Perfectionism in writing is too often a double-edged sword. I’ve followed Glynis Jolly’s blog for a number of years now because I enjoy she digs into exploring her writing process. As an editor, I readily admit my own struggles with perfectionism when it comes to my own creative writing. Over the years, I’ve learned to concede I am never going to write many words a day, but if I do sit down to write every day, those words add up. That’s doesn’t make it any easier though. I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to this post in some fashion, and I’m glad to be hosting her first guest post.
Official Bio: Glynis Jolly was born in September of 1954 (you do the math). She’s married and has one son and one stepdaughter. Glynis has lived in Colorado, Crete (Greece), Michigan, and now in Tennessee for the second time with her husband and three cats. She’s always been inspired to write. The act of putting pen to paper or typing on a keyboard makes her feel alive somehow. She has several unfinished works of fiction, hoping that someday she’ll finish one of them and get it published. She started blogging in 2009 and has had five blogs since then. A Scripted Maze is her current blog of three years now.
The Paradox of Perfectionism in Writing
I have a few close online friends who, like me, have blogs. All but one chose to make their blogs of a personal nature. The one with the more professional one has recently embarked on a career as a fiction author, so she needs to maintain that polished facade at her site. If you asked any one of them about my current habitual dilemma with writing, each one would probably say I’m too demanding of myself.
I was taught as a kid to try my best at whatever I did. I was told that a job isn’t worth doing unless it is done correctly. Haphazard effort was not and is not acceptable. These are, obviously, good rules to follow your entire life, although, if I go by what my friends have said, I’ve taken these lesson beyond of scope of normal.
Sensibility would probably tell one when working with a project that is creative, whether it be visual, musical, or written, the rules of right and wrong become obscure, often to the point of indefinable. I know this. Within the world of these arts, opinions and trends, as well as personal desires, bending and, sometimes, breaking the rules reign supreme. And it’s great to have it that way. As a writer, it gives me the privilege of bowing and smashing grammar and spelling rules as I see fit for the creation I’m working on. Of course, this freedom must be dealt with discernment.
Yet, the principles I grew up with, no matter how passé they are for today’s writer, continue to put up colossal walls I find unimaginable to demolish. Those standards were chiseled into my brain. Homework didn’t leave to house for school until my mother checked it for correctness.
I start banging away on the keyboard seeing the word appear before me on the screen within one of my many writing software programs. I don’t have any other programs minimized or hovering behind the one I’m using. Still, before I’ve finished the second paragraph, I’m clicking on the dictionary shortcut that lives on my lower toolbar. I must know that I spelled a word right. I’m positive there’s a better word than the one I just typed out onto the page in front of me. My fingers dance on the letters as I try to concentrate on the flow of the piece. Somewhere in my mind, though, a tiny little voice is telling me I should be able to write it better. It taunts me with the notion that I have the skills to do it more effectively, more completely somehow. Whether this is actually true or not, is something I don’t know. I read the last sentence and rack my brain on how that sentence could be altered so it says more of what I want from it.
After about an hour or two of this strife, I feel spent, completely depleted. I grab a snack in the kitchen and crash on the sofa to watch whatever is mindless on the boob tube.
I’ve read blog posts giving suggestions and advice on how to get past the perfection trap. Maybe these posts of information work for most writers but the words I read strike me as meant for someone—anyone—but me. If it was all that simple, I’d be a best-selling author by now.
Joe Bunting wrote in a post in The Writing Practice blog not too long ago, “Your job is not to write perfect sentences.” At first, my inner response was “My job is to write an enticing story—without errors.” Well, wouldn’t this mean perfect sentences? I am the world’s most terrible speller and I write one word when I mean to write another word. No one, including myself, would be able to read a first draft written by me because of the enormous amount of mistakes in it. Joe may think he’s right but I doubt he’s considered anyone like me.
After I uttered those words about how I should write a story in my head, I left my desk and made myself some Chai Latte tea. (If you’re trying to cut down on the amount of coffee you drink, try this out. It’s wonderful stuff.)
Sitting at the computer again, I felt calmer. I read Joe’s statement again. Okay, my main job is not to write perfect sentences. Nevertheless, I will not give up my dictionary link in the taskbar. I will, however, stop glancing at my style book that sits ready to serve in the small bin on my desk.
I want to get past this obsession with perfectionism. I know I can never be perfect. All I have to do to prove it is look in a mirror. And that just tells me what isn’t perfect about my looks. My personality is quirky. My abilities are shaky at best. By trying to write perfect sentences, who is it I’m trying to fool?
How do you get past perfectionism in writing?
You can connect with Glynis Jolly and her social media website via her Scripted Maze blog.
