Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

6 Ways for Writers to Overcome Perfectionist Tendencies

There’s probably a typo in this post. An I’m okay with that.

The other day, I was reading an article I had written for a magazine a few months ago. It had been some time since I had last touched the project, so I had forgotten what I had written.

I was utterly disgusted. What was this crap? Who was this verbose, arrogant writer? And why was he over-complicating things?

Perfectionist Writer

Photo credit: Zach Klein

The typical creative rut

This dissatisfaction occurs nearly every time I write something, and, I’m told it’s typical amongst creative people:

  • Directors struggle to watch their own films.
  • Actors can’t stand to see themselves on screen.
  • Public speakers often won’t watch themselves on video or listen to their own recorded voices.

Everywhere you look, creative people struggle with liking their own work. Why is that?

Plagued by perfectionism

Many creatives are perfectionists. I certainly am. I’ve talked before about overcoming perfectionism but wanted to address the issue specifically from a writer’s perspective.

I’m learning to overcome this impediment to productivity by practicing six disciplines:

  1. Capture ideas. We struggle with perfectionism because we procrastinate. We waste time and feel like our work is never complete. So we get stuck. You can fight this by always having a few ideas in the hopper. Evernote is a great tool that allows you to quickly capture ideas and come back to them.
  2. Practice. Another reason we struggle with perfectionism is because we’re honest. Often, our work just isn’t that good. Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, so how do we get better at writing? We write — a lot. Not in private, but in public.
  3. Wait to revise. The idea here is to not critique or edit until you’ve produced your first, terrible draft. Write that, step away, and return to it later. Good writing takes time, and instant genius is a myth. Get your first draft over with so you can write the next one.
  4. Ship often. Write every day. This keeps you honest and humble. Shipping means sharing a piece of your work with another human being. A great way to do that is through blogging, but there are other ways. We overcome perfectionism by embracing “good enough” so that we can get to excellence… eventually.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. I need to lighten up more; so do you. Writing should be fun. Don’t waste your gift on a bad attitude; enjoy the message God has given you to say. And say it.
  6. Give yourself grace. You may not be that good at writing yet — so what? Are you going to wait until you’re amazing to share your work? You may never write a single word. Instead, submit to the process and kind to yourself as you go.

It’s about action

Ultimately, this is about moving forward, one small step at a time.

Commit to creating something every day, constantly capturing ideas and avoiding the temptation to edit as you go; don’t take yourself too seriously, and give yourself a break once in awhile.

You’ll get there. So will I. Until then, I hope to see some of your work-in-progress out in the world. And I hope you’ll be gentle with mine.

What other tips do you have for perfectionist writers? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Zach Klein (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

How I got 100,000 blog readers in 18 months

Sign up for the free newsletter and get a three-part series on exactly what I did to grow my blog from zero to 100,000 readers in less than two years. Enter your email below to get started.

  • Anonymous

    That #3 is very very very important. Sometimes I just can’t “see” what’s wrong with my song concept until I’ve forgotten about it and return with virgin eyes/ears.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Mandy.

  • http://davidsantistevan.com David Santistevan

    This has to do with your point on “shipping”, but as a worship songwriter, I need to test my songs out to see if they work. I’m typically surprised by people’s positive response. When I work on a song, revisiting it the next day, I’m usually like, “this is total crap”. But if I don’t get “real world” feedback on it, I’m not making progress.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      How do you do that?

      • http://davidsantistevan.com David Santistevan

        I do a number of things: sing it for my team, sing it in a small group, sing it at the “altar” time and see how people respond, sing it for other writers. Basically test it out in low pressure situations and see how it catches.

        • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

          Cool

  • Al Pittampalli

    When I’m writing my book, I free write without revising.  But I wonder how well that  would work with my blog posts.  I might just give that a try.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      In my mind, Al, blogging IS free-writing.

  • http://twitter.com/andreamv Andrea Meyer

    I’ve had an idea in my head for more than a month (really) that I basically keep revising and postponing so nothing has shipped.  Thanks for the push!  p.s. I love Malcolm Gladwell.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re welcome. You need to write that. Because WE need to read it.

  • http://www.SammyAdebiyi.com Sammy A

    I think having a healthy sense of expectation is huge for me. When I first started writing, I was frustrated that I wasn’t Don Miller even though I had written for only 30mins. Silly! 

