Perfectionism: Your Creative Writing Technique’s Worst Enemy

creative writing technique

The best creative writing technique is to give yourself permission to write BADLY.

When you give yourself permission to fail, you give yourself permission to TRY.

Since writing is rewriting, getting it down, no matter how trite, how cliche, how grammatically incorrect, or muddled it is at first gives you a first draft. Once you’ve written a first draft, you’re PAST the blank page. You have something to work with and polish. But if you paralyze yourself thinking the writing must be perfect and clear on the first go, you won’t even be able to write a word. You’ll just stare at the blank page, unable to proceed.

Creative writing, even for content marketing purposes, is so elusive that the first rule of accomplishing it is a reiteration to JUST DO IT. That in itself reveals what a strange process it is. Interestingly, the process that musicians and writers experience in practicing music or writing is the same in the brain.

Similarities in Sight Reading and Rewriting

When a clarinet musician gets new sheet music and begins to practice, they tend to play a little, make a mistake, go back and play again, maybe mark something in their sheet music to remember, maybe decide to jump ahead and learn the chorus or a different part of the song that’s more intuitive and then return to the beginning. Their brain whips through these processes as it leafs through the music and fingers the keys with rapid precision.

Indeed, this process that the clarinet player is going through looks familiar; it’s reminiscent of the revision process in writing, right? When we revise a piece, our brains perform a rapid-fire process of back and forth from thoughts to computer screen and then something relayed on the computer screen reminds us of another thought and it’s all happening too fast to even articulate or recognize it’s happening. It’s automatic and yet it’s like a brain workout and we’re actually building muscle memory, or a more precise word would be MIND memory. But it works just like the athlete perfecting his weight lifting or yoga stretches to a point where the body starts to remember.

What the clarinet player and writer and weight lifter do is repetitive practice with a discovery over goal mindset. They’re practicing in an exploratory way that gives them permission to perform badly. Getting it down, messing around, trial and error, rinse, wash, drain, repeat. The emphasis is on trying not excelling. And it’s only by trying over and over that they DO excel.

Talent Needs Persistence!

The clarinet player I referred to was not an arbitrary instrument I used for sake of example, but actually a study called the Clarissa study that analyzed brain patterns in regard to music talent and practice and found that “with strong enough motivation, even young music learners can engage in the types of self regulatory behavior that will enhance their achievement.” I would define this “self regulatory behavior” as a willingness to perform badly in order to learn, progress, and ultimately succeed. Even with a natural writing or music talent, if you are resistant to try and hung up on winning, then your talent will not evolve to its potential.

And this is evident not only the arts, but athletics. People who are naturally flexible in yoga come in, show off, and can take it or leave it. But the people who are not flexible but try every day actually show steady improvement (only in comparison to themselves and their past performance) because of that curious mindset of “explore, try, wade, endure, persist” that serves the yogi far more than a “win, show off, conqueror, excel, perfect, succeed” perspective.

Technique Requires JOY

You may say that’s all well and good, but at what point does a student relent to the fact that they just don’t have it and no amount of creative writing technique or practice will help that. I would say to that that depends on the joy of the process. If you take no joy in that discovery process then YES, quit, because quite honestly, you’re still hung up in perfectionism and it’s actually that underlying impatience that will ensure your failure. But if you revel in the process and stay curious, there’s nothing to diminish your ascent.

Your attitude determines your progress. If you’re sure you’re no good or will never be as good as you want, or hate the difficulty and self consciousness in hearing those clarinet squeaks or cringe-worthy sentences, or trembling shoulders that still hunch forward, then yes, you will fail. You’re convinced you’ll fail, so it’ll be a self -fulfilling prophecy. But if you’re convinced that you’ll succeed, and don’t expect to succeed right away, but with self-discipline, practice, and love of the journey, then that mindset is better for your technique than hidden, innate talent because it’s a muscle you’re flexing.

It sounds nutty to say that TO TRY over TO WIN is the #1 creative writing technique and yet, it’s the secret truth all working writers know. If you’re hung up on getting strawberries in every glass of juice your pour, then you’ll take too long and give up too fast. If you pour without giving thought to what’s in each glass and just let that bad first draft out, you can ADD the strawberry and mint leaves AFTER. Perfectionism is NOT your friend; it’s your enemy in creative writing.

Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. She has written for apps, games, websites, literary journals, trade magazines, newspapers, e-commerce brands and health//nutrition brands. Samantha’s most notable achievements are authoring a guidebook for College Prowler, interviewing Leonardo Dicaprio, Zac Efron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino for The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing books for Publishers Weekly, covering the World Series of Poker, teaching creative writing at Harvard-Westlake, and working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oval literary magazine.


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