How to Judge Less, Trust More, and Create

Judge Yourself Less, Trust Yourself More, and Write Better Stories

How to Judge Less, Trust More, and Create Pinterest2When we think of creativity, we usually think of light and color, happiness and freedom. That’s the upside of living the creative life of a writer. But there’s a dark side too—one we don’t always like to talk about. And that dark side can be encapsulated in two words: judgment and perfectionism.

There’s a controversial running joke in the writing community about “grammar thugs.” The joke is a denigration of those among us who feel compelled to point out other writers’ (or sometimes poor, hapless non-writers’) spelling and grammar mistakes.

The controversy, of course, enters in that it seems irresponsibly hyperbolic to compare violent criminals (or worse) to someone’s annoying “it’s Levi-OOH-sa, not LevioSAR.”

But as in most jests, there’s a note of truth, however small, to be had here.

This notable tendency among writers to inflict public smackdowns upon each other over nothing more than a few misplaced letters (and, yeah, I know some of you are cringing at the idea that misplaced letters are “nothing”) is not indicative of the higher emotions that sometimes flutter in the human breast. Indeed, our willingness and even need to judge others and demand perfection from them is, in fact, an indication of even more substantial roadblocks to our own creative and personal journeys.

The upshot is this: writers are a judge-y lot. But, in truth, we judge no one more harshly than we judge ourselves.

(Note: Before moving on, let me just throw out a quick clarification that there’s a huge difference between grammar thugs who publicly humiliate others over mistakes it’s too late to correct versus writers who kindly watch out for each other by privately providing the heads-up about a typo or mistake that can still be fixed. To anyone who has ever emailed or messaged me about a typo in a post: thank you!)

Who Are You Really Judging—Others or Yourself?

Fierce on the Page Sage CohenWhile reading Sage Cohen’s inspirational book Fierce on the Page, I had to stop and muse over the painful familiarity of her anecdote:

The reader had given me a five-star review of my book. She spent a few paragraphs raving about all she had learned, and then she dedicated the entire second half of the review to venting about a typo that displeased her. Reading this review brought me back to my own long and circuitous journey living alongside the inevitability of mistakes.

Certainly, I’ve been on the receiving end of such unbalanced criticisms. But I’ve also been on the giving end. When first starting out as a writer, and particularly before I was published, I felt a certain measure of credibility in being able to point out other people’s mistakes. I remember with regret an early review I left for a self-published book in which I said something vague but cutting along the lines of “the editor should have been horsewhipped.”

Too, I’ve stamped my ticket and taken my seat in that crowded rowboat bobbing its way on an endless journey to the Isle of Indignant Typo-Spotters. How dare Random House be so careless as to release a book with such a glaring atrocity as “she walked to the the window”?

And if the offender was a lowly self-publisher? Well, then, of course, I must bear the responsibility of hammering them with my own wisdom in order to improve their faults.

But here’s the interesting thing: I was just as hard on myself. My own mistakes were devastating. I was humiliated when people pointed out typos. I was distraught when beta readers didn’t think my characters were well-developed. I measured my success or failure, not just as a writer but as a person, on the success or failure of my book launches and reviews.

Here’s the other interesting thing: as my personal journey has led me into the ability to show myself grace and compassion, to relinquish perfectionism as a mistaken means to an unachievable end, and to stop viewing writing (and life) as a zero-sum game of success or failure—then so, too, have I found myself surrendering the need to judge others in equal measure.

In short, our judgment of others is almost always a symptom of a deep-seated judgment of ourselves.

The Inherent Roadblock of Judgment and Perfectionism

Ironically, writers often see perfectionism as an antidote to the sting of self-judgment.

We think it makes us, well, perfect. Or at the very least, it keeps us competitive with excellent writers. We think it is the only way to shut up the harpings our “always right” internal editors. But really, perfectionism just makes us paranoid, gives us writer’s block, and kills our creativity.

Perfectionism is not the antidote to judgment. It is not a counter-balance designed to ensure there is nothing to judge. Rather, it is judgment at its most extreme.

Perfectionism judges everything and finds everything wanting.

We embrace this judgment in the belief it will enhance and refine our creativity. But the opposite is true. Perfectionism is poison.

I recently listened to an interview with sociology professor Kathryn J. Lively, who shared the deep insight that:

Judgment and curiosity cannot live in the same place.

Creativity is founded on curiosity. Creativity is much more the ability to ask questions, rather than the need to provide answers. This is true at every level of the writing process, all the way from “What makes a sucessful story?” to “What if my character did this?” to “What if this unexpected thematic premise were true?” to “What if releasing a book with a glaring mistake really didn’t matter?”

Yeah, I know that last sounds radical. But, seriously, ask yourself: What if it didn’t matter? What if it didn’t matter if people liked your book? What if it didn’t matter if the book got trashed in reviews?

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter—but what if?

Isn’t there a sense of freedom just in the act of asking and exploring?

The Why and the Who: Why Are You Doing This? and Who Are You Listening To?

Most of our perfectionism and self-judgment is fueled less by our own ideals and more by what other people seem to be telling us our ideals should be.

You should be writing genres that sell.

