I began to dream of being a published author when I was about eight years old. Like most kids, I had big dreams. I wanted to write chapter books like Little House on the Prairie. Like many kids, I had trouble finishing what I started. I’d write five or eight chapters and then lose interest. As I got older, this inability to finish what I wrote continued, even as my expectations grew more realistic. I rarely completed a poem, short story, or other piece.
One year I attended a homeschool writing class taught by a professional writer, who identified my problem with ease. In my student evaluation, she wrote very kindly that my perfectionism was holding me back. Later, when I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, this sentence stuck in my mind: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” However, I didn’t grasp the meaning of all this good advice until I had landed my first job in communications. Faced with writing deadlines that required me to quickly draft copy, then hand it over to a team of editors who slashed through it and returned it to me for revision, made me realize that the solution to being unable to write is to simply write.
Here are some ways you can keep perfectionism at bay during various stages of the writing process:
Accept the revision process.
I think writers have a secret belief that if we approach our first drafts just right, we won’t have to revise. This is an impossible dream. While a lot of techniques can help our first drafts along (brainstorming and outlining, for example), the plain truth is that the goal of a draft is to get words on paper—any words, even words that turn out to be drivel. If you don’t write a first draft, you can’t read it over to see what works and what doesn’t and then revise it into a second draft . . . and a third, fourth, and however many it takes to get it right. Sometimes a draft is disappointingly bad, but this doesn’t mean you wasted your time writing it. Often, there is no way of figuring out how something should be written until we have written it the wrong way a few times.
When you accept that there will be revisions, you give yourself the freedom to simply write without trying to achieve perfection. Although this feels messy, it is also productive.
Allow others into your creative process.
I used to resist letting others read my work before it was finished. I was worried that any comments or criticism would interfere with my creativity. This is a very understandable fear for artists, since inspiration is intensely personal and creativity wells up from the center of being. But after years of editing and being edited, here is what I’ve learned: creativity has a community element. When I share my less-than-perfect writing with others, I get to test out how my ideas are coming across right now; this makes my next revision more productive. I gain the benefit of others’ objectivity about my work. And I’m reminded that my job isn’t to please everyone, but to evaluate all feedback and decide which of it will best help me to achieve my writing objectives.
Be brave! Share your messy draft with a friend, coworker, fellow writer, or the blogosphere. When we bring others into our creative process, the reward is not just good writing, but a shared experience that is bigger than we are.
Stop the process.
Eventually, it’s time to call it a day. Your work is not perfect and it never will be. No work of art is perfect. (Okay, so most of J. S. Bach’s compositions and quite a few episodes of 30 Rock are indeed nearly perfect, but you think you’re J. S. Bach?) Do the best you can, and then push your work out of the nest. Let it be excellent or very good (please don’t think I’m suggesting anything less than that—I’m an editor, after all!), but don’t ask it to be perfect. Now you can move on to your next project, which might be even better than this one.