The “P” Word

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a recovering perfectionist. As I started this article, I was trying to come up with the perfect word to describe perfectionism. Should I call it a disease, an addiction, a disability? Really, perfectionism is all these things.

But isn’t striving for excellence a good thing? Yes. But striving for excellence is not the same as striving for perfection. There’s a reason none of my “perfect” word choices were positive. A complex plot, fascinating characters, high quality writing, a minimal number of typos—all these things are marks of excellent writing. They are terrific goals well worth setting and working toward. The perfect plot, the perfect characterization, perfect writing—these things simply don’t exist. Setting these as your goals means you will never meet your goals. Ever. Striving for perfection is simply setting yourself up for failure. What can possibly be positive about setting yourself an impossible goal and then beating yourself up for failing to meet it?

There’s a difference between being “excellent” and “being perfect.” Being “excellent” can often be set up as a well defined goal. For a sport, it can mean winning a gold medal in the Olympics or beating a world record. In writing, it can mean being on the New York Times Bestseller list longer than J.K. Rowling or winning a Pulitzer. There is never any end to the goal of being perfect. You can always be better. Perfectionism is a no-win game.

Many unpublished writers are perfectionists. Some—those with the never-ending edits, the “I’ll submit this just as soon as I’ve worked out this last little detail” attitudes—are easy to spot. But there are many forms of perfectionism, and each has its own way of sabotaging accomplishment. Here are some of the main categories of perfectionists:

The “Every Detail Perfect” Perfectionist

This is the type of person most people see as being perfectionist. Nothing is ever finished because they are constantly improving things. They will change perfectly good active verbs in their constant search for the “perfect” verb. Nothing is ever good enough for the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist. And certainly they would never, ever, consider letting a publisher see their story until it is “perfect.” And so publishers never see their stories.

If you are fighting Every Detail Perfect perfectionism, set yourself deadlines. Deadlines can be very frightening for Every Detail Perfect perfectionists, because they never want to give up on perfecting their work. Force yourself into situations where you have to.

As you start fiddling with a story, give yourself a time limit. Say “In three weeks, I will send this story out no matter what is left to be done.” Enter a contest, like the Toasted Cheese Three Cheers contest, where you have to write a short story and submit it in two days. If you are finding yourself continually making mental excuses to miss self-imposed deadlines, then try to get at least one job with writing deadlines. Freelance for a textbook company that needs a short turn-around time on something, or write columns for a local monthly newsletter. It’s harder to weasel out of promises to others than it is to weasel out of promises to yourself. It’s even harder if it’s something you are being paid for.

After working under deadline for a while, you’ll get a good feel for when a change is really important to make, and when you have entered the “every detail must be perfect” mode. Change your motto to “Good enough is good enough.”

The Procrastinating Perfectionist

It’s harder to recognize the procrastinator as a perfectionist. They don’t fuss over the details. On the contrary, their work tends to be sloppy, because they put it off until the last minute and rush through it. How is this perfectionism? The Procrastinating Perfectionist operates on the fear that things will not be perfect. They know, either consciously or unconsciously, that it can’t be. In this, they are one step ahead of the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist. They know they are playing a losing game. So they stack the deck. They leave themselves excuses for their work to be imperfect. They delay until they are close to a deadline, then churn out stuff quickly. “I had to do it so quickly, how could it be perfect?” In this way, they reassure themselves. They know in their hearts that it could have been perfect if only… If only they’d had more time, if only the computer hadn’t crashed in the middle of that chapter, if only…

Procrastinating Perfectionists are less afraid of turning over control of their writing, and more afraid of being found out. Someone might find out they cannot be perfect. The Procrastinating Perfectionist believes that perfection is possible, just not for them. Everyone else can do it, so there must be something wrong with them. They procrastinate to cover up and give excuses for their apparent inadequacy.

Deadlines only enable the Procrastinating Perfectionist. The Procrastinating Perfectionist is a master of excuses. To overcome the Procrastinating Perfectionist in you, you need to remove any obstacle that might serve as an excuse.