You should be writing literary fiction.

You should be writing genre fiction.

You should be writing at least one book a year.

You should be writing socially and politically pertinent characters.

You should be publishing traditionally.

You should be turning out pitch-perfect copy.

You should be building a huge marketing platform.

You should be selling enough books and earning enough money to write full-time.

We hear all these messages and more every single day. And we listen to all of them. We want to succeed. We want to write excellent and worthwhile stories. We want to make a difference in the world. We want the promises inherent in all these statements to be true.

That first moment you set foot in the writing world, you were undoubtedly bombarded with these mission statements about what it means to be a true writer—and what you had to do to become one. Mostly, it all boiled down to “following the club rules.” You have to write this way, market this way, and want what everybody else in the group wants.

Maybe you do want that. And maybe you don’t.

Something I’ve realized in the last few years is that many of the things I’ve done along the way are things I did with no real desire or enjoyment, but just because I was told I had to do them if I wanted to be the Best Writer Ever.

There is no endeavor in life so deeply and intimately personal as the act of creation. There is no one who can tell you why you’re doing it and what you really want from it. Only you can know that. The problem is that we are often so used to listening to others tell us what we want that our own inner voices fade away.

The irony is that much of our self-judgment is based on desires we don’t even really want and ideas we don’t even really believe in.

Don’t let anyone judge you for what you’re wanting or doing until you really, really know what it is you actually want and how you want to do it. Paulo Coelho shared beautifully:

I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.

Ask Better Questions Than “Is This Good?”

One of the reasons perfectionism is so crippling is it’s so limiting. Perfectionism blocks out the exploratory curiosity that allows us to ask helpful questions about our work. Instead, it limits us to one question and one question only: “Is this any good?”

We are often paralyzed by the starkness presented by the only two possible responses to this question. Someone recently emailed me, asking:

How do you stay focused on your calling to be a writer when it feels terrifying? There’s a type of creating—the fun kind—where we work on a project through meals and just baaarrreely remember to get up and go to the bathroom. And then there’s this other kind of creativity where we contemplate using ratchet straps to hold ourselves to our keyboard because we so desperately want to run away.

After a lot of thought, I responded:

This is a good question, and frankly one that’s tricky to answer. I think this is because there isn’t a black-and-white answer. In the past, I would have said something about “willpower, old boy, willpower,” and how we just have to grit our teeth and power through the difficult times.

I still believe this. But in the last few years, life has taught me a lot, not least of which is the importance of being kind to ourselves, of realizing that however important our writing may be to us, it is not the be-all-end-all. Taking care of ourselves, listening to our resistance, understanding why things are difficult without beating ourselves up for it—these are all important steps toward healthy balance.

What keeps me writing, day in and day out, is the question: Who do I want to be?

When all the dust settles, do I want to be the person who gave up on her dreams? Who gave up on trying to contribute something worthwhile to the world? Who gave up on creating? The answer, of course, is no. So while I also try to be more generous with myself in giving myself permission to take time off when I really need it, I’m also determined that what I’m doing is worth doing every single day, even when it’s hard.

Stop asking binary dead-end questions. Start asking open-ended questions that lead to growth rather than scaring you with their finality. Freelance author Steve Goodier offers some good starting places:

Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.

Perfectionism vs. Professionalism

So here we are—at the end of a post in which I’ve been going on and on about ditching perfectionism. Don’t worry if you’re a slob! Don’t worry if your book has typos! Don’t worry if readers hate what you’ve written!

But.

Yeah, I know. As much as you may want to slay the perfidious perfectionism beast and kick ruthless self-judgment to the curb—you also want to produce clean copy, strong stories, and purring readers.

There’s a happy medium to be found between perfectionism at one end and apathy at the other. The difference is between caring and caring too much. It is the difference between perfectionism and professionalism. One is unreasonable and unattainable; the other is not. Perfectionism says any mistake is an unmitigated disaster. Professionalism, however, has different aims.

Professionalism wishes to create polished, excellent products (be it stories, blogs, or even public personae), but if it’s to succeed, it must incorporate the grace and flexibility to bounce back from its own mistakes. Perfectionism says any typo is the Black Spot. Professionalism says it’s one misplaced letter in a sea of millions. Professionalism fixes the mistake if it can and moves on if it can’t.

A mistake isn’t the end of the world (unless you’re Matthew Broderick). Learn to judge yourself with exactly the right amount of force. Be specific; never be melodramatic. And always be kind. Be cheerful.

You made a mistake. All that means is you must now fix it. It does not mean you are a failure or unlovable.

Nineteenth-century American writer Elbert Hubbard put it perfectly:

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.

Dump the perfectionism that is weighing down both you and your writing. On the rebound, grab hold of the effervescent joy of not just making mistakes but loving both them and yourself for making them. It’s a grand view from way up there in the sky. Tpyos suddenly look very small indeed.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you struggle with perfectionism in your writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Ouch. It’s been a while since I thought of this, but I needed it.