Photo credit: Zipper-mouth TruShu / Foter.com / CC BY-NC The images used in this post fall under fair use guidelines. Please share responsibly and provide a link to any text or media borrowed from this website. Refer to the Disclaimer and Use of Information page for more details. Jeri Walker, 2017.
Thank you for allowing me this honor of guest posting at your blog, Jeri.
Perfectionism in writing is indeed a paradox. I too can get stuck with trying to find the right word or phrasing in the first draft. Sometimes I am able to put that aside for a bit to get more written, but then I reach a point where I cannot continue unless I clean up some of the mess I’ve left behind.
Thank you for reading and commenting on my guest post here at Jeri’s blog, Donna. I greatly appreciate it.
It is comforting to know that I am not the only one who battles with this inner need.
What a coincidence that my blog post last week touched on perfectionism. Glynis is open with her readers and has a need to work towards non-perfectionism. I found her article refreshing to read.
I have struggled with being a perfectionist in every area of my life. My reasons; to prove that I am enough as a wife, mother, employee, Christian and so on. Perfectionism is very much about not accepting yourself – the need to get it right all of the time.
When drafting my blog I type away and when editing, I check for grammar and spelling then amend and amend and amend! I sigh with relief once I press the publish button. I recall having the same feeling when I handed in my assignments at university.
I know what you mean, Phoenicia. I write my post and, then, let it sit for a while. Later that day or the next day I go back to it and fume over all the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that are not up to snuff for me. When I click on ‘publish’ [actually ‘schedule’], I sigh in relief.
Perfectionism of the writing is never the engaging part for a reader. While I’m fully aware of this it’s almost reflexive to allow errors to taint your opinion of someone’s work.
Ken, as you stated, the engaging part of a story is not the grammar or spell, although, if done correctly, I think makes the reading more enjoyable.
Thank you for reading my guest post and taking the time to comment.
Hi Glynis, I hear you and so understand. Add dyslexia to that tendency and it will grind me to a stop. I’ve learned to forgive myself for my disability and forthcoming mistakes. The other bit, as it is with so many others, is a work in progress.
I remember a few years back when you mentioned your fight with dyslexia. I feel fortunate not to have that disability attached to me. I do not know if I could continue to love writing with that obstacle. I know you write all the time, Susan and I can tell you I am quite amazed.
I can relate so much to these sentiments and my poetry writing has weaned me away from trying to be a perfectionist. I like your style Gylnis and appreciate the subtle humour and wit with which you have discussed your dilemma. When I come across a something as short as haiku or just 100 words for a post…I feel motivated to tell myself that I am doing ok!! 🙂
Balroop, thank you for the incredibly positive feedback. I hint at humor often because, without it, life is dark and boring. I am told that I am basically a serious person. Without the wit and humor, I am afraid I would be considered dull.
What a timely post for me! Thank you, Glynis and Jeri. Perfectionism is something I struggle with all the time, whether with my writing or at my day job or in my knitting. And yet nothing I ever do comes out perfect in my eyes, no matter what other people say. I’ve learned to shrug it off with my knitting and my day job, but the desire for perfection continues to be a major roadblock in my writing. I do suspect that part of my perfectionism is simply fear: as long as I don’t feel my work is perfect enough to publish, I won’t have to suffer criticisms of it. Perfectionism is an excuse to avoid the inevitable: rejection. I see it all the time among my writer friends. A new author might receive 15 stellar reviews, but that one 1-star review will be what she dwells on. That 1-star review is what she turns to when she considers the value of her writing. Crazy, isn’t it? Nothing we ever do will be perfect, and there will always be someone to insult our work, no matter how many accolades we might otherwise get. But if writing is what makes us feel alive, then persevere. Beat back that perfectionist whose only purpose is to slow you down and maybe even keep you down. Easy, right? (Yeah, no, it’s not but … )
Thank you for reading my guest post and giving a meaningful comment, Marie.
I think some of my reason is fear too despite the measures I have taken to find a few beta readers who will be honest, fair–and kind when I am ready to receive opinions on my WiP.
Thanks for this honest post, Glynis. Thank goodness you’re not perfect in looks or writing. Perfection is boring. I often think of Hemingway’s writing when I get hung up on styling and fancier words. His writing was actually quite simple. The simplicity made a big impact on the reader though. It was his trademark style.
Thanks for sharing your process and thoughts behind your writing. I can totally relate to wanting my stories to be perfect. Realizing they never will be is the first step to freedom, for me at least. Great topic. I can’t wait to visit your site and read some of your work. Thanks, Jeri for sharing Glynis 🙂
I need to get to that freedom somehow. I could get so much more done during a session of writing if I could just leave the thesaurus alone.