    Other thing is remembering its about people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve posted a blog that I thought was just complete junk only to receive a comment from someone going “this is exactly what I needed to hear today from God” 

    So, are we content writing if sometimes its only to change one? We should be. 

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Good call. I experienced the same thing when I started playing guitar. I mean, two weeks of practice and I still couldn’t jam like Jimi Hendrix?!

  • http://www.storywrought.wordpress.com Lizzie

    Perfectionism is a thorn in my side!  It’s so difficult for me to even finish first drafts because revision is almost compulsive.  These are great [and difficult] points, and the 10,000 hours is very comforting.  I’ll be giving myself a whole lot of grace ’til then.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Yep, Lizzie. If you’re just starting it’s all about putting in the hours.

  • http://www.travismamone.net/ Travis Mamone

    Good one, Jeff!  This is something I’m working on.  Most of my rough drafts sound like Donald Miller after too many beers (or at least that’s how I imagine Don would write drunk), but I’m comfortable with that now.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Way to go, Travis. A quick way to solve that problem would be to not
      write whole YOU are drunk. ;-)

  • Anonymous

    Ugh! I go through this ALL the time! Even after years of playing and being a “professional” musician I still don’t like to hear myself play. So many parallels in the music and writing world…I must be a true “creative”! (By the way, I didn’t know what that was until I read your blog! I just always called myself “artsy”, lol! Thanks for the clarification!)
    http://mining4diamonds.blogspot.com/2011/06/9-ways-being-writer-is-like-being.html

    http://mining4diamonds.blogspot.com/2011/01/insecurities-stage-fright.html

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Very cool. I’m actually a musician and a writer. I am finding that many creatives have multiple disciplines and
      creative expressions.

  • http://robrash.us Rob Rash

    I’m so with  you Jeff. It’s hard to look at any of my work, whether it be my posts on my blog, songs I’ve written, or hearing my self speak. I always get that feeling of fingernails on the chalkboard.

    This reminded me of your post, ‘Art is Never Finished.’ There’s a fine line between finishing a project and being completely satisfied with it.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Right. Ira Glass has some good thoughts on this. Remind me to send you a quote.

      • http://robrash.us Rob Rash

        So are you a consistent listener of ‘This American Life’? or Just Ira?

        • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

          Not consistent but occasional. Big fan.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    Some good advice worth applying. Michael Hyatt has repeated that his blogging is to him as a writer what painting is to an artist. It’s practicing his art form. Donald Miller places the idea that he blogs to work out book ideas prominent on his Home page. Jeff, you’ve repeated that mantra of so many–write, write, write. Don’t wait to get it right. In Nike parlance: Just do it.

    I recognize a lot of what you’ve mentioned in my own writing. This is great. I suck. No, maybe I don’t. Oh, yeah, I suck.

    The inner voice is definitely pure schizophrenic, manic-depressive, off-the-chart weirdness. That’s why “shipping” helps gain perspective. The outside voices help quiet the raging sea of self-doubt which encourages you to write all the more which leads to better writing and better reviews.

    Unfortunately, all that doesn’t stop the this-is-great-no-I-suck cycle. You just change it to: They think I can write. They lie. No, they really think that….

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Good use of “parlance.”

  • Tracy

    Thanks, Jeff, this really resonated with me.  I can’t stand the thought of something I’ve written having a typo or grammatical error.  It gives me the shakes.  I need to get over it.  I don’t write very often.  That needs to change.  I also do a lot of public speaking and I absolutely HATE watching recordings of myself. I’m going to go sign up for therapy now (ok, not really, but thanks for your post)! 

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      It’s all about tweaking.

  • http://eileenknowles.blogspot.com eileen

    I can’t relate to any of this ;)  Just kidding.  I have struggled with many of the areas you touched on.  But the joy I receive from doing outweighs the fact that I am a recovering perfectionist.  It’s odd to me that, so often, I will have writer’s remorse. I will write something, push post and then have several mini panic attacks  and think…why did I just share that ??  But so often those are the posts that end up resonating the most with my readers.  Great post.  

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I don’t think you ever get over that remorse. Creating is like dying in a sense – dying to every other possibility of what could be.