    I was raised with very clear ideas of common courtesy and consideration, which was made stronger by a naturally tactful (*coughs* or timid; not sure which XD) personality, so I can’t remember ever SAYING anything I cringe to remember.
    But just because I didn’t leave scathing comments all over my student’s manuscript where she displayed poor grammar doesn’t mean I wasn’t inwardly rolling my eyes and encouraging thought-patterns of nasty judgmentalism I felt entitled to on the grounds of my ‘superior experience’.

    In some ways I think it’s because we try to become critics too early. There /is/ a standard, and whatever falls short of it is liable to criticism. But if we feel we /must/ criticize in order to state and establish our own experience and skill, that just means we aren’t anywhere near ready to judge anything because we don’t even understand ourselves. Anyone who has to criticize to feel legitimate is deeply insecure. (Not speakin’ from personal experience or anything… -_-)

    It all boils down to attitude. You can be as sugar-sweet and gentle as you want on the surface, but if you haven’t been at the nuts and bolts of your own brain long enough to cultivate an attitude of forgiveness that always gives the benefit of the doubt, it’s just self-deception.

    I might also point out that the best understanding of excellence comes not only from realizing what won’t do, but also recognizing what will, and why. Judging only gets you half the picture.

    “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.”
    -Rainer M. Rilke

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “In some ways I think it’s because we try to become critics too early. There /is/ a standard, and whatever falls short of it is liable to criticism. But if we feel we /must/ criticize in order to state and establish our own experience and skill, that just means we aren’t anywhere near ready to judge anything because we don’t even understand ourselves.”

      This. Just this.

  2. Years ago, I bragged to my boss that I was a perfectionist. He smiled sadly. “Perfectionists fear criticism,” he said, bursting my ego-balloon. I have since then tried to rise above the feeling of humiliation at being human. The older I get, the better I am at it. Thank God for age.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I had a similar conversation with someone recently, who insisted he was a perfectionist until I defined it as a bad thing. “Oh, I’m not a perfectionist then.” :p I do think the distinction between taking pride in our work vs. beating ourselves up when it isn’t perfect is important. We want the good aspects of perfectionism without the bad ones. It’s a balance, as are all things.

    • Lynne, that is so true. Great insight.

  3. “too late too correct” lovely example 😀 A friend of mine who was in the Army back in the days of typwriters had a commander who forbid them to retype letters unless the mistake absolutley prevented the message from being understood

  4. I too thought I was a perfectionist until I learned a stiff lesson that caused me to drop that word right out of my vocabulary.
    I handed my third draft, first chapter to my mother in law, that may have been where I made my first mistake, however.
    My beta reader did her thing and gave me a two thumbs up on fixing the few errors a brand new writer was bound to make.
    I made my corrections and handed the scrip over to my mother in law. She is an avid reader, and a not in educated woman.

    She tore that chapter up in more ways then a paper shredder.
    I never wanted to write another word after that. I thought I was ready to go out into the world with the big dogs. I of course being my worst critic, could not handle my very first review of something not even yet ready for an editor.

    So, being the stubborn sort that I am took that book and hid it away in my buddy, Mac. I finally humbled up to myself and went out and continued to learn, and learn, and learn how to be a writer. Not mentioning any names but, a certain K. M. Weiland and her teachings has been my muse. Once again I am taught, and learned from my mistakes and the mistakes of others. So when I spy a typo in a book I am reading leisurely, I give a chuckle and a review to a fellow writer , and always, remain humble.

    I did not give up writing I just learned more and have started to write a book that makes more sense.
    A perfectionist no more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Isn’t it interesting that your best path toward improvement came when you stepped away from the idea of perfection?

  5. This is so good. Thanks for the lesson/reminder. It reminded me of a crazily perfectionist co-worker of mine (not me at all — ha-ha). Anyway, I pointed out a minor mistake (that still needed to be fixed) and she spent the rest of the day apologizing for it. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Then, I realized it was pride. She so prided herself on being perfect that she simply couldn’t accept the fact that she’d made an error. It wasn’t about apologies; it was about her unrealistic self-image. I learned something that day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great anecdote. What it immediately points to for me is how perfectionism gets in the way of productivity. She spent all this time apologizing that could have been put to better use working on whatever the next project was.

  6. david werenka says:

    there was a time i tried to be a perfectionist at carpentry. it took a lot of years to just to become competent. then i read somewhere that perfection was 90% more work for 10% better results. that changed things. imperfections became character. i’ve now been learning the novel writing craft for well over a decade. i’d be happy to be good at it let alone perfect.

    funny thing carried over from carpentry. i fix mistakes and clean up as i go along so my first drafts are, well, polished.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about mistakes creating character. Maybe not typos so much. :p But then again, I know an author who got one of her best book titles from someone else’s inadvertent typo.

