Letting Go of Perfectionism as a Writer

Writing a book is a prolonged exercise in perfectionism. One must strive for quality while resisting the urge to make it perfect. Why? Because perfection, which is highly subjective in this case, falls somewhere between unlikely and impossible to achieve. And perfectionism can lead to procrastination, writer’s block, stress, and the inability to finish one’s manuscript. Ugh!

If you don’t consider yourself to be a writer, perfectionism can prevent you from even trying to tell your story. My advice for you is to consider it a first draft that you never have to show anyone if you don’t want to. Even “real writers” start with a first draft! It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be a good start.

I’ve finally completed the writing stage (including many rounds of self-editing) and am in the midst of the exciting (and scary) real-editor-editing stage of my forthcoming new book, What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy. It’s all coming together; and only a year later than planned!

I’m not a perfectionist, I don’t think. Not when it comes to most things. I believe that good enough really is good enough, with notable exceptions such as brain surgery and air traffic control. See: Confessions of a Professional Organizer (I’m organized enough, and not one bit more)

But I can certainly relate to perfectionistic writers!

In what ways am I concerned my book won’t be perfect?

And what’s the worst that could happen if it’s not?

Here are some examples:

What if I there’s a typo, or a grammatical error?

I’m going to have my book proofread by someone other than myself, of course. But I’ve found typos in books that surely also had been proofread before they went to press, so will it be perfect? Probably not. As for grammar, I have encountered many points that experts were still debating amongst themselves. So, whatever choices I’ve made (even if have been advised to make them) will still be subject to scrutiny by smarty pants readers. I’ll just do my best. My best will have to be good enough.

What if my writing isn’t clear, or my tips motivational?

Everyone has a different vocabulary, thought process, and frame of reference. So, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t understand, or who prefers someone else’s explanation of the same concepts. That’s what this blog post is about: Those Magic Little Words (that help you get organized). And there might be some ideas that people will disagree with me about, or advice that doesn’t help with their specific situation. That just comes with the territory. Meanwhile, though, readers have reportedly been motivated by my blog posts for years, so why wouldn’t they appreciate my book as well?

What if all my concepts are not original and unique?

Ha! Well, some of them are, I think. But I learned a long time ago that just because someone else has written about a topic, doesn’t mean I can’t write about it too. How many blog posts have I read (and written) about various aspects of organizing and genealogy? It’s easy to hesitate, remembering that someone else is more experienced, or a better writer, or more well-known. But my readers want to know what I have to say about it. Right? This is what I tell myself, but the reason I’m saying it here is to encourage you to connect with your readers! This is for the many writers I know, and also for those of you who are not “real writers”, but who I hope will become encouraged by my book to tell the stories of your family, photos, and things.

What if I missed something?

Like what? I don’t know. I won’t know I’ve missed it until it’s too late! If somebody asks me about a resource, or tool, or technique I didn’t include I will say, “Yes, that’s a great idea too!” Or, “That was beyond the scope of this book, but maybe I’ll write another one!” In fact, while I was writing, I kept telling myself: “Yes, you know more about this topic. And some people will want to know more. Those people will have the wherewithal to find out more. Others will be overwhelmed if you just keep going on and on about it in this book. Stop. Keep it simple. It’s not an encyclopedia.”

What if, what if, what if…..?

As I remind myself regularly: It’s really not what if something happens; it’s what will I do when it happens? And that’s what this blog post is about: Always Believe in Yourself (Are you trusting your own wings? Or are you just hoping the branch won’t break?)

If you are a perfectionist, consider whether you are merely trying to get it right, or if you are afraid to get it wrong and worried that it won’t be perfect. To the extent that you are worried, remember that worrying is just a form of mental clutter. (See: What are you worried about? Don’t worry – Take action! and Clearing Mental Clutter.)

Here are some of my other blog posts that have touched on perfectionism:

 

Are you a perfectionistic writer?

Is perfectionism holding you back?

What tips can you share with us (in the comments) for letting go of perfectionism?