What this perfectionist needs is routines. A Procrastinating Perfectionist should start with one or two small chunks of time each day—one for writing, and maybe one for editing. It doesn’t really matter how small the block of time is: it can be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes. The trick is to make the time small enough that the recovering Procrastination Perfectionist in you will do it every day. Too large a time chunk, and you will find an excuse why you can skip out of it today. And tomorrow. And… Make sure at the end of each time period, you leave everything set up for the day. If you use paper and pencil, make sure the pad is out and the pencils are sharpened. If you use a computer, look about and remove any distractions in the computer area. The key here is to develop a routine. If it’s not working, make the routine smaller. The specifics of your writing routine are less important than having a routine you do regularly. Once the small routine is engrained, you can expand it. Just make sure each step becomes a habit before adding the next step. Make your new motto: Slow and steady.

The Paralyzed Perfectionist

The Paralyzed Perfectionist is an extreme version of the Procrastination Perfectionist. The Paralyzed Perfectionist also knows their work will never be perfect. However, where the Procrastination Perfectionist will create excuses for doing the job imperfectly, the Paralyzed Perfectionist will give up on the job entirely. “If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all” are the secret words behind a Paralyzed Perfectionist’s inaction. If you can’t put anything down on the page because “everyone will hate it anyway” or “I can never be as good as that bestselling author. Who am I fooling?” then you probably suffer from Paralyzing Perfectionism. Paralyzed Perfectionists tend to be overwhelmed by large tasks, and have a hard time figuring out where to start. This is because they have a hard time visualizing all the steps that happen between “I want to write a brilliant novel” and the final, brilliant novel. Paralyzed Perfectionists think they can short-circuit the process. In their minds, just wanting to write a bestselling novel means they should be able to sit down, crank out a bestselling novel in one sitting, send it out the following day, get the contract a week later, and be on the best-seller list the first day the novel comes out. This is what should happen. But the Paralyzed Perfectionist will know in their secret heart that it can’t happen that way, so why start at all? If they do start, then the first roadblock is proof it can’t be done, a reason to stop trying. They tend to react strongly to critiques to of their stories because they see it as proof of failure rather than part of the process.

The Paralyzed Perfectionist needs to work on the all-or-nothing thinking. Routines are helpful, but a Paralyzed Perfectionist can write every day, creating story beginning after story beginning, and still never finish or submit anything. The first step on the road to overcoming Paralyzed Perfectionism is to recognize it and start adjusting your thoughts. Break long-term projects into little chunks. Take it one scene, one chapter at a time. Set small, reachable goals within your long-term goals, and reward yourself when you meet them. Keep a collection of really bad books to thumb through when you get the “I’ll never be good enough to be published” blues. Your motto should be “Just do it!”

The Combination Perfectionist

Many perfectionists are combination perfectionists. Paralyzed Perfectionist writers might find it very hard to finish projects, and use an event like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to behave like Procrastinating Perfectionists: “Of course it sucks, I wrote in a month. What do you expect?” They then become Every Detail Perfect perfectionists, and take forever to edit and “perfect” the novel, until they circle right back to the idea that they can never live up to their impossible standards, and just let the story languish on the hard drive.

The Road To Recovery

I’m a combination perfectionist. I’ve beaten the “Every Detail Perfect” perfectionism. I’ve written a thesis, which was the first blow to my EDP perfectionism. I still remember as a student using another person’s thesis, and wondering how they could have been so sloppy as to have such obvious errors in their work. I found out fast when the time came to write my own! Eventually, I went to work for a textbook company as an editor, and after five years in that job, any shreds of “Every Detail Perfect” thinking has been long obliterated. Not my feeling the product should be good, but my feeling that every single i must be dotted and every single t must be crossed before something can leave my desk. In my job, “failure” doesn’t mean “imperfect,” it means I can’t deliver a reasonable product on time. I still struggle with Procrastination perfectionism and Paralysis perfectionism. Of those, I have a decent handle on Procrastination perfectionism. Paralysis perfection has been the toughest one to face up to and fight. I often don’t succeed, but I keep on trying.

It’s hard, especially for the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist, to view perfectionism as an evil, not a virtue. But I’ve firmly come to believe there is nothing good about perfectionism. If you agree, and are ready to give up the search for the Perfect, I’ve offered the tricks that tend to work for me. I probably haven’t covered all the forms of perfectionism, but the real key to recovery is to realize what behaviors are driven by the idea that something must be perfect, but isn’t.

As you find yourself stalling on a project, ask yourself: What sort of perfectionist am I right now? Then take steps that help you overcome those perfectionist tendencies. Remember, perfectionism isn’t really about quality at all, even though it may seem that way on the surface. Perfectionism is about impossibility. Start shifting your thinking away from meeting (or avoiding) impossible standards in both your language and in your actions, and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish.

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