Writer’s Block or Perfectionism? How to Figure It Out and Fix It

Writer’s Block or Perfectionism? How to Figure It Out and Fix It

My eyes crossed as I stared at the words I’d written. As they blurred and came back into focus, they looked different.

A minute ago they flowed so smoothly, but now they seem ugly and awkward.

Highlight, delete. Highlight, delete.

I wondered why the blank page had become such a familiar sight — why writer’s block always followed close on the heels of each new inspiration.

I was swimming in unfinished drafts, and a few finished ones that just weren’t good enough to ship. In fact, my writing was rarely good enough to leave the safety of a Word document.

It’s that cursed, chronic writer’s block! Holding me back from creating the work I constantly daydreamed about, the work that was refined, brilliant. The work that was….perfect.

It’s not just for neat freaks

The word perfectionist easily conjures images of someone using Q-tips to dust tiny nooks and crannies, meticulously lining up their pencils in a perfectly straight row or feverishly hammering away at a piano concerto until their fingers are bleeding.

This is why it never occurred to me that I might be one — I’m the stereotypical messy, absent-minded, slightly neurotic creative — and I know and accept that I’m far from perfect.

But perfectionism is common among creative minds, and it is possible for artists to be perfectionists about just one thing — their art.

After a careful examination of the habits and thought patterns surrounding my craft, I realized I wasn’t just suffering from chronic writer’s block…Perfectionism was causing me to have writer’s block. It was the root of it.

So how can you tell if perfectionism is what’s holding you back from creating your best work?

Here are a few questions to help you gain insight, and some advice for how to move forward.

1. What are my expectations?

What are your expectations about your career and writing ability, and are they reasonable?

When I first started writing, I knew I had a natural talent, and I also knew the kind of writing I thought was brilliant. But when I started clacking away at the keyboard, I became discouraged when my writing wasn’t measuring up to my own taste level. Are you comparing yourself to writers who have been working for 20-plus years, even though you’re just getting started?

Criticism of my writing also hit me hard. When my guest post was rejected or never responded to, I immediately doubted my ability to ever be successful. Are you expecting to never fail or experience setbacks?

Your favorite authors and bloggers didn’t become successful overnight — they’ve paid their dues through countless setbacks and thousands of “imperfect” paragraphs. The insights they’ve gained from their failures helped shape them into the amazing writers we admire. Failures aren’t roadblocks, they are part of the path we walk to improving our craft, and understanding this can help you move forward bravely.

2. Am I holding back?

How does it feel when you sit down and start to write? Do you allow your thoughts to flow naturally, and then go back and edit them, or are you trying to write perfectly on the first run?

When you plan to submit your work for publication, it’s easy to type as if your audience is already reading it—and scrutinizing every word. I still catch myself doing this, and my work ends up sounding contrived and lacking authenticity.

Write your first draft like no one will ever see it—just get your ideas on the page and don’t worry about “writing well.” After you’ve expressed your ideas, you can edit and mold it with your audience in mind.

Also, make “free-writing” a habit. Free-writing, or writing your thoughts freely without the pressure of “creating” anything, can be a helpful tool to kick-start your creativity when you’re feeling stuck.

3. How am I treating myself?

What would you say to a dear friend who was struggling to write a novel and asked for encouragement?

Would you say, “Well, if you’re struggling this much, it probably means you’re not a very good writer. You should probably give up before you embarrass yourself.”

Of course you wouldn’t say that to someone you love — but do you catch yourself saying lines like this to yourself?

This is the hallmark of my perfectionism: I am accepting of other’s faults, but ruthlessly judgmental when it comes to my own. How can you be creative in this negative mental environment?

Self-abuse is a tough habit to break, but if you can catch yourself in the act of cruel and judgmental self-talk, you can stop the negative feedback loop. Rephrase your self-talk to be more accepting and compassionate. Even if you struggle with genuine self-love, just saying the kind words will help get you in a better frame of mind.

Accepting perfectionism as part of you

Perfectionism isn’t something that will go away — you’ll most likely be struggling with it for the rest of your life. But if you can recognize the ways it interferes with your creativity and productivity, it doesn’t have to stall your career.

