Most of the writers I work with have wrestled with perfectionism at some point during their writing career. When I struggled most with my own writing during college, I rewrote my opening paragraphs so many times that when I finally turned a term paper into the professor who assigned it, my first page was so dense and convoluted, it was nearly impenetrable.
Perfectionism is not an isolated phenomenon, but an umbrella term that stands for a whole collection of worries around writing: my writing isn’t good enough, smart enough, grammatical enough; people will think I’m stupid; I don’t know what I’m talking about; who cares, etc. Perfectionism is the way some of us translate our anxiety around writing. Instead of admitting or even allowing ourselves to feel just how anxious writing or the thought of writing makes us, we hurl a litany of other insults at ourselves, then worry every single word and sentence to death in order to diminish our discomfort. “If I find just the right word, or if I construct perfect sentences,” we tell ourselves, “I’ll feel better about what I write.”
The problem is: acting on perfectionism only begets more anxiety. It stands to reason. If we were already uncomfortable about writing, reaching for perfect—which we all agree, in our more rational moments, does not exist—can make us feel only worse, more stupid, less informed, in short, all the more nervous about the outcome.
In The Plague, by Albert Camus, one of the characters within the novel is writing his own novel as the story begins. And throughout the entire plague, as hundreds of people die and scores of others risk their lives to save their fellow citizens, this character writes and rewrites the opening sentence of what he hopes will be his magnum opus. He wants his work to be so striking, that after reading the first words, the critics will be so impressed, that they will rise from their seat and applaud the author.
The first time I read The Plague I was a very blocked writer, and didn’t understand the irony of this character’s desire. It was only years later, once I was less blocked, that I grasped how sad and ridiculous this character was, revising and revising the first sentence of his book while people were dying and risking their lives all around him.
Although many of us can sympathize with this character, none of us wants to be like him. But it doesn’t work to simply try to push our perfectionistic tendencies aside. When I tried to do this in college, I became more anxious, not less. Instead, we need strategies to help us negotiate with our perfectionism.
One such strategy is to understand that when we begin writing a novel, a story, an essay, a term paper, a feature story, we are not by any means writing the final version. Far from it. What we are writing is only the first draft. One of many drafts, each of which will give us the opportunity to revise.
This strategy may not work for everybody. In the early stages of working through my writing block, my perfectionism had too strong a grip for me to even consider composing an entire draft of anything before I revised. I needed to work toward the draft approach more slowly. So I made a contract with myself that I couldn’t revise until I had at least one page completed. Once that page was finished, I could take it from the top, returning to the beginning and going through a single revision of that initial page. What this meant was that I couldn’t behave like the character in The Plague, revising and revising my first sentence. I could read through the first page only once, revising as I went along. Then, once I had completed the second page, I was allowed to begin revising at the beginning once again. And once again, I was permitted only a single revision.
If the prospect of finishing an entire page feels too daunting to you, try progressing paragraph by paragraph, until that becomes comfortable. And then lengthen your writing interludes to two, then three paragraphs, and finally to an entire page.
This is only one of many approaches to dealing with the perfectionism that plagues many writers. But it’s an important one. And a good start.