This is a Writer’s Worst Enemy

 

by Sarah Pesce

 

I don’t know about you, but if given two months to write something, whether it’s 2 pages or 20 pages, I wouldn’t be starting immediately. Nope, you’d find me procrastinating on the writing up until the last day or two, then scrambling to get it done. After a bit of panic, I’d finally go into total focus mode and bang it out just under the wire.

Why, why, why did I do this to myself?

It’s not that I’m naturally a procrastinator – give me some work that I know I can rock, and I’ll section off blocks of time each day along with corresponding chunks of the work to finish all of it in an orderly and timely fashion. But writing something that other people were going to read and analyze? No, in that case, my main problem was that I was a hardcore perfectionist. (For real – I used to have a slip of paper from a fortune cookie that said “You have a yearning for perfection” taped to my old desk. The cookie tells the truth. I still have that fortune.)

So what happened was that I’d want the thing I was writing to be absolutely perfect, I’d build it up in my head that it had to be amazing, and I’d psyched myself out entirely and destroy any chance at productivity. I’d start researching (and researching and researching…), writing the piece in my head, organizing my thoughts and testing phrasing, and I’d stay good and stuck in this phase for a long time. Write it down? NOW? But…but…it has to be perfect before I can get it down! What’s the point if it’s not?

You can see where this is going. Or really, where it’s not going because I’d be caught in a loop of perfectionism and procrastination until the last couple of days before the deadline (self-imposed or not). It looked like procrastination but it wasn’t: it was just perfectionism taking over entirely. Once I was down to crunch time, the idea of perfection was thrown out the window in favour of getting the work done. Did it usually come out pretty well? Yeah. Did it come out the perfect way I intended? No, it did not.

This is how I used to be – always striving for perfection and always falling short of my overly critical standards. Perfectionism is the enemy of writers.

So what have I done to get past this desire for perfection that results in procrastination and a last-minute flurry of writing?:

  1. As this column suggests, I had to “respect the process.” I’m so concerned with things being perfect and knowing that it’ll take me forever to get there (read: never) that I know I’ll only have time to do one draft so it has to be the best possible draft. But by treating the writing as a process and not a huge, weighty task to be completed all in one go, I can slow down, write crap, and give myself the luxury of time to go back and tweak or rewrite if necessary. (It’s always necessary.)
  2. I had to really learn how to self-edit. I know, I know, the irony. The editor didn’t know how to edit herself. I’m great at editing other people because I can be objective with their stuff; it’s incredibly hard to be that way with my own. (This is why you can’t rely solely on self-editing for your work; you need a trained editor to provide unbiased feedback and correction.) For me, I hated reading back what I had written so I determined that all I had to do was write it perfectly to start. Toooootally logical, right? But taking the time to self-edit made me look carefully for weaknesses in the writing and catch my typos, at the very least. Also being willing to hand it over to other people to look at was a huge step – I get very private and territorial about my writing, so to show it to other people in its unedited state was a big leap for me.
  3. Be gentle and waaaay less critical of myself. Let’s be honest: perfection is an illusion. (Time to chuck that fortune.) I was never going to get there and – crucially – neither was anyone else. So why set myself up against an impossible standard? And even if perfection was attainable, how many people would expect flawlessness or be so lacking in flaws as to be able to even recognize it themselves?

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Sarah Pesce at Lopt & Cropt Editing Services. Sarah has an M.A. in English from the University of Toronto and has a passion for editing romance. She runs a successful Editing Company where she welcomes working with new clients.

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17 thoughts on “This is a Writer’s Worst Enemy”

  1. I can definitely recognise that feeling. Unless I have every mapped out in my head – at least in a rough draft – the blank page is my enemy. I want it to sound as perfect as it did in my head and it never does.

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  2. For me the biggest challenge is the anxiety over the deadline. If I know I can take as long as I need, I focus easily and often get it done in a timely fashion. But if I feel that deadline looming, my work suffers. It becomes the whispered fear that keeps interrupting my focus. My mind becomes divided, as I start craft two stories.
    I like to think I’m getting better at it, reminding myself that I’ve done this before, but often the real solution is choosing to accept either the deadline or the quality as the priority.

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  3. Yeah, I’ve always been a pretty bad procrastinator too… but finally learned that if I at least have an idea of what I want to say, it’s important to bash it all down (before I forget!)… in a sort of “shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later” mode. That’s called my ‘first draft.’ Then, lots and lots of revisions, 2nd draft, 3rd draft, etc. on the way to the final. Oh yes, and at several points, leaving it untouched in a drawer for a while is good. It’s amazing what fresh eyes can see. And *that’s* why leaving the writing until the last minute is so bad. You won’t have time for the revisions and the ‘resting’ periods in between.

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  4. I give thought to the concept of perfection but find it to subjective – so I then think of doing the best I can, trouble is I don’t know what that is – so I end up doing what I’m able in the time I have – and I’ve learnt to live with that – always 11th hour and sometimes a negotiated 13th!

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  5. Sounds exactly like me… especially the part where you write it in your head, testing phrasing and such. I do that so much I sometimes feel the whole book is written in my head, and then it never actually goes to the page. Blech. Great article!

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  6. Write it in your head — I swear, I thought you were talking to me. It’s amazing how our mind plays games and tricks us into things. I didn’t realize so many other writers had the same problem with perfection/procrastination. Good to know I’m not alone. I used to get next to nothing down on paper until I finally allowed myself to surrender to what I’ve be told forever … the first draft is crap … you can revise crap, but you can’t revise a blank page. It’s as simple as that. Once I let go of worrying how juvenile or uneducated or unworthy or un-writerly I came across on paper, my words, emotions, feelings, started flowing and they formed characters and created plots that had conflict and thus stories were born. Not that they aren’t still in the crap stage, but hey, at least I have something to work with . I have words to bend, move, remove , change , edit , etc.
    I enjoyed your insightful post.

    Melissa @
    Sugar Crime Scene

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  7. “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials” said Chinese writer Lin Yutang. I’ve just got to ignore those procrastinating non-essentials and get it written!

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  8. I can totally relate because I myself am a bit of a perfectionist. Perhaps that I why I stopped writing for nearly 4 years, or I just developed what is commonly known as “Writers Block.” That could be tied into being a perfectionist too, not knowing what to write because well, you just want it to be perfect. Anyway, great article. And thanks for the tip on the editor. I will definitely look into that.

    Like

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