  7. Great points here for contemplation. Exactly the post I needed today. What you said—“my personal journey has led me into the ability to show myself grace and compassion, to relinquish perfectionism as a mistaken means to an unachievable end, and to stop viewing writing (and life) as a zero-sum game of success or failure”—is exactly what I need to achieve. For me personally, this “all or nothing mentality” is the greatest struggle of my writing life. I agree wholeheartedly no one should view their writing that way… Now if only my emotions would fall in line. 🙂

    You said, “really, perfectionism just makes us paranoid, gives us writer’s block, and kills our creativity… Perfectionism judges everything and finds everything wanting.” This is so true. In the drafting stage it’s especially important to understand that we’re on a journey—our stories, undergoing a process toward that glorious end. “Process” means a series of steps… which means we have to love those imperfect early drafts enough to want to hone them. During the writing process, I personally struggle with the internal editor as well as the voices of craft book writers and critiquers. When I read an exceptional novel, I also struggle with self-doubt… (Will I ever be that good?) But those authors undoubtedly struggled as well. They had bad drafts and rejections too. Our stories are all in a process of becoming. I think it helps to remember that.

    For me, the worst part of perfectionism in writing is the question of good vs. best. Every story begins as a gaseous nebula, as a growing haze of ideas that may or may not be self consistent. In order to get anything on the page (or expanded into an outline), decisions have to be made—ideas accepted and rejected. I may have a good idea for some aspect of my story—but is it the best? In one sense, it’s good to seek out better solutions to our story problems. In another sense, that kind of approach could devolve into an endless search for the end of the rainbow. At some point, in order to produce a finished product, we have to say “good is good enough.”

    I take courage from the beautifully-imperfect novels I’ve read and enjoyed. Confusion bothers me more than typos, but if the plot and characters keep me hooked, I’m willing to overlook quite a lot. For the other perfection-recovery addicts out there, it’s also good to keep in mind that readers’ tastes can be very subjective. What one person loves, another might hate. We can never please everyone. So too, “success” and “failure” are subjective.

    Thanks for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think it’s important to remember creation should, ultimately, be fun. Perfectionism kills all the fun. If we’re spending time during the first draft flagellating ourselves for perceived mistakes, then we’re missing out on the joy of the journey.

  8. Don’t know about you, but I was only wrong once in my life and that was when I thought I was wrong but wasn’t🙂

  9. Dominique Blessing says:

    I enjoyed this post. Harsh self-criticism is among my biggest writing challenges, to the point I’ve spent an entire evening on three paragraphs, only to delete the entire chapter later.

    On this project I’ve given myself permission to be imperfect, and while I still struggle, I am doing better. Hopefully, once I’ve finished revisions, it will be something worth reading.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I’ve found helpful is forcing myself to write as fast as I can. I set a timer for fifteen minutes and challenge myself to write 300 words. If I’m typing away, then I’m focused on he flow of the story rather than looking out for mistakes. And the irony is: there are usually far fewer mistakes this way.

      • Jack Pino says:

        I didn’t know that technique! I’ll start using it too. But is it only for first drafts, or can I use it every time and in whatever I’m writing?

  10. Tommy Waage says:

    I like the comparison between perfectionism and professionalism, but I believe that we learn a lot about the art of any art through slaving through perfectionism as we gaze upon our idols and want to become like them, only to find out, hopefully, that what saved them from becoming lost in search for perfection, will also lead us to recover our inner child and let it play ball with our professional mindset and so to cook up something really tasty.

    Even if one don’t invent the pizza or something that almost everyone like, one can still tempt with new varieties, and there’s a whole bunch of them to be invented still, I bet. But I feel perfectionism has led me to learn a lot of things, like structure and plotting, much faster than if I hadn’t been so keen to do everything right. Luckily, I now feel I can let go of it a bit and relax more.

    Thanks for a great article that fitted like a glow regarding my current position in my writing journey.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a valid point. I don’t regret the years I’ve spent struggling through flaws and dark places and overcorrections such as perfectionism–because they were all part of the journey. I wouldn’t be who I am now or have learned the lessons I’ve learned without them. I’m sure I’ll look back after the next ten years and say the same thing about where I’m at now. 😉

  11. James Mecham says:

    My wife has told me not to be a perfectionist but to strive for excellence. I think on those words whenever I write, revise, and edit.
    Your article is an encouragement and filled with excellent advice. God bless you and your family.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, I like that a lot. Just the words themselves evoke such different emotions. Perfectionism, to me, is very tight and almost angrily focused. Excellence is excited and dedicated.

  12. Robin Stevens says:

    I realized I’m a perfectionist – and all the crippling indecision that brings – several years ago. This post speaks to me, especially this: “Who do I want to be? When all the dust settles, do I want to be the person who gave up on her dreams? Who gave up on trying to contribute something worthwhile to the world? Who gave up on creating?”

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Much better to complete something imperfect than to never reach completion at all. 🙂

  13. Michael says:

    Excellent piece Katie. I put the Elbert Hubbard quote on facebook, thought it was great. The stuff on ‘Should’ is very important for all of life not just writing. My non fiction book hits on that majorly so I might quote some of this article at some point in it. Although I am primarily addressing Christian living, the principles apply across the board of human experience. Its been an encouraging read, thank you. I always find it encouraging to find a mistake in a published book, I think ‘not just me then’.

