The Perfectionism Trap – Part 1

Every writer aspires to be the best they possibly can, which makes them work hard to achieve it. For some people, however, that aspiration represents more than an objective. Some writers go beyond doing their best – they want perfection, and while it might drive them to create exemplary work, it will also drive them to failure.


Why do they fail? Many writers spend hours pouring over one short sentence, or days polishing a paragraph to get it absolutely right. Some take hours, if not days, to write a cover letter, when the majority of the population can reel one off in half an hour. Some keep returning to their 80,000-word novel to tweak it to their satisfaction, which is now in its 10th draft. And some never send their work out to publishers or agents, because of the fear that it’s just not good enough (in their eyes).


Perfection is rather like dark matter – it exists in our conscience, but it isn’t always detectable. It’s the belief that perfection can be attained, and that anything less than perfect is unacceptable and not good enough. It feeds on fear because it needs nothing less than the best, and because of that reason, it will actually prevent the writer from reaching their goal or achieving what they set out to do. It acts like a barrier between what’s possible and what’s impossible. 


Writers get trapped by perfectionism, and it’s very common among writers because they seem to be more sensitive to criticism than most creative types, but where some writers can take that criticism and improve their writing; perfectionists see it as a weakness in their work and will harbour inward negativity because of it. That might lead them to write and edit a novel repeatedly, ad infinitum. The novel just never sees the light of.  It always needs a few more tweaks.


If you notice these traits within yourself, how will you cope with a critique of your writing?  How will you feel when others, such as editors, assess what you have written? How will you respond to rejection from publishers or agents?


Imagine that novel you’ve written. It’s in its 5th year of editing and polishing and rewriting, and you’re (almost) ready to submit it, but not before you’ve changed a just a few more words here and there. And the odd sentence. But then you keep going, and you realise how dissatisfied you are with the whole thing and so you end up going through it all again, just to be sure. The perpetual cycle continues. Sound familiar?


This is the reason so many writers don’t send out their work, or they delay it over months and years. It’s because their irrational fears have taken control. But perfection isn’t just about being the best. It’s a fear of rejection, a fear of public or personal criticism and a major cause of self-doubt. It’s also about control, a coping mechanism, a way of remediating those irrational fears and fooling the mind into believing it’s normal behaviour.


Criticism is normal part of writing, none more so than when an editor casts their eye over a writer’s work, and writers fear negative comments more than anything, because that equates to failure to a perfectionist – they will only see the negative aspects rather than any positives they may encounter and they may be unhappy a lot of the time, simply because they don’t actually achieve anything. There is a continual cycle of fear, self-doubt and unhappiness, which in turn causes undue stress, anxiety and low self-esteem.


Some writers will never get to send their masterpiece to editors, agents or publishers because they’re constantly trying to attain what isn’t possible to achieve. A perfectionist’s work will be exemplary, yet it will also fail. It’s a strange paradox, because they strive so hard to be the best, and yet they are doomed to fail in almost every instance.

Is it possible to break free from perfectionism? Yes it is, but it’s about giving up the deep seated fear of rejection and criticism, and making positive changes to eradicate the underlying self-doubt. It’s about relinquishing control over irrationality. 

In part 2, we’ll look at ways to help avoid the perfectionism trap.


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