“The first draft of anything is garbage.” – Ernest Hemingway
“The story is crystal clear in my mind,” the writing student told me. “But when I try to write it down I spend hours obsessing over the expression. I can’t continue until the sentence is perfect. What can I do to stop this?”
When I heard this I had a huge moment of recognition – it was like he was describing my own writing process. I love beautiful, atmospheric writing. It’s the reason why I write after all – to create an immersive experience for the reader. But now I know it is a form of writer’s block that will trip me up if I let it take control.
To answer his question, I had to look deeply at my own writing process and come up with strategies for overcoming this perfectionist tendency in both myself and other writers.
Strategies for overcoming perfectionism in writing
Try these approaches and see if they help bypass the writer’s block and get the words flowing:
- Respect the process: The time for addressing the beauty and rhythm of words is when we have got the story down and are entering the editing and polishing phase. It can take great discipline for us of a more lyrical nature to put the inner poet aside for a while and write a rough and dirty first draft. But we have to do it – and this task of letting go (and letting flow) becomes part of our hero’s journey as an author.
- Embrace the Rough Draft: Allow yourself to write freely without worrying about perfection. Remember that a first draft is meant to be a raw, imperfect version of your ideas. Focus on getting your thoughts on paper and worry about refining them later during the editing process.
- Set Realistic Goals: Establish specific writing goals that focus on progress rather than perfection. Break down your writing tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. Celebrate each milestone you achieve, no matter how small, to build momentum and boost your confidence.
- Emphasize Quantity Over Quality: Give yourself permission to write poorly. Quantity breeds quality, so prioritize the act of writing and allow your ideas to flow freely without judgment.
- Schedule Writing Time: Establish a regular writing routine and dedicate specific time slots solely for writing. By making writing a habit, you train your mind to focus on the task at hand and reduce the pressure to create a perfect piece in one sitting.
- Practise Freewriting: Engage in freewriting exercises, where you write continuously for a set time or for three pages without censoring yourself and without polishing the text at all. This practice can help bypass your inner critic and unleash your creativity. (This is why I emphasize freewriting so strongly in my book and course Write Masterful Fiction).
- Embrace Imperfection: Recognize that perfection is an elusive ideal. Accept that your writing will have flaws, and that’s okay. Understand that the editing and revision process exists precisely to refine and improve your work.
“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult
“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.” – Margaret Atwood
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” – Anne Lamott
I would like to add a quote of my own to remind myself of all this: “Dare yourself to write an ugly first draft” – Russel Brownlee. (Whew… an ugly first draft, that sounds … dangerous!).
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