    Some of the issues are caused by identity. Things that reinforce identity build us up (even when our identity is false) so the perfectionist likes to find mistakes as it makes them feel better. When our writing is overly criticised, it challenges our identity as writers, and can bring us down. Knowing and being confident in who we are is a key to keeping going even when challenges come along, which they always will. But also, learning to stay focussed and not get distracted, having a realistic but clear and bold vision.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great stuff. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about identity lately. I’m very interested in personality theory and have been studying the Enneagram (which is not, but should be, Greek for “ego smackdown”). Recognizing myself in the faults and motivations of my type in this system (3w4) has been a humbling and ultimately empowering experience for me. It’s forced me to realize lies I’ve told myself about my own perception of and pursuit of identity and how it has motivated me, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. In fact, I joked at one point that this article should be subtitled “Confessions of a Recovering 3.” :p

      • Michael says:

        Ive not done enneagram, ive done other personality tests through counselling training and recently did the basic level with gallup strengthsfinder which gives you your top 5 strengths but also looks at strengths and weaknesses of both.
        There is a lot of that stuff around and can be interesting. But i also believe there is a deeper level of motivation which many results rest on.

        Your identity is who you believe you are and mixed with who you want to be. It is multifacted and there are conscious and subconcious dimensions to it, it can be based on truth or lies. Your pride acts like an identity defence mechanism. You can test what areas your identity is based on a imagining the removal of various things from your life. If something were to stop or end, do you feel that you have lost yourself?

        Some interesting classics are Abraham Maslows ‘Motivation and personality’ and Eric Bernes ‘Games People Play’.
        From a Christian perspective Selwyn Hughes ‘Christ empowered living’ unpacks core human motivations security, significance and self worth.
        And for a deeper spiritual look at certain aspects of human interraction Larry Crabbs ‘Soultalk’ is quite insightful but is focussed on human supportive interraction but you need to draw out motivation from it, its not explicitly stated.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Maslow’s great. You should check out the Enneagram. It has a lot to say on all these subjects. The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron is a good starting place.

  14. I do consider myself a perfectionist, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing when it comes to my writing. Look, I was a proofreader/copy editor for many years before I became an author. Typos in published works jump out without me having to look for them. Do they disappoint me? Yes, especially in works from the Big 5. Their standards should be higher, their editing professionals more competent. I can forgive one, maybe two typos, but any more than that seems sloppy to me–as if they rushed just to get it out on the shelves.

    I cringe when I hear self-published authors say, “Just wrote The End, now my ms is off to edits, one more look from me, and then I’m publishing it.” NO! I’m sorry. It can’t possibly be ready for print after only two edits, I don’t care how “eager” your fans are.

    My point here is, most readers only care about the story. Hence 50 Shades’ success. I couldn’t get through it due to the atrocious writing. Maybe that’s the “perfectionist” in me, but imo readers are more forgiving nowadays and “dumbed down.” And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    That being said, I won’t tear apart an author for having a poorly-edited book, but I certainly won’t read anything else by them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I’m definitely not advocating for a lowering of standards! Ultimately, though, I think there’s a positive and a negative way to approach goals. One is driven from behind by a whacking stick, the other is encouraged from before by a juicy carrot.

  15. Very thoughtful post. I like that although you advocate being fair with yourself and ditching perfectionism, you don’t totally ignore the fact we have to do things well. A good balance. Thanks for being real and open! I haven’t published anything yet, but I have felt the same way, and I have noticed almost ALL of my writer friends do too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is interesting that art pushes people toward perfectionism. I think it’s because we’re passionate about it (in comparison to jobs we might not really care about and only do for the money). Caring is a good thing! We just have to do it in a way that enhances our ultimate work.

  16. Cliff Farris says:

    Here is a different take. My writing is shuffled through four grammar checkers, occasionally a beta reader, a text to speech reading (s), and through published authors in a small book writing club to which I belong. After taking all this criticism into account, I make a judgment and corrections, and struggle to recover my creativity.

    When it is all said and done, and the stupid mistakes corrected, I feel my story-telling instinct is a more sure guide than external forces.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agree. I always say that a writer’s gut instinct is his greatest weapon. The key is honing our ability to listen to what it’s really telling us.

  17. Thanks you so much for your post. I suffer from sometimes nearly crippling perfectionism: somewhere along the lines I have convinced myself that errors carry a disproportionate penalty. From the fear that typos will sink my writing career to the worry that my kids grade reflect badly on me as a parent and educator, I see mistakes as failure.

    I will be totally bookmarking this for frequent reading.

  18. Perfectionism is such an unattainable benchmark.
    I struggle with it daily. Particularly as a non-native English speaker.
    Thanks for helping me put this in perspective.
    And thanks for pointing we should rather strive for professionalism rather than perfectionism.
    Great post, Ms. Weiland!

  19. Done is better than perfect. This is especially true when creating a minimum viable product. I’ve stopped caring as much about how people review my books. It’s their opinion.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally, and sometimes moving in the wrong direction is better than not moving at all.

  20. Probably going invite a shower of criticism but what is wrong with “she walked to the window”?

  21. I still feel the burn on my face when I realized there was a mistake in my self-published book I should have caught.

    This post is freeing! I have to remember what my mother used to say to me when I was a very SELF-conscious (I cringe at that label), shy, and introverted teenager. When I goofed up, got a A- on a test, or endured teasing by the “cool” kids, she’d say “Deb, in six months who will care.? No one will remember. People have the attention spans of gnats. So forget about it and move on, otherwise YOU will be the only one remembering.”

