Do you struggle to get your ideas down on the page? Setting ambitious perfectionistic standards, do you criticise every word that you write? Do you expect all your sentences to be grammatically correct at the start? Or edit so much that your words become meaningless? Perhaps you get so stuck that you are frozen, unable to write anything at all. By this point, nothing seems good enough and you may give up altogether.
Writing something other people will read can be a daunting task for many people, and it’s made so much more complicated when you struggle with perfectionism. There are many helpful aspects of perfectionism, including striving to do your best and being motivated to excellent work. Unfortunately, these benefits can also turn into pitfalls if you get stuck trying to avoid any mistakes by making your writing perfect. You may also approach the process of writing in a perfectionistic way, expecting that you won’t ever waste any time, and this causes yet more problems getting the writing done.
Thankfully, there are some things you can do to help get your writing flowing. In this article, I’ll share some strategies I’ve learned as I’ve been writing. We’ll also look at how to get back on track when you feel frozen or stuck.
1. Decide What You Are Trying to Say Before You Start
One of the biggest traps you can fall into when writing is getting stuck in the detail and losing sight of what you are trying to say. So first, consider who is going to read your writing. Think about your audience, and what you want them to learn or understand. Putting some time into this right at the start will help prevent you from writing yourself into so many dead-ends.
The best writing is concise and persuasive, so think about the core elements of your argument before you start drafting your document. Map out the logical argument that will flow through your words. It might help to draw a simple flowchart. I often use pen and paper for this as it allows me to draw, scribble, and scratch things out freely. I like the visual, tangible nature of this. It’s a way of getting my thoughts in order without having to be a detailed guide. Whenever you get lost or confused about where you are heading in your writing, mapping out your ideas in this way can help you quickly clarify your thinking and get you moving again.
2. Plan Your Work
There are four modes of successful writing: planning, drafting, editing, and polishing. Your writing will be much easier if you plan what you are going to say before you start. I know this can seem boring, but it helps immensely to have a map of where you are going. A good plan will include headings for each section and a brief description of what each section will include. This can take a bit of time, but for large documents, it is incredibly worthwhile.
The advantage of having a detailed plan is that whenever you come back to your work after a break, you can either start where you left off, start a new section, or edit work you’ve completed earlier. This helps you be flexible and keep making progress overall.
Use the tools you have available to help. In Microsoft Word, you can use Styles to create headings. Together with the Navigation function, this helps you move around and reorganise big documents quickly. I find this super convenient and time-saving.
3. Start with Something Easy
Writing something difficult, complex, or large can be intimidating, particularly if you expect it to be flawless. When you have a plan, you can start writing anywhere in your document and feel confident that what you are writing is relevant to your overall goal. By breaking your work into sections, you can attack them in any order you like. Most documents don’t need to be written from beginning to end, even though we might believe this is the ‘correct’ method. Your productivity and motivation will be greater if you tackle an area of the document where you feel most confident first. For example, if drafting a scientific paper, start with the method and subjects. When composing an essay start with your central argument. Wherever you feel most at ease, start there.
4. Make a Mess
Your first draft should be very messy. Editing and polishing your writing too early is a huge waste of time as you will end up polishing sentences that you later throw away. Start by writing down everything you know. For as long as possible let your writing flow without editing or polishing it. Try not to stop too often. If you have relevant text in other documents, capture it and put it into your document in the appropriate sections. If one of your points needs a reference, mark the space for the reference (REF) and come back to add it later. If you need to bridge between two ideas and it’s not flowing, write (BRIDGE) and come back later. You might note (EXPAND) if you need to add more detail. It’s OK to come back and finish things off later.
As part of the drafting process, expect to write many more words than you ultimately need. Keep a separate document for all the bits you throw away. You may use them later (although you usually won’t). It is not unusual for me to have 50% of my total document length in an ‘outtakes’ file. I understand that writing more than I need is part of the process and don’t see this as wasted effort.