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Copyright 2021 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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Comments

  1. Your post is so spot-on for me this morning. Just finished up my blog, went back and read it again (for the umpteenth time), found a word I didn’t like…but resisted the temptation to go back and edit once again. It’s hard to let those things go, and I often worry about the “What if all my concepts are not original and unique?” angle too. I fall back on the whole “great minds think alike” thing. If someone else wrote about it too, it must be worthwhile!

    • I like your “great minds” theory, Sara. The way I know a blog post is finished (not perfect, but good enough) is that I can read it all the way through without cringing. But that’s harder to do with a book! It takes longer, and if I find something there’s no telling what all else might have to change as a result!

  2. I have learned for every “What If” I say “So What”! Great blog hazel thank you, I am sure many of us out there even noodling with the idea of a book will find this very handy!!

    • I like that, Lisa. I would probably say, “Then what?” because “So what?” can mean it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the thing we fear doesn’t matter, or is super-unlikely to happen. Other times it’s more likely and can be planned for. Eager to hear your book idea!

  3. I think things like these would definitely drive me to distraction if I were to write a book. The grammatical errors and typo things in particular. Whenever I see one, I think, “How could they have missed that?” and then I realize I do it all the time!

    Interesting thoughts on writing on a topic that others have previously covered. I really appreciate your line about people wanting to know what YOU have to say on the topic. I think that is so terrific, and so true! Another great reason to always write with your own voice.

    • Yes, I think if people know, like, and trust you, it needs to sound like something you’d actually say. And if they are strangers, what better way to get them to know, like, and trust you?

  4. There is such wisdom in this post. And while I know you wrote it for your readers (thank you so much,) I also see it as a pep talk for yourself. You have identified all the possible sticking points and addressed them.

    Maybe I shared this before, but I used to go to my dad for advice. I would present a dilemma and all the things about it that could go wrong and right. He’d listen, ask a few questions, listen some more. And then ultimately, he’d say, “Go for it!” To this day, I can hear him cheering me on at times when I’m unsure or my confidence wavers.

    • Oh, I totally wrote it for myself as well as for my readers!

      Your father sounds like a wise man, LInda!

  5. You are speaking directly to me. I have a book topic, even an outline, and resources, but I just haven’t sat down and started writing it. I have written stories in the past. Some stories are on my blog; others were not. I think perfectionism is one of my issues. For me, creativity and inspiration need to happen simultaneously for me to sit down and write. I look at my list of resources and think, well, that’s many hours I don’t have right now. Making it a priority is super important, so I can get down and do it and let something else go. I have to remind myself that I can’t do it all, and something has to be let go of before moving to a new task.

    • Probably the most common piece of advice I’ve heard is to write every day whether you’re “feeling it” or not. (I didn’t do that, though. I tried for a while.) And I think there’s a difference between fiction writing and non-fiction writing in terms of the creativity of it. In the case of non-fiction, and especially in the case of self-publishing, there are so many things besides the writing that need to be done! So, theoretically one doesn’t have to feel creative on a particular writing day to accomplish something. I call it being “in the zone”, which is more about being focused than feeling creative.

      Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  6. I totally relate. My husband and I are co-authoring a book on – of all things – the war in Afghanistan. It’s a strange topic for an organizer, but there’s a story there… It’s due to the publisher’s in October, so we are down to the nitty gritty, and I find myself wondering, “What was I thinking?” I’m sure it’s a huge relief to have completed the biggest and most intellectually challenging portion of the project. Congratulations!

    • No stranger than my first book being about the first Menendez brothers murder trial! I’m debating as we speak whether or not to mention it in this new book. (As in an “other books by this author” section.) Good luck with the remainder of your project! Oh — someone told me that if you aren’t sick of your book yet, it hasn’t been edited enough. LOL!

  7. Hazel,

    This is so smart because it’s real. No ifs about it! We humans that go for excellence are always second-guessing ourselves.

    I like your solutions because they make sense. Like a been there, done kind of resolve.

    Terrific!

  8. There are always smarty pants readers out there, hahaha. I love that term. It also depends on what country you’re from and how your English teacher taught their preferred grammar methodology.