    Now I’m the grown-up version of that SELF-conscious, shy, and introverted teenager, and here I am, editing this post so it will be perfect. Sigh.

    Looking over my reply, I see an amusing little grammar mistake in the first line. Do you see it? I’m going out to the edge here, climbing out on that “slay the perfectionist limb”, and I’m going to leave it in. I’m shutting this session down before I change my mind and fix it.

    Oh, this is hard, but I’m doing it….

  22. Jayne Clary says:

    Thank you so much for this, Katie. I really needed to read that the self-torture I put myself through is one, not uncommon in writers, and two, poison to creativity and writing. How many times I’ve listened to the little voice inside me that asks “How can I possibly write when I’m not perfect?” In the light of day it looks, because of course it is, ridiculous.

    I’m learning how to let go, to forgive myself for mistakes and struggles. It’s a process, something that’s something that needs to be said. Self-flagellation is a habit acquired over one’s life. You can’t shed it in a day but, oh, one taste of being able to create free of continuous criticism, is a powerful thing to keep working at it! #amwriting

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It totally is a process. It’s a discovery, bit by bit, of the reasons we try futilely to protect ourselves with a facade of perfection. One of the main keys is not to start beating ourselves up when we catch ourselves beating ourselves up. :p

  23. Jayne Clary says:

    And of course my subconscious planted a typo in my comment, LOL!

  24. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    A couple years ago, I bought a book from a fellow writer at a book fair. It happened to be his first published work, and it was dreadfully written. The story line was compelling, but it needed major work to read easily. I didn’t say anything at the time, and gracefully (and legitimately, for other personal reasons) bowed out of his request to beta-read his next story.

    Last year, I read another book of his, which I had purchased some years before because its subject matter fed another interest of mine. I viewed it with some trepidation, but knew that I needed to know the information he was providing. I found it a most intriguing read, far better written than his first effort. It had flaws (as they all do, including mine), but they were too minimal to affect the story line or character development. I was pleased to write an honest and glowing review of it for Amazon, substantiating my opinion from the quality of the work.

    I then wrote to him to let him know about my review, and to tell him privately about my former apprehensions. He appreciated not only my review, but also my feedback to him regarding both books, and confirmed that the first book had been his first and he knew now that it needed a lot of polishing. I will be happy to be a beta reader for him in the future, if he asks.

    It’s wonderful to see a writer develop his or her skill. I hope the same can be said of my work, once my second novel sees print (next month, I believe).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! I love it when I get to see writers grow right before my very eyes.

  25. I used to be a grammar… you know… THAT word, but now I understand there’s really no need for anyone to write perfectly on the internet. I’m the kind of person who types correctly even when I’m texting friends and family. I can’t help it. It’s not that I try too hard to spell every word as it appears in a dictionary—it would actually be HARDER for me to write using contractions, net slang, etc. Nobody gets it. They think I’m weird. *sighs*

    Typos and such in published works bother me a bit more, not because I’m the kind of reader who gets distracted from the story when I spot one (and I guess it’s a good thing I’m not?), but because it seems so easy to avoid this problem, especially nowadays with the help of technology. I know it’s impossible, even with great software, to detect each and every mistake, but I feel like so many authors rush to finish what they’re writing. With some patience, I think, they can compensate for the faults of spellcheck. And I say PATIENCE, not perfectionism. I think there should be some level of comfort in whatever stage of writing you’re in, and I don’t think that comfort is attainable with perfectionism. I personally write quite slowly, as though I’m always in editing mode (at least compared to what I hear from other writers), but it’s a pace at which I know I can move forward with some confidence and at the same time leave room for whatever change I need to make in the future. I believe every writer has to find that sweet spot (and I’m constantly missing it and finding it again), which is what I would consider the professionalism you mention.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, the Internet, of itself, has taught me more about forgiving typos than anything else. I’m always typing, not just typos, but entirely wrong words (“change” for “chair” the other day). Realizing how easily I send out mistakes makes me a lot more tolerant of other people’s boo-boos in that department.

  26. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    Previously, when I would see typos or grammatical errors in an author’s work I would be mortified for them. I would never publicly correct someone, just because I wouldn’t want to embarrass them anymore than they already would be, so I would contact them privately. On my own writing it was mortifying to discover an error.

    I believed that these errors would destroy the credibility of the author. After all, if someone was careless enough to have a typo or tense error in their writing, how could they possibly know what they were talking about?

    Over time, thanks to posts of grace like this, I was able to let go of this feeling, which, as everyone else has mentioned, was crippling. Now when I see typos I am able to let it go and accept it (although I reserve the right to contact authors if they have a totally incomprehensible sentence).