4. Wasted Effort is Part of the Process
Do you expect to never waste a minute of your time? Many perfectionists expect themselves to write perfect words, and to be perfectly productive in the time they spend writing. Yet your productivity will vary from one hour to the next. Sometimes I’ve felt so frustrated by my lack of progress that I’ve wanted to drop my head onto the desk or cry out in frustration. Yet I also understand that wasting my time is part of the writing process. Having some unproductive hours is inevitable so there’s no point beating yourself up. Instead, congratulate yourself for sticking with the task even through these frustrating times.
“Wasted time” is a normal part of the writing process and should be mixed with some productive time. Wasted time should therefore be allowed for in your total writing time. If you assume all your time will be perfectly productive then you may not allow enough time to complete the work before it is due. It’s not helpful to expect every minute to be focused and productive. Instead, expect to spend time going down irrelevant rabbit holes and unproductive side-alleys. You may even have times when you lose track completely. This is normal and while it is frustrating, it is not worth getting upset about.
One thing to mention though: if you find that all your time is wasted, and you can never get started, you may need to dive deeper into exploring the source of your procrastination. Is it driven by fear of failing, unhelpful patterns of avoidance, or even a neurological difference like ADHD?
5. Edit and Polish to be Clear and Concise
The editing process is where you make your ideas and argument clearer to your audience. Try to balance your writing time with the processes of editing and polishing. If you notice that you keep polishing one section over and over and are not getting any fresh words on the page, start in a new section and come back later. Writing more words is generally better than continually polishing the words you already have.
When polishing, find ways to remove unneeded words and shorten sentences without losing the meaning. It can help to polish section by section rather than polishing the entire document end-to-end.
Check the settings on your word processor and let the spelling and grammar checker do the heavy lifting regarding grammar and style. Have it check for things like colloquialisms, passive sentences, vagueness, spaces between sentences, and the Oxford comma, and you can stop worrying about these basics and focus on developing an active, clear voice.
6. Make Room for Your Self-Critic
Self-criticism is a core part of unhelpful perfectionism. No matter how many of the strategies above you use, you can anticipate that at some point your perfectionistic self-critic will get loud and disruptive. I’ve had many days where my self-critic has offered me a constant unhelpful commentary on my work, ranging from “this writing is sh*t”, to “you’ll never get this done” and “everyone will think this is rubbish”.
On some days, this criticism has been so relentless that it felt painful and exhausting. And yet, I continued to write. I continued to do what was important to me. I may not have written for as long as I did on other days, but I still found something useful to do. Perhaps I did a bit of editing or found a couple of new references. I always made sure to come back to the creative process on my next scheduled writing day, even though it would mean facing self-criticism all over again.
Over time these painful days have become less frequent. I’ve learned that I can, and do, get it done. I’ve learned that I can write “sh*t words” all day and still produce a chapter I’m happy with by the end of the month. And I’ve come to appreciate that my self-critic is the same part of myself that aspires to do good work. She has a good intention, even if she has a destructive and painful way of going about it. Developing compassion for this part of myself has helped me stay calm and keep going.
Practice Makes…Better, Eventually
The process of writing is a cycle of continual refinement and improvement. You will never be perfect at writing, and yet you can still write. Over time this is likely to get easier, and you will still have days when nothing flows. Keep going. Your best writing is ahead of you if you can persist, do what’s important, and find some compassion for yourself along the way.
About Jennifer Kemp MPsych(Clinical)
Jennifer is a Clinical Psychologist who works with clients who are struggling with perfectionism and the mental health problems perfectionism facilitates and maintains. Jennifer is the author of The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism. She integrates ACT, behavior analysis, exposure, and Compassion-Focused Therapy approaches in her therapeutic and consultation work. Jennifer presents internationally on the topic of perfectionism and is available for public speaking, conferences, and workshops. Find out more at www.jenniferkemp.com.au.