Feedback and Rewards

Your Writing Life: are You a Perfectionist? the Pros and Cons

Lucia Zimmitti asked:

You’ve probably thought about your general temperament and how it impacts your relationships. For instance, you have some idea about what kind of friend you are, what kind of parent or sibling or spouse or significant other. But have you ever thought about what kind of writer you are? Finding out can tell you a great deal about your relationship with writing and can reveal ways you can be more productive.

Honestly assessing your writing temperament and holding an awareness of it as you work can help you avoid time-wasting tendencies and reaffirm routines that are already working. And since so much of writing is putting yourself on the page (regardless of your genre or subject), if you have a clearer picture of your writing self, your finished product will be richer for it.

Here’s the complete list of the most common writing temperaments:

1) Sir Starts-a-lot

2) The Perfectionist

3) Fool for a Deadline

4) The Island (includes (a) The Over-confident Island and (b) The Fearful Island)

5) The Tofu Artist (a.k.a. The Feedback-Dependent Writer)

I’ll devote a separate article to each temperament.

(Note: to avoid s/he overload, I’ve decided to alternate pronouns from article to article. In no way do I mean to imply that certain genders are more likely to exhibit certain tendencies at the writing desk.)

2) The Perfectionist 

Like Sir Starts-a-lot, the Perfectionist doesn’t get submissions in the mail either, but for very different reasons. The Perfectionist just never believes her manuscript is really, really ready. If her work-in-progress were a preschooler on the verge of Kindergarten, she would hold the little dude back until adolescence passed him by and he was shaving every day, still claiming she could do more to prepare her son for the rigors of school.

Okay, as hard as it is, at the right time we have to let them go: human offspring and creative offspring alike.

If you socialize with other writers, odds are you know someone who has been working (really working, not slacking) on the same piece for years and years.  Your writer’s group encourages her to send it out (through clever e-cards, decorated cupcakes, even the chilled champagne you smuggled into the bookstore where you meet), but she insists it’s not ready and tweaks it yet again.

The right dose of perfectionism (in short, temporary bursts) can actually be a good thing, because it pushes you to insist that your work be the best it can, but too much perfectionism can lead you down the road toward obsession, prevent you from getting published, and ultimately keep you from ever starting anything new. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if you focus all your time and energy on finding the elusive “Perfect” in your work you’ll be rewarded with something flawless. Remember the words of Gustave Flaubert, “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.”  

If you’re a Perfectionist, odds are your manuscript will never feel 100% ready. But push yourself to take the plunge and submit it when it feels “good enough.” If your critique group is begging you to send it out (if they try to steal your flash drive so that they can do it themselves), you know you have to relax your unrealistically high standards so that you can add your words to the conversation known as the printed word.

Listen to the little voice inside that’s trying to remind you of how much time and effort you’ve spent on the work. Sure, you could always find more to do, but it’s time to wrap this one up and begin something new.

The BENEFIT of this temperament: Your piece is GOOD. Really good. You take pride in your work. You have high standards and insist on meeting them. That in and of itself sets you apart from many people who want to write for publication but think revision is optional.

The COST of this temperament: But if you keep your manuscript chained to a treadmill of never-ending revision, no one but your immediate family will ever get the chance to admire your high standards. Further, you’re not stretching and growing as a writer: unless your revisions include major overhauls, new chapters and a substantive amount of rethinking and rewriting, you’re only using one side of your brain when you edit (the logical, organizing side).

You can afford to hang around Sir Starts-a-lot’s table in order to remember what inventing new ideas feels like. Writers get better with each article, story, poem or book they finish. Don’t limit yourself to perfecting and polishing the same thing and thereby condemn yourself to editorial limbo.

(Rule of thumb: if you’re memorizing your novel – without trying — you’re spending too much time on it.)

And remember: If writing is important to you (second only to a select group of humans), you can succeed with the right attitude, no matter what writing temperament you are.

Check out the first article in the series, “Assess Your Writing Temperament and Be More Productive, Part 1.”

Coming soon: Watch for the next discussion of writing temperaments with number 3, “Fool for a Deadline.”

To discover other ways to make your writing habit more efficient, satisfying and fun, visit and sign up for “Write Through It,” the FREE monthly newsletter that offers practical writing advice and anecdotal wisdom. 


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