    It is much more freeing to not have that weight of self-expectation hanging over me. Grace is a soothing balm. Thank you for introducing it to me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As someone who occasionally has one of those totally incomprehensible sentences, I appreciate it. 😉

  27. M.L. Bull says:

    Perfectionism is a trap I think most writers have fallen into, especially when just starting out with writing. I know that I did; and honestly, sometimes I still do. I usually do 1 to 3 edits myself on my novels/stories. I’m currently in the process of hopefully soon giving my first novel to a pro editor. On the other hand, although perfectionism is a major reason for delay of a book’s publication, every writer is different and some books just take time to evolve and finish and aren’t postponed from the need to be perfect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think one of the main reasons perfectionism is so rampant within the writing community is that it’s “community encouraged.” Everybody else seems to be a perfectionist, so the rest of us had better be one too just to keep up. I’d much rather foster a happier community of professionalism.

  28. Robin Preibisius says:

    Timely and great post, this. I’ve dealt with perfectionism and anxiety for years and years, finally (and with help) getting to a place of “striving for excellence” instead of “playing furious whack-a-mole with flaws”. Funny thing is, I can get as frustrated as anyone with grammar slips, but they don’t hit me on a gut level the way bigger issues–the “shoulds”–do.

    The kicker: I’m the oddball who’d like to learn the craft and write an entertaining story, but keep writing a hobby (aside from blog articles for the day job). You’d think that would mean carte blanche to write in whatever direction the spirit moves. And yet, the gremlins upstairs insist it won’t have that “story magic” if it doesn’t satisfy the right “shoulds” (be they “slaughter half your cast because body counts are all the rage” or “depict your story in hieroglyphs and birdcalls because Internet Poster #94 thinks the Roman alphabet is so cliche and overdone”). Heck, even setting down the phrase “writing hobby” gets gremlin-countered with “Pfft, that’s not a thing”.

    Time and again, though, the bits I end up keeping in any given story are the ones that come from a place of intuition nudged in the right direction by sound advice. The bits I write from a place of perfectionism and fear usually get tossed out once the fear passes.

    Still, perfectionism and its trying-to-please-everyone cousin are tempting mistresses even if they are a complete sham. Just gotta keep focusing on “What can I do to make this thing right in front of me better?” rather than “What can I do to make sure every vulnerability in this entire project is sealed off?”.

    After all, much is made of ensuring characters are flawed. It can’t be too big a leap to extend ourselves a little grace in that department!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Striving for excellence” instead of “playing furious whack-a-mole with flaws.”

      This is great comparison! Too, I think it highlights the major problem with perfectionism: it focuses on the negative problems rather than the positive possibilities.

  29. DirectorNoah says:

    Great words of wisdom Katie, thanks so much for writing this post. For a struggling perfectionist like me, this is so inspirational and motivating, I’ve just kept reading it over!

    Perfectionism is a challenging obstacle for me, I want to get everything right, whether it’s for my novel or writing a comment, and sometimes I get stuck over the smallest details, mainly because I care too much about my work. But I’ve learned to cope better by accepting mistakes and treating my WIP as a training ground to learn and gain experience as a writer. If I discover problems in character or theme for example, that I can’t fix for some reason, I patch them up best I can and move on, making a mental note to improve and do it better in a future book. Likewise, I try to not punish myself to write the perfect word for word chapter, and focus on creating a decent, well-written one instead. That way, I’m always moving forward, rather than being impeded with self-criticism over a minor issue or trying to solve every little problem, although I still find it difficult to do.

    “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” That quote is really profound and hits a deep core of truth for me. By doing that, you lose out so much on the joy of writing and creativity, and life in general, something I’m only starting to come to terms with.

    I think perfectionism stems from the love we have for our stories, and like any craftsman, we want to make our creation as beautiful and professional as possible, fashioned into something we can be proud of. The trick is be flexible, compromise where you can and accept errors and failures as part of a writer’s development.
    But of course, for a perfectionist, that’s easier said than done!
    This article was exactly what I needed to encourage me on, thank you! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was talking to someone a couple weeks ago. He said that when he gets out of bed in the morning, he gets excited and asks himself, “What mistakes am I going to get to make today?” I thought that was a great outlook.

  30. Thank you so much! For your words, your books, that gave me great tools, and for your posts.
    I am ashamed to say, that the best books about writing are all in englisch. As if you have kept the tradition of old european storytelling and developped it further.
    I am a dutch author who lives in Germany since 18 years and i write in the german language, although i will never be able to write in a foreign language without grammar fealures. I have not published yet but did get encouraging letters from agencys and will go on writing further on. Writing in another language has helped me, because i knew from the first sentence, i would make mistakes. No chance whatsoever for being perfekt! But hte comments that i got from agencys and publishers on my first novel dindn’t have anything to do with the grammar! I found a native speaker, who likes to correct my writing, so that i can go on telling my stories on paper. I profited also a lot from Julia Cameron the Artists Way.
    Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As someone who has struggled (not too successfully) to learn French these last few years, you have my total respect for being able to write in dual languages!

  31. I was raised by two perfectionists to be a perfectionist, an orientation toward life which has cost me dearly. I eventually became a copyeditor and proofreader, thinking that profession would perfectly suit my perfectionism—only to discover that it pushed me over the edge into perfect misery. Suddenly all I could see were the errors and things that needed to be fixed. My world became very dark. When I realized I was sliding toward the abyss of losing all my joy in language (and life), I began an intense study of perfectionism, comparisonitis, and the mindset of “good is never good enough.”

