The Number 1 Habit Killing Your Writing

The #1 Habit Killing Your Writing

Let’s face it, writing is hard work. Sometimes, it feels like a battle to pen a single word onto the page. Writers face so many creative monsters in order to produce: self-doubt, criticism, rejection, procrastination, jealousy, and over-preparation. However, there’s one characteristic even more dangerous than all of the above since it’s so widespread and recognized. I’m talking about the #1 habit killing your writing.

Perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the devil because it’s a socially acceptable form of self-abuse. We applaud those who work 70-hour work weeks and win endless strings of awards and accolades, but who are divas to the extreme.

The Artist's Way by Julia CameronJulia Cameron of the famed Artist’s Way says,

Instead of enjoying the process, the perfectionist is constantly grading the results.

What Perfectionism Looks Like in Real Life

Years ago, I attended the Austin Film Festival and entered a “pitch contest.” Crazy people Participants stood alone on a stage in front of hundreds of others and presented a three-minute synopsis of their films to a panel of judges. These industry professionals then critiqued each pitch.

My first time there, I beat all the competition on Day One and made it to the finals. I would be presenting in front of the entire conference.

I was a rock star!

Two days later, I was the first pitch at the finals–which is the kiss of death, since the judges have no comparisons for your work. I received a decent score, but didn’t win. I wasn’t even runner-up.

I was a loser!

I went from feeling like a million bucks to less than zero. I returned home devastated, hating myself because I’d lost, despite the fact I had made it to the finals on my very first try. You would’ve thought I was an axe murderer, I despised myself so much. The self-loathing lasted for months.

Helllllo, perfectionist.

What Perfectionism Is and Isn’t

I want to be clear: there are distinct differences between striving for excellence and perfectionism. Let’s explore these a little closer.

Striving for Excellence

Perfectionism

  • All-or-nothing thinking (either you’re a New York Times bestselling author, or you suck).
  • Obsessive behavior (spending two hours reworking one sentence until it’s flawless–or throwing out your entire manuscript and starting over).
  • Belief that mistakes or setbacks indicate your unworthiness.

Summary

Striving for excellence feels great because you’re trying your very best. Perfectionism feels miserable because you’re never quite good enough.

Rip Off the Mask of Perfectionism

When you expose this nasty culprit for what it really is, you’ll find:

Fear.

Yep, good old-fashioned fear.

Fear your writing isn’t good enough.

Fear that if even one person criticizes your work you’re doomed as writer.

Fear you’re not smart enough … talented enough … disciplined enough to create whatever story is tugging at your heart.

3 Ways to Overcome Your Perfectionism

I’ve completed four novels and had literary representation for two of those books. I’ve been paid for more magazine articles than I can count and am an award-winning copywriter/short-story author. I’ve been writing years and learned most lessons the hard way.

I’d like to spare you that pain and help you learn from my mistakes. So here are three tips to overcome perfectionism:

1. Write Sucky First Drafts

First drafts are meant to bad. Super bad. Give yourself permission to write the most awful, terrible, horrible junk ever. It takes the pressure off. You’re going to need to edit the entire manuscript at least three times before expecting anything polished or pretty. After that, find beta readers to critique your work–folks who are strong editors, if not paid professionals.

2. Write Faster than Your Fear

Silence your internal critic by working quicker than your perfectionism. Don’t edit or censure as you go along, just get the words onto the page. You can polish it later. Turn your brain off and your hands on.

3. Let It Go

Nobody’s writing is ever done, but at some point you have to call it good and stop. I know I’ve reached that point when I’m just moving commas. I’ll read through the entire piece and make grammar changes, then read it again and move everything back. That’s when it’s time to let it go.

Let It Go Enough Batman Robin

Use these three tips to eliminate this habit killing your writing and learn how to have fun and write better stories–all at the same time!

Tell me your opinion: If you struggle with perfectionism, how do you handle it? If not, what is the #1 habit killing your writing?

The Number 1 Habit Killing Your Writing

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About Marcy McKay | @MudpieWriting

Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her brand new and totally FREE e-book, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Rebecca Ramaglia says

    I love this article! I feel that it can be applied to so much more than just writing as well.
    I am newer to continuous writing having started fervently back in November 2013. I started with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month to write 50,000 words in 30 days) and while I didn’t finish that project (and I will come back to it), I have a new one I’ve been working on since May.
    I find that it’s easier to put away my perfectionism by participating in the wonderful community of NaNoWriMo which helps you put your inner editor in a closet with the door shut and it has gotten me further than I’ve ever been in a novel… I’m about a 4th of the way done with my novel and about to hit 40,000 words.
    Also having writing buddies is wonderful to help keep you motivated to keep chugging along.
    Reading this, it really puts things into perspective. Thank you!

  2. Correct, Rebecca! Perfectionism can affect every area of our lives. That’s wonderful how you’ve found NaNoWriMo to be so encouraging. Try and take those lessons away to keep your inner editor at bay.

    Best of luck to you in finishing your novel!

  3. Marcyyyyyyyyyyy

    I am trying to work on my all-or-nothing thinking. I need to start increasing the pace of my first drafts – the editor in me gets physically hurt if I let a ‘misspelling’ or ‘pbvious grammar breach’, but maybe it should just shut up until I am done throwing my thoughts on the screen, eh? #HUGSS

    Thankssss a lott

    LOVE Youuuuu

    Kitto

    • Hi Kitto,

      You nailed it, girl. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing way of thinking. Either, we’re GREAT, or we SUCK. I am my own worst enemy.

