The Scourge of Perfectionism
The Scourge of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is common among writers with inhibitions. Whenever they write, whatever they are writing, be it a literary essay or a thank you note, they want it to be perfect in every way—all the right, no best
–words, punctuation and content. I used to be one of those writers.
Before I could send off a thank you note, I’d go through multiple drafts, reading each draft over and over until I was satisfied that it was nearly perfect. In college, I worked on every sentence of every term paper as a stand-alone piece, not as part of a whole that would gradually reveal itself. When I read Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” a novel about the heroes during a siege of the bubonic plague in a small town in Algeria, I identified with the anti-hero, Monsieur Grand. An aspiring novelist, while others in the town were risking their lives to care for the dying, Monsieur Grand was perfecting the very first sentence of his novel, in hopes one day of eliciting a “Chapeaux Bas (Hats Off!)” from the prize committees.
I overcame my perfectionism only when I realized that writing is a process all about revision, and that the writer is not responsible for every aspect of the writing at any one time. I eventually divided writing into five stages:
1. The first stage involves simply putting words on the page by thinking only about the topic—and paying no attention to the quality of the prose or the punctuation. As I used to say to my clients, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
2. Once you capture all or most of the content, it is time to see if there are moments in need of elaboration and fleshing out. Is everything I wrote clear? Or do I need to say more, add particular examples perhaps, create additional context?
3. Now is the time to see if every part of the whole finds itself in the best place to create your argument or tell your story. Or might certain moments benefit from appearing earlier or later?
4. Only now that the body of what I wanted to write is complete, with amplification and good placement, is it time to think about the prose. Are the sentences monotonous? Too much alike? Are they of varying lengths? Varying construction?
5. Now I can pay attention to my word choice. Have I selected the best, the most concrete word to convey my idea or image? Have I repeated certain words too frequently? Do I use too many adverbs and adjectives to compensate for weak nouns and verbs?
6. At long last, I can take a look at the punctuation and grammar, making certain I have not violated any important rules, and that all of the punctuation I have used will help the reader grasp what I am saying or telling.
Saying Goodbye to Handwringing
Leaving perfectionism behind is another important step toward making your writing world safe. No more handwringing, no more second guessing, now that you understand that your duties and obligations to writing evolve through multiple revisions.
And Now for You
Do any of you struggle with perfectionism? In what ways? And if you have figured out strategies for freeing yourself from its grips, I’d love to hear from you.