Ashley Ludewig, Consultant
If you’re anything like me, perfectionism might be causing you a lot of grief at this point in the semester. Sure, perfectionism might have led you to some great final projects or papers and maybe even good grades and praise. It has for me, too. But my tendency toward perfectionism also has a dark side: it can sometimes be completely and utterly paralyzing…Especially when I sit down to write.
I’ve spent the last several years studying writing and how it happens, and everything I’ve learned tells me that there’s no such thing as a perfect draft and it certainly doesn’t happen on the first try (Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” is a great take on this reality, by the way). But a lot of times I still feel like I just have to get it right immediately. Maybe I write a sentence or two and delete them (a few times, probably), or I re-read assignment instructions and start to over-think them and psych myself out. Either way, expecting perfection from myself sometimes makes it impossible for me to move forward.
Here are some strategies I use to break through the perfectionism barrier when I’m writing:
Getting Started: When I feel like I just can’t possibly start putting words on the page, my first move is to revert back to some “basic” pre-writing strategies. I try to make an outline or concept map of the information I think I’m going to include in the paper and sometimes having a plan helps me break the ice. When I’m working on an essay that requires research of any kind, another way that I’ve gotten past the “Where do I even begin?” hurdle is to gather any quotes or paraphrased material I want to use and start typing it into a Word document in the order I imagine myself using it in the essay. Sometimes even typing words that aren’t my own into the document eases my fear of that blinking cursor (after all, the page is no longer totally blank!). Then before I know it, I find myself typing out my interpretations of or responses to that source material and voila! A draft starts to take shape. If none of these things work, I try to get away from the ominous combination of the white page and blinking cursor and start writing somewhere else. A lot of times that means starting a draft by hand in a notebook, but I’ve also had success typing the first few paragraphs of an essay on my blog. The stakes feel lower there and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Keeping the Words Flowing: Another time that perfectionism rears its ugly head for me is when I’m searching for that perfect word or phrase in a sentence. I hum and haw over it for a minute, type and delete a few options, consult Word’s thesaurus, and if I’m still not satisfied, I go to thesaurus.com or Tip of My Tongue and explore more options there. This is all well and good, except that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps a few minutes have probably been lost and so has the “flow” I had going before I decided I had to find that perfect word. Worse yet, looking away from Word and opening up a web browser often means taking a minute or two to check my favorite social media sites and before long, I’m back in full avoidance mode.
There are two tricks I have for ending this cycle and giving myself permission to move on. The first is to highlight the word I know I want to replace in bright yellow so that it’s easy to find and change when I go back to revise my draft. If I can’t even think of the word in the first place, I write something silly like “elephant” in its place, highlight that, and go from there. If the problem is more than just finding the right word, I use the comment feature in Word to make a note to myself about what I think isn’t quite right about a sentence or passage so that when I go back to revise, I can remember the concerns I had when I first wrote it. Sometimes it’s not so simple; I occasionally feel like I really need to slow down and get a sentence at least close to “right” before I can move on because the ideas I want to get down next are dependent on the first one. If you find yourself there, too, that’s okay. The trick is not letting yourself get stuck on every sentence every time.
I hope these tips help you get started on your drafts and keep them going. As always, you can (and should!) visit us at the University Writing Center to help you at any point in that process. Happy writing, folks!