  • http://hopefulleigh.blogspot.com/ HopefulLeigh

    It’s funny because I’m not a perfectionist in any other area of my life!  It’s way too easy to get stuck in the Place of Eternal Tweaking.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Yeah. Excellence is important but we get better by trying. We each have to work this out ourselves.

  • Andersonkerri77

    I tend to be very hard on myself even when other people love what I’ve written I have to fight the urge to rewrite it or to say, “please don’t sugar coat it for me, give me the truth!”

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You may need to affirm yourself once in awhile; being a writer is tough.

  • Patricia Hunter

    Thanks, Jeff.  This spoke right to me. Huge struggle for me. I absolutely will not look at anything I’ve written once it’s been published. Blogs, yes – because I can edit them, but once something has gone to print, I can’t bear to look at it again. Neither will I show it to others.  When publishers mail me copies of the magazines where I am presently ghost-writing, I don’t even crack open the cover. I have two essays in two separate books that I’ve never read – in the books. Never. I came to the conclusion a few weeks again that as much as I hate deadlines, because I’d never think anything I wrote was good enough, it takes a deadline for me to send something in.  So…yes. I’m my own worst enemy. I’m good at giving grace to others, I simply need to be better at giving it to myself. 

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Maybe I need to do that.

  • Kate Boyd

    This was so helpful for me. I usually end up not saying/writing anything because what I have isn’t good enough. I have to realize that God gave me a voice for a reason, so I should use it. Thanks for this.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      That’s right, Kate. You need to speak up.

  • http://peterpaluska.com Peter Paluska

    Excellent work, Jeff! And once again it rings with bold beautiful truth. You gotta let go of “perfect” and just grab on to “do it!”.

    Best wishes,

    Peter

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks Peter. Amen.

  • http://www.jeffdolan.com Jeff Dolan

    Word brother. Preach it.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Hallelujah.

  • http://KatieAx.blogspot.com Katie Axelson

    Two things I’m often told:
    1. Sometimes you just have to hit print.
    2. It’s a dove not a kite.  At some point you have to let go.

    Katie

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I LOVE #2. Thanks, Katie!

    • http://eileenknowles.blogspot.com eileen

      It’s a dove not a kite.  What a great visual.  I love this advise too. 

  • http://felicitywhite.com Felicity White

    “Ship everyday.” I think I have to get back into this habit. You are right, the longer I wait to write a new post, the more intense my fear of it not being something worth posting! I’ve been reading through all my old posts in order to categorize them and post them on certain pages, and it has been a very useful exercise. I’ve found good stuff and bad stuff. Timeless stuff and out-dated stuff. I have to keep producing in order to find the gold. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Yep. It gets the harder the more you wait.

  • http://twitter.com/eyinginvisibles Denette Fretz

    Several months ago, I was berating myself for my latest post–feeling very vulnerable and exposed–when a small voice in my head said, “You don’t have to hang on a cross, naked.” My evil inner twins Perfection and Pleaser hate the vulnerability associated with blogging, but I try to remember that my exposure levels in service to Him do not remotely compare to His exposure levels…in service to me.
     
    Now to proof this comment a couple dozen times…

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Wow. Deep.

  • Anonymous

    Jeff, a truly inspired post and great advice for anyone who subscribes to the writing life! Thanks for the clarity.  

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Tor.

  • Lenore Brennan

    My friend told me about this advice that she was given – she’s a poet, and someone told her to write one bad poem every day.  If you write one bad poem every day, eventually you’ll fail, and write something actually good.  So, that’s my advice to perfectionist writers.  Write one bad page every day.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Love that, Lenore. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Danielle

      I’m going to try this!

  • Anonymous

    One word. Deadline. I find that having a finite time goal forces me to balance that “creative perfection” goal. I have a few pre-readers for whom I’m forcing out draft 1 on a weekly schedule.  By Sunday night, I have to e-mail something, even if its the world’s ugliest baby.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I couldn’t agree more, Maria. I’m learning to love that ugly baby.

  • http://kylajoyful.com/ Kyla Cofer

    Jeff, I really like this post. I am a recovering perfectionist, and really appreciate the encouragement you wrote out here. All of these are things that I’ve thought at one time or another, but you spelled them out clearly and visually. I am going to keep working on these things! thanks.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Kyla. Best of luck!

