We have an important topic to discuss today: the dangers of perfectionism in writing.
I know that being a perfectionist has its perks. We apply “perfectionist” to folks who are detail-oriented, reliable, and efficient. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist does precisely the opposite in writing: it obfuscates details, lets your deadlines whoosh by, and creates a deeply inefficient and unsatisfying writing habit.
I struggle with perfectionism in my writing, but I’ve learned to beat it back with a few large sticks—and it’s my pleasure to teach you my tools of the trade.
Identifying Perfectionism in Writing
How do you know if this is you? If you struggle with perfectionism in your writing, here’s what you’re likely to experience:
- A lack of satisfaction in your own writing (because it’s never good enough).
- An inability to stop editing it and just move on (because it’s never good enough).
- Aggravated fear and stress at the thought of your writing going public (because it’s never good enough—yes, we said that already).
- A feeling of failure regarding your work (because it’s never… you get the idea).
- An absence of fun or enjoyment when you write (completely understandable because it’s never good enough).
Any of those items ring a bell?
Here’s the thing: part of the reason perfectionism in writing is so deadly is because it’s a vague standard. What the heck is “perfect” in writing? Is there such a thing? Seriously? There are no “perfect” books or authors; even Shakespeare has readers who loathe him, as does every other author in the universe including your personal favorites.
“Perfectionism” in writing is deadly because it doesn’t actually mean anything. All it does is poison the well.
So where does that leave you? There’s no “off-button” for the drive of perfectionism, but there is hope.
“Perfectionism” in writing is deadly because it doesn’t actually mean anything. All it does is poison the well.
Admit You’re Wearing Blinders
You will never see your story as clearly as other people do. This goes back to that thing I refer to as “writer-brain.” We do not see our writing the way a reader would. We can’t; we’re too close to it, too wedded to the rhythms and pacing.
In your writing, you will see every single flaw. You will see flaws in spots where your voice just hasn’t fully formed yet as a writer (which is fine because that takes TIME). You will see flaws even where there aren’t flaws—just places that could be worded differently. To you, these flaws seem like glaring, horrifying potholes.
The good news is, these flaws might not be as bad as you think.
This is one of those reasons it’s essential to belong to a healthy writing community. When we write alone, our muses tend to be cannibalistic and eat each other. The helpful opinions of other writers do matter, and if they don’t think that chapter sucked like you thought it did, you have to acknowledge they may be right.
When we write alone, our muses tend to be cannibalistic and eat each other.
Be Willing to Put it Aside For a While
“What the hey, lady?” you might be saying. “Every article, you’re telling me to take time off from writing. Is this about writing or not-writing, anyway?”
It’s about writing—kind of like an exercise program is about exercise even on your days off.
Our minds and bodies work the same way. We have to exercise them to get in shape (the more you write, the better you get), but just like your muscles, if you don’t take time off, instead of growing, your writing muscles will atrophy and possibly get sprained.
Any of you who’ve ever done a real exercise program know this. The days you take off are every bit as important as the days you work out. Skip them to your detriment—and writing is the same way.
Publish It—Even When It’s Not Perfect
Okay, I can hear your screams from here. Take a minute to breathe. I’ll wait.
Do you remember this video? (If not, I highly, HIGHLY suggest you watch it. And if so, I suggest you watch it anyway.)
I know how hard it is to release your words to the world when you feel they aren’t quite ready. I know. But the reason it happens is because you know how good you want it to be, and you’re subconsciously comparing it to your favorite authors—most of whom have been writing years longer than you.
(Seriously. Watch the video.)
Right now, at this time, you may not be able to get that piece of writing up to the standard you want for yourself.
It doesn’t mean you don’t publish it.
If you want to become a better writer, you have to be willing to put stuff out there that isn’t perfect. Yes, you edit it, yes, you have beta-readers comb through it, yes to all of that—you make it as good as you’re capable of making it right now. But after all that, if you don’t make it public, you’re feeding the poison of perfectionism, and you will find yourself paralyzed.
This step is crucial. Neil Gaiman said it this way: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
Conclusion: Avoid the Vagueness of “Perfect Writing”
Be brave, fellow writers. Perfectionism will only harm you. Are you ready to keep moving? I hope so. I need encouragement on that front myself, so let’s all help each other. Trust your writing community to help you get the story into the shape it needs to be, and keep on writing.