Thank you for reading and giving a comment.
Great guest post by Glynis and thank you for sharing it on your blog dear Jeri.
Perfectionism could be a double-edged sword, indeed. At the same time that it makes us look correct in appearance (or even better) it might slam us on the brakes. Creativity is majorly an unconscious force. At least, it is in its most genuine expression. I would say it is something like Schopenhauer´s concept of “Will” (As shown in The World as Will and Representation”). Schopenhauer’s philosophy holds that all nature, including man, is the expression of an insatiable will to life. And the concept of will can also be signified by other words such as “desire,” “striving,” “wanting,” “effort,” and “urging.”
Great, prolific writers have been struggling to ease the dynamic between these two opposing blocks: Rational Perfectionism and Irrational Creativity. To write /Feel vs To Write/Think you know 😀 . The dichotomy Pansters vs Plotters seems to fit in here too.
Balance is the key, as I see it… That´s why edition and re-writing are such important processes.
Thank you so much for sharing!… ? All my best wishes!
Aquileana, thank you for reading and for your interesting comment.
If I thought I could not edit and rewrite, I would not even be writing. I would have, long ago, decided it was too difficult. Still, I wish I could learn to write without the thesaurus just a click away because I am quite certain I could get so much more done per session with the 1st draft without it.
When I first start writing, I always used to try and make it perfect but that just gave me writer’s block and made me feel frustrated because I never had the perfect first draft.
So now, I try to just write whatever comes into my head without stopping to edit or change things. And after I have written the first draft, that is when I go back and edit things. I find that this method helps me to find balance between writing what I set out to write and then trying to ‘perfect’ it afterwards. If I struggle to perfect it, I usually leave it for a couple of days and go back to it with a clear head and mindset.
Emily, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.
I wish I could get into a habit of waiting before trying to redo whatever I have written. I applaud you on your success with this strategy.
Being a perfectionist, I know the struggle too well. But after re-reading the same paragraph or sentence so many times, sometimes I just have to tell myself that it’s as good as it’s going to be. There are times when I’m just not satisfied with a piece I’ve written, but I think the key is to accept that you’ve done your best and maybe sleep on it or get someone else to look at it with fresh eyes. Thanks for sharing!
Rosary, thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it.
If what I am working on is short enough, I do as you have suggested, let it sit overnight before editing. It is the larger projects I have a terrible time with.
While I wholeheartedly admit to working on the wording for one sentence for many long minutes in order to get the words just right, I tend to not think of this as perfectionism. Maybe because I learned a long time ago how not perfect I am!
I think if we are trying like mad to get the right feeling and description across to our readers, that it is simply our job as writers. Maybe the perfectionism part comes into play when you allow the search for perfect to keep you from moving foward?
Really good post!
I love the way you think, RoseMary. Maybe I am beating myself up without a good reason.
Thank you for reading my guest post here at Jeri’s blog and giving me something positive to think about.
Thx to Jeri for hosting this post from Glynis. Interesting post, Glynis. My father was a perfectionist, so I think that helped me NOT be one. I do the best I can do, and consider that to be good enough–in my writing, and in life in general.
Hi, Doreen. I wish all my self-talk would sink it like it did with you.
Thank you for reading and giving me feedback.
So true, Glynis. I got the same rules when I was growing up, but have managed to push them aside when necessary. I run Grammarly and the native grammar/spelling checker–and ignore them until my article is done! That’s an accomplishment.
Jacqui, it was your suggestion about a month or month and a half ago about Grammarly that has saved me some time and anguish over some of the flaws I make while writing. Flow is a whole other issue, though, as I am sure you know.
For me, the turning point was writing my first book. I was stuck in edit hell for months trying to make it perfect until I realized how much time had passed when one of my blog readers (bless her soul!) sent me an email asking if I was ever going to actually publish that book I’d been talking about for nearly a year! I made myself go through the steps to publish it to Amazon and held my breath for the laughter and bad reviews, but the reviews were glowing and now it’s nearly 5 years later, the book has continued to sell and I’m about to publish an updated anniversary edition. These days I indulge myself a little but set a cut off so that once I reach that point it’s time to move on.
Marquita, congratulations on your first book being such a success. I do believe some of your success is due to you taking the time to thoroughly edit. When I get to the point of revision, I will also try my hardest but when I feel I may never publish, I will seek a professional editor, probably Jeri.
Hi, Glynis. Years ago, I had the same problem; I was never satisfied. It lasted a good nine years, during which I started and never finished a lot of things. Then I set a goal in my mind, this happened six years ago. I challenged myself to write an instant novel, that’d be a 185 pages book in seven days. The source material was the life and times of a famous painter of the past century and I announced the event on Facebook. After I had posted the video message, I thought “S**t, and now?” It was simple; I had to do it. And I did. The (very) rough draft was there in the night of day 7 and that evolved into a full length novel. I think sometimes we need electrify ourselves into doing something extreme. Writers are magicians, but nobody knows it. Not even us.