  • Pingback: Do Something | Rob Still

  • Pingback: News You Can Use | The Steve Laube Agency

  • Yor Ryeter

    I like blogging every day. I put up my blog “It Takes
    10K,” (http://ittakes10k.wordpress.com) which I translate to it takes
    10,000 times of writing a blog post to become a better writer and eventually an
    expert.

    I like your blog! :) It’s filled with great information and helpful insights
    for a writer like me; although I got here because of this article which I also love http://goinswriter.com/travel-young.

  • http://www.turningthepage.info/ Barry Pearman

    Tips for perfectionists! Sometimes good enough is good enough. 

    I want to know you, the real you, not the pretend you.

    I want to know the backstage person not the actor with make up on and dressed in drag.

    False self vs. true self ? Give me true self please then I will read.

    thanks Jef

  • Elizabeth B. Elliott

    Sometimes … done is better than perfect. :)

    • T2

      Couldn’t agree more … wish I could DO more!

  • Heart4jc

    My husband tells me I “edit to death”. In other words, I over-edit or over-perfect. And so as a result I’ve learned that self-control is my friend, not my enemy. Some professionals tell us we need to describe every detail and others have told us to leave out all the gar-bage and get to the point. I try these days to balance- write. Put the reader in your story but do it in such a way that it’s gripping their attention in one small paragraph. Enjoy your posts, Jeff. Keep up the good work!

  • http://inhisloveministries.blogspot.com/ Pilar Arsenec

    I feel like that guy in the photo today.  Wow, I read this today, what perfect timing.  I think perfectionism is a culprit of mine.  Thanks Jeff, you are the best!

  • Kmsmithwrites

    Wonderful post, Jeff. I struggle with perfectionism, one of my many “isms.” I’m converting a file for e-publication and having to compare it to the print version already out. I’m running across errors that have pushed me to the edge. Reading your post helped give me perspective. Thanks!

  • Bombinabirdcage

    Perfect! (pun intended)

    Shame about the ‘God’ reference, though ;)

    • T-Rex

      There is never any shame in referring to God.

  • itskindalikethat1

    “Write drunk; edit sober.” — Ernest Hemingway

    • czach

      Except that Hemingway was one of the greatest perfectionists, writing the ending to a Farewell to Arms 37 times before being satisfied. In the realm of writing I don’t see why we should not aim for the absolute lyrical perfection in things; Flaubert spent 3 days and only made two edits to his work Madame Bovary yet he became one of the most fluent powerful modern writers of his time. He fought his obsession completely and still kept to it, fighting himself and coming on top. That is the only way to conquer perfectionism, by being perfect, not losing to the monstrosity of your own work and not shortchanging your ideals of beauty.

  • OCPD

    With OCPD (a type of perfectionism obsessive compulsive disorder) writing is a little hard. I just have to keep writing and tell myself it doesn’t matter.

  • Kristi

    What I do is that I rewrite it underneath the first outtake or draft, so I can see what I wrote and make it not just different but better.

  • BobbieJoD

    Thank you so much Jeff for this very helpful post! =D I feel like a load has been taken off of me because I’m a perfectionist, and sometimes I frustrate myself. My initial posts from my blog sounds like a teenager (or younger kid) wrote it. A part of me used to be ashamed of it, but then I decided to just follow my intuition and inner-wisdom, and just focus on improving. It’s just really nice to actually see such good advice in writing. My husband recommended your wonderful blog to me, and I’m so grateful for this gift. I will continue to explore your refreshing and eloquent writing. You are a gift to humanity. I wish you many blessings. ^_^ BobbieJoD

  • Elle Midgette

    As we do in a class I am taking, revise your work with peers for a while, and then allow it to be “blessed”. Have people send you “valentines” or affirmations about your writing. This will help you become more comfortable with not being perfect and seeing the good in your writing as you revise.

    • Elle Midgette

      “see” the good in your writing. woops. :)

  • Elizabeth S

    I think that most of these all come down to the element of time, most notably the first four. With so many other demands in our daily lives, making any sort of commitment to writing when it is not your trade, proves difficult. Even as an English teacher, I often struggle with finding time to write outside of school, on my own, when I can relax and really focus on my craft.