Do you have any pieces you’re frozen on because of perfectionism? Let me know in the comments section.
Take something you’ve been working on forever. Something you’re afraid of sharing. Something that hasn’t felt quite right yet, something that’s paralyzed you—and share it in the comments below. Don’t forget to respond to three other writers, too!
Frothy, according to Kirkus Reviews. Thrives on regular servings of good books and cute cats.
Almost everyone out there knows someone who’s a perfectionist, if they aren’t one themselves.
Some people are perfectionists in only one aspect of their life (such as school or work) while others apply their perfectionist tendencies to every aspect of their lives.
Perfectionism is often looked at by those who don’t share the same obsession as a negative personality trait. In reality, perfectionism has both positive and negative impacts.
Learning to work within the constraints of being a perfectionist can lead to much higher productivity, but not working with those traits can lead to much lower productivity.
What is Perfectionism?
Your average perfectionist believes that not only is perfection achievable, but that it should be achieved whenever possible. They always strive to make their work better, and often derive pleasure from investing time and effort into their projects. They enjoy paying attention to detail and are often hard to please.
The Upside of Being a Perfectionist
Perfectionism has a lot going for it. For one, it’s common to have perfectionist clients, and that can be a huge headache if you’re not also a perfectionist. Working with someone who insists on getting every single detail the absolute best it can be is easier if you share the same outlook. But there are also other benefits.
Higher Personal Standards
With high personal standards, it’s easier to meet the expectations of others. If you have low standards, you’ll always have to push yourself to meet what others expect from you. If your standards are already high, you’ll likely have a much easier time meeting the standards of others. After all, a perfectionist almost always has nearly-impossible standards for themselves, much higher than what outside parties would generally impose.
A More Streamlined Work Process
Most perfectionists are also hyper-organized. They’ve perfected their work process along with everything else in their life. This means, in many cases, that your work is more efficient than that of many non-perfectionists. You have processes and patterns for handling virtually anything that comes your way, from email to new project and clients to bookkeeping. It can definitely add up to a more effective workday with less wasted time and effort.
A More Polished End Result
If you’re a perfectionist, it’s likely that by the time a project makes it to the client (or is made public), it’s as polished as it can get. Your designs are always pixel-perfect and your development projects always work flawlessly. Others often look at your work in awe, wondering where you find the time and patience to perfect your work in such a way. It’s a definite plus, as it can lead to more work and more respect.
Better Attention to Detail
In addition to an overall feeling of being polished, your work often has all those extra little details that set it apart from the crowd. You go the extra mile to add details to your work that others wouldn’t even think of. This applies both to design and to other aspects of your business. Things like making your clients and others you do business with feel appreciated and valued can go a long way toward improving your business, and are often overlooked by many. A perfectionist will often have systems in place to make sure things are done to improve client relations above and beyond expectations.
Fewer Fixes Are Necessary Later On
One of the biggest direct advantages of being a perfectionist is that there are generally fewer bugs in your finished projects. Because you’ve examined everything in minute detail and tested every possible scenario you could come up with to make sure everything looked and functioned flawlessly, it’s much less likely your clients will find anything you overlooked. This means not only do you have fewer bugs to deal with (which are often unbillable), but also that your clients and users will be happier.
The Downside to Perfectionism
For all the upsides to perfectionism, there are also plenty of downsides. Perfectionists can be looked at as being completely anal and overbearing by those who don’t share their outlook. It can also be frustrating to clients who aren’t interested in “perfect” and simply want their project done yesterday.
Longer Development Cycle
When you strive for perfection, everything takes just a bit longer to get right. Even if you have a more efficient design and development process than many other designers, it’s likely you spend more time on each step than a lot of others do. This longer development cycle can lead to less time for other projects, longer work days, and unhappy clients. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll need to have mechanisms in place to keep projects from taking up too much time. Setting mini-deadlines for individual steps in the process is one such way. Just make sure you stick to them.
It’s More Work
As designers and developers, we should all strive for our work to be as good as needed. But perfectionists often take it a step further and put work into a project that isn’t necessarily going to pay off in the end. Sometimes things don’t need to be perfect. A few rough edges here and there can add to a project, or at least not interfere with its effectiveness.
