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4 Tricks for Letting Go of Perfectionism

Are you a perfectionist when it comes to your writing?

Maybe you don’t move to the next paragraph until this one is just right, meaning you barely get words on the page every day.

Maybe you endlessly revisit the wording of a particular idea until you aren’t sure what’s good anymore.

Maybe you don’t write at all (eep!) because you’re convinced what you write won’t be any good, and nobody will want to read it. (double eep!)

I used to be a perfectionist and then I had a kid. Now I reign in my perfectionism by 15%, partly because I’m incredibly tired and partly because I’ve worked long enough and hard enough to realize that my perfectionist’s 85% is still an awesome, 100%-worth job. Thanks are also due to my partner, who sometimes sees that wild look in my eye and reminds me to let it go.

Every writer—every human—is different, so every case of perfectionism has its own personal flavor.

Next time you catch yourself unable to make forward progress because what’s already down isn’t perfect, see if one of these four tricks will help:

1: The Sneak Attack

Before you roll your eyes and scroll down: yes, I’m talking about that old chestnut, freewriting. Please stick with me anyway.

Set a timer for five minutes and freewrite about something completely unrelated to your main writing project. It can be a rant against your neighborhood’s block captain, a repeated “I don’t know what to write” mantra, a detailed observation of your living room floor, thoughts about the TV show you watched last night, whatever. As always with freewriting, the only rule is to keep writing without stopping and without going back to correct or change anything.

When the timer goes off, continue writing in that same document, in that same energy, but shift the subject matter to your project. It does not matter if you pick up where you left off with the project last time. You’re just riffing here, just writing what comes to mind.

When you hit a natural end with that or another five minutes has passed, whichever comes second, either keep going in this state or head on over to “the real work.”

Try it every writing session for a week or two. See if the practice of writing in flow and letting yourself put word salad on the page loosens you up a bit to just keep writing even when it’s not perfect.

2: The “No” Practice

Develop a practice of saying “no” out loud to yourself—the speech bit’s important—whenever you catch yourself hovering over a sentence, trying to perfect it. Say no, then move your cursor back to fresh territory.

I find that doing a two-second wiggle dance in my chair with every “no” helps redirect my attention to new words, rather than tweaking the old. But you do you.

Smiling man with dark hair and beard in a pale lavender shirt holding a notebook in his lap and a blue pen in his right hand. Photo by Michael Burrows via Pexels.
photo by Michael Burrows via Pexels

3: Revision as a Treat

Promise yourself a short revision period, you know, as a treat—once a week, or biweekly, or when you finish a chapter.

When it’s time, give yourself three hours or one full workday (no more than two, I’d say) to revise whatever is glaring at you. Consider setting a task for that revision period, like, “I’ll look at the examples in chapters two and three to make sure they’re fresh, clear, and useful.”

Then return to the writing until the next scheduled revision period. If important tasks or ideas for revision occur to you in the meantime, jot them down somewhere you won’t lose them. Knowing you have a revision period waiting may help you brain let go of the constant need to get it just right while writing.

4: Get Numbers Obsessed

Lean into word count. This is not always my jam, as I think it creates paralyzing pressure for many folks, but if you’re not getting words on the page because you want them to be perfect first, try setting yourself a word count goal for every session. Make it your priority to hit this goal, rather than write staggering sentences of crystalline beauty and profound import.

Bonus: Find some small way to celebrate when you hit the goal, even with something tiny like shouting “Woohoo! I did it!” Giving yourself that dose of happy really will make you more likely to do it again. I’m helping a colleague with this right now by sending her celebratory and silly emojis when she texts me that she hit her word count.

Do you struggle with perfectionism? At what point in the writing or revising process does it ensnare you? Send me an email and tell me—I’d love to know.

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