  • fortuna

    I think alot of this post speaks to me. I struggle with procrastinating at the start of my writing, then once I get going I struggle to make every word feel as though it fits perfectly into the story I’m telling. However after much time spent agonizing over my writing, in the end I eventually say screw it, it’s as good as its gonna get, and leave it at that, however good or bad it might be.

  • enclase

    Estos son buenos consejos. Gracias. Estamos trabajando en ellos ahora en un grupo de escritores en CT.

  • EmDeF

    Jeff your post reflects much that I have learned in my own writing education. I have been told many a time that writing a “shitty first draft” is the best way to go about things; one must accept her failings on the first try in order to create a better final copy. I am curious though as to how would you address the idea of writer’s hubris?? I know personally I have a hard time labeling my first drafts crappy; I find that even going back in a second time to revise, I do not change much…often a third revision is unnecessary. Even sharing with colleagues only gets me so much farther, and I feel the revisions tend to be smaller scale than what is “typical” or “normal” for most shitty first drafts. How would one overcome this seemingly over-confident approach to writing? Is there even a way to knock that writer’s chip off my shoulder?

  • Ruth

    I’m a follower of The Four Agreements:1. Be impeccable with your word (don’t gossip, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, etc), 2. Don’t make assumptions (maybe the person who cut you off in traffic is in labor not a jerk), 3. Don’t take it personally (the fact that the person cut you off in traffic has nothing to do with you but everything to do with him or her), and 4. Do your best. I think I can easily apply all of these to perfectionism in writing but most easily don’t take it personally (so what if somebody hates your writing) and do your best (with practice you’ll only get better). Best of luck to all writers who struggle with perfectionism!

  • Kate

    “Focus on actions, not results,” is one of those pithy aphorisms that I’ve come across (I don’t remember where) that has stuck with me for a very long time, and through almost everything that I do. This article seems to elaborate on that idea: perfectionism is dangerous because the perfectionist has very specific expectations about a particular set of results he or she envisions before even beginning to write, or train for a marathon, or paint a painting, or any such thing. I suppose perfectionism works better in some fields than others – engineering, for instance. We certainly want exactness there. However, it’s dangerous in the creative fields because it disallows the writer from really experimenting – both with content and voice – and that is where the best stuff comes from. The great thing about writing, is that if a piece is imperfect (in a bad way) we can always revise it. In my opinion, perfectionism is pointless, because what is a perfect piece of writing to me may be mediocre to someone else, and what I believe is mediocre may be touch a reader in a way I never expected. I think the most important thing is the experience of the audience – once writers can learn to let go and hand it over to the audience, then we can let go of the idea of perfectionism.

  • rpirrie

    Re perfectionism:
    Geez, just go for it. What are you on the planet for anyway? Your writing isn’t writing unless SOMEBODY ELSE LOOKS AT IT. Otherwise its just your diary.

  • Kim

    For me, perfectionism is much more of an issue with personal and creative writing than with professional. I feel much more vulnerable exposing myself in a creative piece. Perhaps this supports your exhortation to “4. Ship often,” because I do write more in my professional life as a teacher.

  • Guest

    I have always found that once I get over myself and open up to the criticism, which always seem to flow forth freely, I find it easier to accept and handle critiques on my writing. Its like taking that first metaphorical plunge into the cold water, but once your in there, its uncomfortable as hell but it won’t necessarily kill you. You numb to the pain and you acclimate to it in order to survive.

  • AB

    Well, the section on practice and “write every day” are resonating with me, probably because it’s hard to do that. It’s so easy to find other things to do. Your suggestions are requiring me to have some discipline…this will be something I’ll work toward.

  • Allan Hizon

    I googled “how to overcome perfectionism in writing”, chanced upon your post after my wife and I had a discussion over how our son had trouble finishing essays on time and would wear out his pencil erasers (and pages) with constant erasures. It took me a second to realize where he got that. I must have pressed backspace dozens of times and am sure will take a minute or three before pressing the “Post” button for this little comment. Thank you for these bite-sized tips. Most likely I’ll cringe a little after re-reading this comment after posting it…

    Another thing I picked from your post is that short sentences can be elegant.

    • Allan Hizon

      Yup, spotted errors in my own post, and couldn’t resist replying to it. Oh well, this is a start…