Alessandro, I have heard about this tactic of announcing the intention in order to stop the procrastination. And it does work for a good many people. However, I have a tendency to be just the opposite. If I do not tell a soul until so close to the end it might as well be the end of whatever the goal is, I seem to follow through better. That is the way I bought my first home. Only my son and my realtor agent knew until the day of the signing for ownership.
I understand perfectly.
Jeri, it’s wonderful that you invited Glynis to guest blog. She’s one of the most interesting writers I know out here in the ethernet.
Glynis, this is a thoughtful article and sums up much of what I’ve been reading from you on your own blog. The dissatisfaction, insecurity, and frustration that plague you explained and detailed here, with a discerning eye and severe self-examination.
I hope you see this opportunity to be on Jeri’s blog as a measure of success.
Shari, writing a post for Jeri’s blog was a step I have been meaning to take for quite a while. I knew if I could get Jeri’s approval on one of my posts to the point where she would accept it on her blog, I could finally tell myself I have taken a good step forward in writing and self-confidence.
I enjoyed the post, Glynis. I suffer from a bit of perfectionism too, and it’s been hard to let go of it. I tend to edit as I go, and I’ve decided that this works for me, even though it means slower output (about 250 words per hour). I don’t expect the writing to be perfect after one draft, but I need it to feel complete and cohesive. Perfectionism for me is more about when to stop editing and let a book go. I learned early on that there is no such thing as perfect in writing. What one reader loves, another will hate. I had one reader tell me my sentences are too long and another tell me that my sentences are too short – on the SAME book! As silly as that was, it was freed me of my angst about the perfect book. Personal taste will dictate and there’s nothing I can do about it, but let it go and move on. Happy Writing.:-)
After many hours in between the rest of life, I have struggled with how to write. Do I do what I have always done and use the dictionary, thesaurus, and style book as I write the first draft? Or should I wait until the second time around? I was able to let go of the style book but not the other two and I think I need to do as you do; just edit as I write. What you say about readers is so true. Even with me, I like history and literary fiction the best so when I read something outside of those genres, I am a little more critical. It cannot be helped. It comes naturally.
An excellent reminder to all storytellers!
Thank you for reading my post here at Jeri’s blog and for taking the time to comment, Candy.
Nice to “meet” you here, Glynis, and wonderful of Jeri to have you over to visit 🙂 I recently read a quote from Margaret Atwood that your guest post reminded me of. Atwood said she would never write a word if everything had to be perfect. So, we’ll do our best and acknowledge it’s not perfect.. As writers we get so in our own heads, don’t we?!! Great post.
Thank you for reading my post, Christy.
Yes, I do get into my own head a lot. I want perfection even though I am aware that it cannot be achieved. Frustrating. :/
Thanks Glynis and Jeri! Excellent, identifiable post.
I cannot look back at most of my writing as
it is NEVER good enough, never ready to
be allowed into the universe.
There is always a better word, sentence, metaphor, description.
So often, I say, “THAT IS utter CRAaaaaaaaaaaaP!”
Do we ever get over this!? x From MN.
Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to comment.
Chances are we do not really get over it but maybe learn to accept what we cannot achieve and just move forward from there.
I often wonder why we writers write when it is such a painful process?! We seek perfection, we self-edit before we’ve even finished the first paragraph. There is something deep-seeded within us, I think, that fears rejection. Our writing will be found wanting. Yet, we keep at it because of the joy in the final product. Remember, too, that some of our most famous authors lived with years of rejection until finally a publisher accepted one of their works. Imagine how they must have doubted themselves, yet they kept on writing. So that’s what we have to do.
You are absolutely right, Jeannette. Just look at Stephen King. It took him years to get recognized as the master of horror he is.
I, personally like the process of writing, as painful as it is. Every once in a great while, I write that sentence that does appear to be perfect.
Being new at writing I thought only I had such an issue! Thank you for sharing this post, I can so well relate to it, plus motivating me to continue my journey!
Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to comment.
I still consider myself a new writer even though I have been pursuing this for several years now because I have yet to have anything published in this time span. I did have several articles publish over fifteen years ago but for me, that was a lifetime ago.
I have come to realize that I am not alone with this problem of perfectionism, which does lessen the annoyance of it a little. I hope it does with you too.
I love this! And I think you could apply it to most things in life, not just writing sentences. Thank you for reminding me I don’t have to be perfect!