    Although I love copyeditors, proofreaders, and their noble work, and I loudly champion their necessity and worth, I eventually decided that in order for me to begin recovery , I was going to need to leave a profession that triggers the worst of my natural tendencies. (I suppose I could compare that to avoiding jobs that provide opportunities for addiction triggers.) That choice was purely personal, of course, and I’m very glad the world is full of sharp-eyed, detail-oriented, and compassionate copyeditors who don’t suffer my particular affliction (at least to the same degree).

    As others have said, I’ll be rereading this post often because it’s a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful summary—with a unique slant and voice—of much of the work I’ve been immersed in as I inch my way toward an open, nonjudgmental stance in this amazing world of variety and creativity. Thank you, Katie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you found a life path that provides a space for the joy of writing rather than just the sometimes destructive details. Total kudos to you for doing the hard personal work to figure out your pain points and how to grow past them.

  32. J.C. Jones says:

    This post hits home with me. I have struggled with the dread of sitting down to write, when self-criticism acts as a black hole to all creativity and joy. It took a major shift in mindset- even to the point of writing myself a literal permission slip (that I keep in my desk drawer!) to re-open that part of my brain that loves to create and explore possibilities, and to tell the critical, perfectionist, hyper-structuring plotter to step aside temporarily, that she will get a chance to do her nit-picky thing, but not YET. There must exist something TO edit before editing can commence, and bringing the story into existence is not her job. Your article, and these many thoughtful comments, are an excellent reminder!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you. All of this stuff is in our heads. If we can learn to confront that, face what it’s really about, and work past it, we discover that life is often a lot more forgiving than we realize.

  33. Nailed it yet again! Hey, are you reading my journal or something? 😀

    I’m actually writing a little bonus chapter to my book about finishing projects that deals specifically with perfectionism and the need to finish our work and move on to the next thing.

    Releasing our own stories and letting them fly out to the arms of the public, even when we know they could be improved in some way, is one of the bravest things we writers can do. But letting go can be so gawrsh darn hard, partly because we think any imperfections in our work serve as a reflection of our own inadequacies. The freedom comes in realizing we’re all works in progress and that’s a beautiful thing.

    I love the words from that Paulo quote, “I know who I am.” What a powerful thing to say, what a wonderful place to be.

  34. Jack Pino says:

    Thaaanks for this post! I REALLY needed it!
    I was caring so much in not making any mistakes in my stories that I’ve never finished a single story in my life! With your post I realised that mistakes are part of the process (specially when you’re giving the first steps in the journey of writing) and that perfection will never be achievable – we’re eternal learners, and we’ll forever make mistakes.

    What I find the most difficult is to mix everything a story needs to be professional: character arc + story structure + theme + every other techniques to write better that I see in your blog.

    Would you have a hint of how to learn storytelling better/easier? Do I (and every other person that’s beggining) just need to practice 80% of the time and study the rules and techniques 20%? What do you recommend?

  35. Hi KM! I’ve been going through a stretch where I’ve been absolutely brutal on myself, so I figured I’d stop by here since I haven’t read your blog in a few weeks, and lo and behold, it’s like your headline’s talking to me.

    BTW, I can’t fathom you leaving nasty reviews, KM. It’s kind of like imagining Santa Claus yelling at an elf.

    But yeah…I’ve been in such a rut that I get disgusted with my output as I’m writing it and think, “This is the dumbest, most ridiculous, most terribly-written crap…what the hell am I doing with this? Just close Word. Just close it! You suck. You’re going to submit this nonsense? The judges will be laughing at you. They’ll make copies of your story just to pass around for the lulz and to distribute to their creative writing students as an example of first-rate suckage.”

    What’s even more infuriating is that I can pound out an 800-word newspaper story or a 2,000-word magazine feature like it’s nothing, but with creative writing I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where I’m trying to run but everything is jello and the evil monster is gonna get me.

    Is it normal to be this brutal on yourself? It’s an immersion- and motivation-killer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Normal, yes. Healthy, no. 🙂 But as they say, recognizing the problem is the first step to correcting it.

  36. Great post, K.M. Really spoke to me as a judgmental and self-judging person. Packed with wisdom. Thank you.

  37. MICHELE DROGA says:

    Perfect timing, KM! My wife – a writer – and I – an editor – both struggle with perfectionism and its funhouse mirror perspective that magnifies any mistake/failing to overshadow everything that’s good. We have mantras like, “Good enough is good enough,” “Each one of us is a WIP,” and “Is this the endless quest for perfection or the desire to do good work?” We try to set expectations: Before our wedding, we reminded each other, “Something will go wrong. But we trust the coordinator and maid of honor to handle it without getting us involved.” and acknowledge small steps: “Just because I don’t like this word doesn’t mean it’s wrong….Hey…growth!! Woo hoo!”

    Also, I finished Dreamlander last week. I was barely 30% in and already thinking, “Man, things are pretty bleak….how the hell is she going to raise the stakes?” And then you did. 🙂 And then at the climax, first I thought, “What the…?” which then became, “Of course that had to happen exactly that way: Gun. On. The. Wall.” 😀

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