are naturally talented, but I’m not. I don’t want to feel ashamed by looking incompetent, so I won’t try.”

When you write in a public space, you leave yourself vulnerable to criticism. There will be people who object to what you write. Some will tell you how wrong or uninformed you are.  Yet constructive criticism is how we get better. Learning to write well takes time.

Perfectionism is a creativity killer

Almost every young child sees herself as creative. Educator, Sir Ken Robinson, tells a story in one of his TED talks. He’s in a school classroom and asks a little girl what she’s doing.

“I’m drawing a picture of God,” she says.

Sir Ken replies, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”

“They will in a minute,” she says.

Ask a group of adults whether they’re creative or not and most will say no. Most people give up drawing about the age of ten because the drawings don’t look representational.

This is true for writing, too. When our words don’t flow, we make a negative judgment about our capabilities. But accomplished communicators aren’t born that way, they learned.

You can’t start out perfect

The perfectionist never delivers. There’s an editorial saying, “We don’t want it perfect, we want it on Tuesday.” One can noodle with sentences forever. But there has to be a time when what you write is good enough, or as good as it can be in the time allotted.

Perfectionists can’t admit that they don’t know

Perfectionism is linked to shame. If we’re going to succeed, we have to tolerate ourselves as less than our ideal self-image. The student must be open to learning: beginner mind.

An ancient Zen story tells of a monk who goes in search of wisdom. After a long journey, he comes to the master’s dwelling where he his offered tea. The master pours tea into the monk’s cup and keeps on pouring. It overflows. The lesson is that the mind, like the teacup, must be empty enough to receive the wisdom. If we are to learn, then we need to admit to not knowing.

Good writing starts out bad

Even the driest of technical writing is an art form, a practice. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make an improvement. Most bad writing is caused by being satisfied too soon—or a crazy deadline. But perfectionism is worse. It stops you from starting.

Writing gets better through revision.

Writing is thinking on (virtual) paper. The word essay, comes from the French essayer, to try. Even rough first-draft writing helps us know what we want to say.

Just getting your ideas down in writing, no matter how messy, is an achievement. Now you have something to work with.

Confidence comes through achievement. Only by experiencing the journey from disorganized and unreadable mess to polished final draft, will new writers believe they can do it.

Business is goal oriented. We measure success by the bottom line. But process matters. Failure is inevitable. Some cultures punish failure, others learn from it. Learning organizations are able to adapt over time.

Adaptation is how you take those half-baked ideas and scribbled notes and turn them into something meaningful. And for that to happen you have to tolerate ugly beginnings.

And it gets better

The good news is no one needs to see your early drafts except you and your trusty editor.

Yet starting is hard. You learned about inertia in high-school physics. Overcoming inertia isn’t easy. Your car, or computer, takes more power to start than it does once it’s running. Once you’ve achieved momentum, don’t stop there. Learn to love your bad writing, because you’ve made a start.

If you’ve wanted to write that book but haven’t made a start, could it be you’re suffering from a nasty case of perfectionism? The solution is to learn to tolerate early mess.

You can always clean it up later. The secret of writing is rewriting.

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before being satisfied. When the interviewer asked him why so many times, he replied, “Getting the words right.”

If you’re finding it hard to get started with your writing, try having a conversation with yourself.