The Curse of Perfectionism in Writing (Or Anything)


If you ever want to kill off perfectionism in your writing, move to New Mexico and write a news story about gas prices. Or at least that’s how I did it.

Granted, it was at a time when filling your tank didn’t cost more than your mortgage payment. So the story was a lot shorter and far less heated than one you’d get today.

But I still had been hemming and hawing and tweaking and twiddling and otherwise tinkering with the copy for what seemed like weeks (but was probably half an hour).

It was my second story at my new reporting job at the Clovis News Journal and I wanted to make sure everything was excruciatingly perfect.

Evidently, watching my tinkering was just plain excruciating for one of my coworkers.

“For God’s sake,” he said. “You’re not writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning story here. It’s about gas prices. Just hand it in!”

I handed it in.

Not only did it pass the editor’s desk with nary a change, but it taught me a valuable lesson. I learned to recognize when I was crossing the line from solid writing into the unattainable land of perfectionism.

Every piece we create goes through a process. We do the research and type up the draft in a flurry of enthusiasm. Proof the piece a bit later and hate it. Put it away; come back after a nap. Like it again. Make a few tweaks. We’ve hit the line. We’re done.

Those who hit the line and keep going have entered the dangerous realm of perfectionism.

The realm is so dangerous because it does more than leave us with gas price stories we dare not submit. The drive for perfection can spill over into other areas of our lives, bringing along other habits that are even scarier than piles of un-submitted writing.

Like an all-or-nothing attitude. If we can’t do something perfectly, we may as well not do it at all, right? Talk about danger. That kind of thinking can annihilate anything.

So forget the subway stories compilation, the memoir that’s been on the back burner since 2001, and the true crime book about Chicken Man Dan.

Perfectionism fuels us with a fear of failure so grand we take the only route that allows us to avoid failure altogether: we never even begin.

Sigh. There’s not even an upside to this terrible pickle. It’s not like it works for getting out of household chores.

“I’d be glad to empty the dishwasher, but I can’t do it perfectly so I better not.”

The stress and anxiety that come from trying to attain the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves add another layer of woe. Our to-do list may contain 57 items it would take the average human three weeks to complete. We expect to it to be done by noon.

When it’s not, we call ourselves failures, sink into a depression, and eat a whole box of Oreos to compensate. So not only does perfectionism ruin our writing, careers, and ambitions, but it gives us a stomach ache to boot.

The cure, of course, is to erase the idea of perfection right out of our heads. Doing our best is good enough. And that’s all we have to do. That counts if you’re emptying the dishwasher, penning the latest gas price news, or finally sitting down to write the frightfully fascinating tale of Chicken Man Dan.

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