Sometimes It’s Unnecessary
Perfection isn’t always as important to everyone else as it is to a perfectionist. And some aspects of your work likely don’t demand perfection. Wireframes, for example, don’t need to be anywhere near perfect. Designers sometimes get hung up on how a wireframe looks without realizing that their clients or other members of their development team probably won’t care. And the danger we run into with creating perfect wireframes is that sometimes clients think they can’t make changes or are hesitant to make suggestions (which they end up making later in the process, when things are harder to change).
It’s Not Always Billable
If you spend ten hours trying to make sure that your design is pixel-perfect in every browser since IE5 for Mac, your clients probably aren’t going to be willing to pay for that. After all, they don’t really care if it shows up absolutely perfect in every browser still in use. What they do care about is that it’s functional in the browsers they and their clients use. Having every pixel line up perfectly isn’t high on the list of things most clients worry about.
It Can Drive You Crazy and Make You Sick
The harsh truth about perfectionism is that it can drive you nuts sometimes. Spending hours upon hours on minute details isn’t fun for most people (even perfectionists), and only serves to frustrate. Plus, when you’re always scrambling to make a deadline because you spent all last week getting the header text “just so” and didn’t bother designing or coding the footer or navigation until the day before the project was due. That leads to stress and anxiety, which can lead to real health problems. Find ways to reign in your perfectionism so that it works to your advantage rather than against you.
In extreme cases, perfectionists can get so wrapped up in the details of their work that they don’t finish the big-picture items. They might spend days working on one particular aspect of a project and end up missing deadlines for other important parts because they were so focused on just the one thing. This is destructive and can be very frustrating to perfectionists who don’t understand how others can move on to the next phase of a project without perfecting the current stage.
The Pros and Cons of Perfectionist Clients
Any designer or developer who’s been in this business long has dealt with perfectionist clients. They have incredibly high standards and set ideas on what they want their website to do and how they want it to look.
Some of these clients are realistic about their websites, while others expect everyone else to bend to their sometimes-unreasonable demands. Dealing with a client like this, even if you’re a perfectionist yourself, can be trying.
But working with perfectionist clients can have its upsides, too. These clients usually know exactly what they want and can pinpoint what they like or don’t like about your designs. If you’re not a perfectionist, their attention to detail can get annoying fast, but if you learn to work with their perfectionism and to explain to them why something is done in a particular way, you can still have a good working relationship with them.
Of course, there are also neurotic clients who are never happy with the results and who seem to have such unreasonably high standards that it’s impossible to meet them. The thing about a client like this is that their perfectionism is often a cover up for insecurity about their own decisions.
If you choose to work with a client like this (and there are plenty of reasons to decline their projects), it’s helpful if you can present them with similar designs or ideas that have been successful. Backing up your ideas with research goes a long way toward getting past their reservations.
Sometimes “Good Enough” is Good Enough
Perfectionists often don’t want to hear this, but sometimes good enough really is good enough. There’s the law of diminishing returns to consider here.
Sometimes the end result of tweaking something just a little bit more doesn’t hold enough value to warrant the output. If something is going to take you an hour (or five) to get just exactly the way you want it, but no one is doing to notice the difference but you, then sometimes it’s better to just accept it as-is. Chances are, you’ll forget all about it as you begin your next project.
When considering whether it’s time to just call a project “finished” and move on, think about what is to be gained if you continue working on it. If the only answer you can come up with is one that resembles “but it’s not quite right yet!” then it’s probably best to stop right there, tie up any real loose ends, and move on to the next phase or the next project.
Continuously working on the same thing with only marginal improvement is only going to add to your stress levels and create a negative, unhealthy work environment.
How to Figure out if Your Perfectionism is Dangerous
While most people who call themselves “perfectionists” do so in a light-hearted or positive manner, there are those out there to whom perfection becomes an obsession. They consider anything less than perfect completely unacceptable. This can lead to obsessive behavior and can have damaging effects on their overall quality of life.
Just feeling good about a job done to the best of your ability is entirely normal for a perfectionist and isn’t something to worry about. When it becomes particularly dangerous, though, is when a perfectionist feels they’re never quite able to attain perfection, and so drive themselves crazy trying to always reach this unattainable goal.
These perfectionists often place their entire self-worth on their accomplishments and ability to reach perfection, and since they’re never able to reach it, it creates a very negative self-image and low self-esteem or depression. The good news is that there are trained psychologists out there who can help those who are neurotically obsessed with perfection to overcome their obsession.
Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.
Are you a perfectionist? How has this impacted your career as a designer? Please share your thoughts with us…