    Best of luck with the upcoming book launch!

    • Yes, one of the things I’m struggling with is that apparently it’s an American thing to put commas and periods INSIDE the quotation marks EVEN IF IT’S NOT dialogue. And a British thing to not do that. I don’t know where I learned it the British way, but the American way jut seems wrong!

  9. Hazel, I’ve read and reread your post every day this week. I struggle with this, as most writers do. I think about the insurance policy category of “errors and omissions” when I write, because these are the two things I fear the most, making mistakes (including not explaining something clearly) and omitting something essential. When I finished my book, it almost killed me to know that there was almost as much material removed from it as was left in the final version.

    What helped me was the actual experience of, after multiple editors and beta readers had gone through the book, two of our colleagues still finding tiny mistakes after the book went to press. And you know what? I’m still standing. The book still sold. (And now that it’s out of print, people still ask for it.) You are a warm, compelling writing with a skill for research and talent for explaining concepts and processes. So, will there be imperfections? Maybe.

    But just because a book isn’t perfect for everyone doesn’t mean it’s not ideal just the way it is. Look at all the cookbooks out there. The diet books. There is no one book that serves every person in that niche. You don’t have to write for everyone, just for the people who need your book, Hazel’s book. And I know there are many who do, and who will love it. This post is proof of that!

    • I, too, think about accidentally steering people wrong. I think there are enough caveats in my book, and I think it’s high-level enough to not cause too much damage! 😉 Your book, including severe editing and tiny mistakes (but you’re still standing) is a great example for the Accomplishments List I talk about in Always Believe in Yourself. (Or, The Survival List, depending on your perspective!) Good point about diet books and cookbooks. I always value your feedback, Julie!

  10. Thank you for this post. I struggle with many of the same worries. Reading your thoughts on perfectionism with writing helps to remind me about ways to shift those thoughts.

  11. As someone whose novel is coming out soon, your post definitely resounded with me. I keep re-reading the manuscript and wondering if I could have made the story better, the writing sharper, the descriptions more vivid. At the end of the day I have to remind myself that a publisher thought it was good enough to pick it up so it must be. But there is still that nagging at the back of my mind questioning and wondering what the readers will think. Ultimately, art is subjective and my book isn’t for everyone so I can only pray it reaches those it’s meant for. Thanks for the encouragement and wonderful words! Can’t wait to read your book 🙂

    • No! Stop! Hasn’t it already gone to your publisher and aren’t you already writing the sequel? (I am presuming there was an editing phase or three.) Yes, I tell you sight unseen that it could have been better. (Because no book is perfect.) But is it worth all the extra time and effort? I was JUST reading an old blog post by Judith Kolberg in which she says, “Practice the Law of Diminishing Returns which is the tendency for a continuing effort toward a particular goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. Or, as a client in Houston once put it, Stop when the lemonade ain’t worth the squeeze.” Ha ha! And Debbie Stanley (who writes non-fiction) wrote in a comment on my FB post, “At this point I treat each book as a benchmark of my current thinking and understanding, knowing it will need revision sooner or later. That’s been freeing.” I don’t think novels tend to get revised like non-fiction books do, but your next book WILL be better! And your first book (again, sight unseen) is perfect just the way it is, for this time around, and for the audience it finds.

  12. I cannot wait to get a hold of your book. It relates to what my sisters and I are going through with the loss of my parents within ten weeks of each other over the last ten months. While handling the estate and their home we have come into possession of boxes of materials and photographs taken from my grandparents more than forty years ago and that have not been opened since.

    A question I am asking myself as I go through the photos and records is, “What if I find something horrible or embarrassing?” The answer I try to give myself is to keep moving, categorize it, and write it if I love it.

    Regarding ‘write it if I love it’, we hear frequently to write what we know. I attended a breakout session with William Kenower at a writer’s conference titled “Fearless Writing” and I subsequently bought his book. The thing that struck a chord with me was the notion that you should write what you love. And so I am…even this comment to your post.

    Thank you for this post and the upcoming book.

    Stay cool Hazel

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