      I’m definitely working on this, and am glad you are, too.

      Love you back, Kitto

  4. Ooh I am SO glad I read this tonight!! I’m wrapping up my first semester of college–English ed major, creative writing minor, life-time word nerd, and, apparently, perfectionist. I’ve been beating myself up the last week or two–Got rejected from a peer tutoring position I was fortunate to even be offered as a freshman? Failure. 7th graders wouldn’t listen to me? Failure as a teacher. Can’t get my first draft of anything off the ground? Questioning every piece of writing I’ve ever done.
    Yuck.
    No more perfectionism. No more pride.
    Thanks for posting!!

    • I’m so GLAD we connected, Emily! You already knew your true self going into college – English major and creative-writing minor. Please do not let a few setbacks make your throw away your dreams.

      There’s nothing wrong with you. You do not suck as a writer. You’re just learning and growing in the craft, like we all are.

      Leave your perfectionism behind and I hope you have a better spring semester!

      • Thanks for responding Marcy! That was a pessimistic picture of my first semester–which has actually been awesome! Blessed with lots of exciting opportunities and learning and growth. I appreciate your encouragement!

        • Wonderful, Emily. I’m so glad it was a great semester. Keep your perfectionism at bay, so you can continue to learn and grow in ALL areas of your life. That’s true for all of us! 🙂

  5. I never actually realised that putting myself down the way I did was perfectionism. It’s been affecting my creative writing, but also my writing as student all this time. Thanks Marcy!

    • Oh yeah, Remy. That’s definitely perfectionism. Now that you’ve realized it, try to do it less. Not only will your writing improve, but your happiness, overall. Good luck!

  6. I don’t struggle with perfectionism, my first drafts are always terrible and I’m okay with it. What kills my writing habits is the frustration of creating a web of lies and scandals that become so muddled, it’s tough to keep track of everything. Then balancing strong multi-dimensional characters with an intriguing plot that follows a standard story structure can feel like there’s just too many factors to consider for one story. Then dealing with the editors: it seems as if every editor has their own idea of what proper structure is. I get so wrapped up in all the technicalities that I forget that it’s really about the passion and love for writing and being creative in the first place. I take a break for a week or two and just read and watch movies and television series and re-inspire my love of storytelling.

    • Hi L.K.,

      That’s great you seem to have a system that works for you (even though you get frustrated from time to time). Writing is a confusing and messy process. We all just have to keep at it. Good luck!

  7. Thank you for posting this! I can always use a reminder that good writing takes time to craft.

    Whenever I start feeling anxious about how long I’m taking to write a story, I look back over my past work to remember how far I’ve come. That always helps.

  8. I would say that what hurts my writing is having a hard time coming up with content. I often struggle with knowing what to say. I write for a Christian audience and want them to feel they have gotten something good when they read my material. I often feel like my work is subpar, but I still publish it because like you said I would rework it to death. I would love any input you have on feeling more comfortable with my content.

    • Hi Paul – here are few ideas: #1) Go back through the comments from your audience — their remarks, questions…if there’s any back-and-forth discussion. They are telling you what the want to talk about.

      #2) If you have their email list (and you should because it’s the #1 way to building engagement between an audience) and ask what topics they’d like to hear. Or, just privately email a select few you feel most comfortable contacting.

      #3) If you don’t have an email, do a ASK THE READER post and ask them for topic suggestions for 2015.

      Hope that helps.

      • Thanks Marcy,

        I have not had very many comments on my posts in the past. I have a small dedicated readership, that I have posed the question to just a month and a half ago and got zero response. I was looking in to a way to gain emails today. I use blogger and there is no way I have come across to capture emails through their interface. I appreciate your input and will keep on trying to build my following.
        God Bless,

        Paul

  9. I am a perfectionist, too. Thanks for these words of support 😉

  10. Love the article, but I’m having so much trouble physically reading it! A few weeks ago the menu on your blog started to do this weird thing where it would incessantly pop out from the left over your articles. I can keep swiping it back, but that gets so annoying and I often just leave the site, unable to finish reading. I’m viewing in Safari on an iPhone. Help!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So sorry you’re having troubles with the site! We added a mobile menu here recently, which is what you’re seeing. I’ll have to ask the web guys if there’s a way to keep it from popping out when it isn’t wanted.

  11. Laura Ryding-Becker says

    Hi Marcy – I think I’ve seen your comments on the Firepole Marketing site…nice to see you here! Perfectionism is a topic i know all too well. I don’t start projects because of it. I don’t finish projects because of it. I finish articles, but then don’t send them in to editors because of it.

    A while ago, I started a blog. I decided to stop reading all the “what makes a perfect blog post” articles and just started writing. It felt great. I have learned that THERE IS NO PERFECT. And that’s just fine with me.

  12. Hi there, Laura – yes, you have seen me over @ Firepole Marketing. I’m glad that we’ve connected.

    That’s WONDERFUL you’re getting rid of your perfectionism. I did the exact same thing with my blog. It took me five months to launch because I kept trying to make it PERFECT.

    All it did was waste time. Now, I’ve decided that IMPERFECT ACTION IS BETTER THAN NO ACTION AT ALL. It’s almost become a mantra for me.
    I’m soooo much happier for it. 🙂

    Thanks for your comment.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the past week I’ve come upon two separate blog posts (one by Kevin T. Johns and another by K.M. Weiland) exposing the terrible truth about perfectionism. Though they tackle the subject from slightly […]

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