Common Writing Obstacles: Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the bane of many a writer, even experienced ones. Each story must be perfect or it’s no good. There’s no middle ground. There’s no forgiveness for ourselves. We don’t allow for the fact we’re human, we’re frail, and, despite our pride, we don’t know it all.

Perfectionism plagued my early years as a writer, and it still raises its ugly Smaug-like head. Having everything perfect is an aspect of being OCD that affects my writing. Rarely for the good and most times for the not so good.

Perfectionism has stopped me several times. I’ll start a story and write a few thousand words, getting to know the characters, their story worlds, their goals, and their obstacles. My usual practice when I begin my writing day is to read what I wrote the day before. It helps me pick up the threads of the story and immerse myself once again in the world of the story. I’ll also do some very light editing, fixing typos, tweaking a word here and there.

More than once, I come to a point where my inner editor says, “You do know this is crap, don’t you? You’ll never get this fixed. You haven’t got the skills to make it work.” And I put the story aside, often never to return to it.

How do we get past this perfectionist streak we all have to some extent?

Lessons Learned

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

Perfectionism is not my friend. There is no way it has my best interests at heart. It is a tool of the devil to frustrate me and distract me from God’s calling to write.

I am not alone. When I find myself paralyzed by perfectionism, I remember I have a partner I can turn to. Many times, when I find myself stuck on the rock of perfectionism, I’ve prayed. Sometimes, when I’m frustrated beyond belief, my prayer is along the lines of, “Remember? This was your idea? How about some help here?” I believe I’ve heard God chuckle when I’ve prayed like this.

It comes down to trust. He reminds he called me to write. It’s one of his purposes for me. And it comes down to believing he equips me to do what he’s called me to do. I have plenty of evidence he did not call me to be a plumber. But I also have experiences where it’s clear he has called be to be a storyteller and a helper to other writers.

Being my best is not being perfect. I am at my best when I sit at my computer and let the words flow without second or third guessing each one. When I’m done for the day, I have something to work with. I can make it better. I can’t, and never will, make it perfect. As Nora Roberts has been quoted: “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

Self-talk. One of my most effective tools is to tell myself it’s OK not to be perfect. Other than Jesus, who has been perfect in the history of this world? No one. None of us will ever achieve perfection on this earth. That awaits us in heaven. But I can focus on being the best writer I can by writing and learning. Learning from others and learning from my mistakes. I won’t improve unless I write from the perspective it will never be perfect, but it will be the best I can do with the talents and gifts God has given me.

What do you do when the dragon of perfectionism sits on your shoulder?

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  1. Hello, Henry! Thank you so much for this encouragement! When I was working to break myself of the habit of perfectionism in writing, I bought myself a blank journal and a pen and started writing a story. The beauty of the arrangement was that I could not add or remove pages from the journal, and I could not edit what I wrote…much. At least, not without the pages beginning to look ridiculous! Whatever I wrote generally had to remain as it was with only minor adjustments.

    I never did finish the story, but I got quite a ways into it! And it absolutely helped shift my thinking and approach toward writing. It wasn’t too long after that (just a few years?) that I wrote my first two novels out. (950+pages altogether!)

    1. Hi Janice,
      Thanks for your comment. I like how to won over the challenge of perfectionism.
      May God bless you abundantly on your writing journey.

      Henry McLaughlin