Submitting your cherished work to the public is terrifying, but it’s important to remember that your purpose as a writer is to inspire others.

When you accept the natural imperfection of your work, you create the perfect opportunity to learn and grow–and to serve the world the best way you know how.

Can you relate? In what ways does perfectionism hold you back? Share in the comments below.

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22 comments

  • Wow, this article really hit home for me! I’m the classic perfectionist. (I don’t actually clean with Q-tips, though, but that’s not a bad idea!) As part of my nature, I’m very tough on myself. And that extends to my writing.

    The hardest thing for me is to stop myself from editing as I write. I will pick and pick at a paragraph for hours until it’s just right. That’s insane, and I know it. One thing that helped me break free from the madness is to create outlines first.

    Yeah, I know that sounds like something a perfectionist would do, but hear me out. I start with a gloriously messy “mind map” on my big ole whiteboard to map out my thoughts. Then, I narrow things down into a neater, more detailed outline.

    For some reason, this helps my writing flow easier. I can just “let go” and write with a clear path in mind. And, if I do get stuck, it’s easy to skip ahead and work on a different section or chapter.

    The outline thing won’t work for everybody. But, for this perfectionist, it’s been a huge breakthrough for my writing.

    Now, if only I could keep my house clean…

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Bailey,

      I barely clean, let alone with Q-tips! My point in that illustration was to say that perfectionists come in a shapes and sizes, and they’re not always clean freaks!

      I think they key phrase you said you are “tough on yourself.” While it’s okay to hold yourself to a standard, that standard should never be, “perfect.”

      I like your messy white board idea! Kind of like a mad scientist! 🙂 I think it’s important to find a method that works best for you!

      Yes, it’s tough not to edit as you go! But I’ve learned it’s more helpful for me to get everything down and then go back and chop and clean.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response!

  • Ivy nailed it, beginning to end!

    I’m currently writing the textbook for an upcoming online writing course, and recently I wrote the sentence, “Most writers are natural perfectionists.” It’s important to know this about ourselves.

    As a writer, I, too, sometimes face the tunnel vision that come of the pursuit of perfection, but as an editor, I see a bigger picture: For every project, there comes a time to stop fiddling with it and entrust it into other hands. Respect your editor enough to let him or her help make the manuscript the best it can be. Trust your reader to perceive the truth embodied in even imperfect words. Become secure enough in your own identity not to place it at the mercy of every critic.

    As parents must allow their children to grow up and walk into a big world full of people who will not all love them, as authors we must let our “babies” make their own way in that world, when we have done all we can for them.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Trish, yes!!

      You are so right, at some point, we must let go! My issue is that the more I look at a piece, the more my perception gets distorted due to insecurities. At some point, you just have to have faith in your abilities.

      And yes, having 2 little ones myself it’s easy to relate the fear of exposing your work to the fear of letting my babies learn the pain and rejection of the real world!

      Thanks for reading, and good luck with your text book! I think all writers should learn about perfectionism and how it affects us.

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    I’ve just got feedback on my WIP from a person whose opinions I greatly value. He loves things another person whose opinion I value hates, and vice-versa! My positive persona takes their criticisms with a grain of salt. My perfectionist self agrees with both their sets of criticisms. So I’ve got a total of four personae, two introjected, arguing with each other. I’m a one-man Gestalt group!

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      John,

      I’m the same way! I have an “obsessive” me and a “rational” me, and they are always at war!

      • JOHN T SHEA says:

        Indeed, Ivy. And people, including publishing professionals, vary in their opinions and tastes so much that one could rewrite forever without satisfying everyone, quite apart from my fractious internal committee! It can feel like a school test one can never pass.

  • Deep says:

    Thank you for this article. It felt like reading everything that I do wrong. Will follow the wisdom and update to let you know how much your article has influenced me. Thank you so much once again.

  • Eve says:

    I accept that I am a flawed human after at least 10 rewrites. Perfect-never but if I was-then I wouldn’t be human.

  • Marcie says:

    Great article. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons for more great conversations with awesome writers on this very subject.

  • Ivy,

    Not sot sound weird, but I am pretty sure we are soulmates! The description of the stereotypical creative person is spot-on. I an never thought about perfectionism being the root of writer’s block!

    I work as a writer and an editor so sometimes I struggle with editing while I write or even self-editing in general. it is funny because I am far from perfect and completely accepting of that…except when it comes to my craft!

    Similar to what you said in the comment feed — “knowledge” me and “emotional” me are constantly at war in my heart and in my head!

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      Realizing my perfectionism with writing was a HUGE realization. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what to write (writer’s block), it was that I feared it wouldn’t be perfect.

      And no–I don’t find that weird at all! I have so many writer/creative friends who are like this. Must come with the creative gene!

  • Shelli Manning says:

    So. Much. Yes.

    I’ve only recently discovered being a perfectionist is the cause of the near constant guilt I carry around.
    When it comes to writing, my perfectionism leads to procrastination (I never even get as far as ‘writer’s block’ since I just avoid the process until my deadline is towering over me like a big, black shadow.) Then procrastination leads to guilt and the guilt leads to self-doubt which ties back in to perfectionism. (and we start the whole cycle over again, having accomplished nothing).

    Thank you so much, Ivy, for putting this out there. I appreciate the encouragement and helpful steps creatives can use to deal with perfectionism!

    • Ivy Shelden says:

      I know exactly what you mean! It’s a vicious cycle of negative thinking/emotions! I let that cycle hold me back for way too long. It’s great that you are conscious of it though, that’s the first step to breaking free!

  • Truth is all writers are pretty much perfectionists and we wouldn’t be writers and sustain our words for so long if we weren’t. We all write in different ways; some edit as they go along, so make a mess. I tend to do a bit of both, but I find generally planning is the key. Knowing where your going to go next and what the ending is; this means less editing and reams of work to sift through as you go. I find that having 10 conflicts in front of me all the time than perhaps 2 or 3 gives me lots of room to change the plot, hence not getting stuck halfway through write ups. It may be different in short stories or articles but as a novalist there’s a certain amount of excitement in not knowing where your quite going to go, within reason of course.

    Lastly as far as editing and proofing goes, this is all about prefection but this should be left to external forces, it’s never good to do either yourself.

  • Stuart says:

    I struggle to even comment on this, much less write anything artistic or even decent. I find myself focusing on things that make me angry, like politics.

    Persuasive writing is so much easier for me. Logic seems to arrange itself almost as a consequence of invisible laws of physics. It just comes together. All by itself.

    Creative writing, however, is ridiculously more difficult. I will write, rewrite, and discard until I feel like an ouroboros eating my own tail. The best I’ve managed is one short story, with an entire two years between drafting and finishing, and all I got was the satisfaction of conceding that it’s actually finished. And it was a concession, a deal I made with myself to be done with it.

    • I hear you. I whip out stuff for my freelance clients no problem, but when it comes to my own stuff…painful. I have been working on two novels for years. Yes, literally years. But I recently joined a writing group and that has helped me. It is terrifying and anxiety-inducing, but insightful.

      • Pam Torres says:

        Maybe a writers group would help me. I have several novels that I cannot seem to let go of. I continuously pick and change; fix and tweak, until I get frustrated and put it away again. Writing things (freelance/blogging) is no problem. When it comes to sharing my heart and imagination with the world, I want it to be as good as it can possibly be.

  • slope says:

    Great article. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons for more great conversations with awesome writers on this very subject.

  • Pam Torres says:

    I have hundreds of stories (long and short); books (long and short) just sitting on my laptop. I stop myself from sending them off to an editor/publisher because I keep “fiddling” with them. Tweaking a paragraph here and “fixing” a line there. Before I know it, I’ve messed up the rhythm of the chapter, then it has to be rewritten. I admit, I’m a scared writer that needs to learn to let go and put my stories in the hands of someone else who can help make them better. When do you know enough is enough?

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