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10 Ways Perfectionism Kills the Writer (And 10 Ways it Doesn’t)

by Kelsie Engen (originally posted on

Perfectionism is a killer.

Most of the time, I think I’ve taken care of my perfectionist tendencies. But then a time like this resurges in my life to remind me that I am still bowing to the invisible demons of perfectionism.

Case in point: I’m at the point in my Broken Time revisions where I’ve lost the rose-colored glasses. I’m just over halfway through with my revision, making more changes than I thought I needed to, and now I see it like it is: a novel still in need of much work, of which I will never be satisfied with.

It’s true. The perfectionist has remerged and makes hard to get motivated to rewrite the bits and pieces that need it. Now, I realize it will never be what I imagined in my head and never be “good enough.”

And if you know it’s not going to be good enough, why keep trying?

Perfectionism kills, doesn’t it?

I’ve found (at least) ten ways that perfectionism kills my writing mojo. (Maybe my fellow perfectionists can add more in the comments below.)

1. It will never be good enough. 

Granted, “good enough” is such a sliding scale of imperfection that it’s ironic to use in a post like this. Really, for a perfectionist, only perfect is “good enough.” And that’s where it really kills you.

2. You are more afraid of criticism than other artists.

You’ve poured more of your heart and soul and self into your project than other artists, most likely. And now you’re expected to sit back and allow others to not see the beauty of your perfect creation? (You know there’s going to be at least one who just doesn’t get it.)

3. You may realize your perfectionist shortcomings, but you’re incapable of stopping them.

There’s always a point where, even if you’re a “reformed perfectionist,” you want that perfect piece of writing. Whether you’re chasing the perfect sentence or the perfect plot or the perfect character (with just the right contrast of flaws and skills), whatever it is, you want it. Now.

4. Novels are especially difficult because its infinitely harder to keep up the burden of perfection.

The longer a written piece is, the more mistakes it’s bound to have. Perfectionist novel writers have a tough time then, don’t they? And just imagine writing a series . . .

5. You find yourself not wanting to work on your WIP because nothing comes out right.

You’ve got this image in your head of the words and the scenes that come out exactly the opposite of what pours out onto the page. You imagine something witty and charming, and you get something satirical and droll. You thought you’d write a moving paragraph about grief and you get an overdramatic character in a trite situation. It’s a practice in such constant frustration so that you don’t wonder why so many writers have depression.

6. Typos are unacceptable–even in a first draft.

I pride myself on being a good typist. Perhaps you do too. But that means you can’t leave a little typo there “until later.” You can’t leave an imperfect sentence there. You’re tied to your own shortcomings when even your typing skills aren’t good enough to pen this crappy first draft of a novel.

7. You either go all-in or all-out.

There comes a point where you, if you really want your book in the world, have to give up and say it’s “good enough” or “I can’t make this better.” Both of which are fallacies–and you know it. So it follows that there comes a point where you give up. And that bitterness tastes worse than anything else you’ve swallowed.

8. You may not want to ask for help because help is inferior.

Part of perfectionism’s burden is that others can’t do it as well as you can. If you ask someone to clean the kitchen and load the dishwasher, chances are you’re going to redo it yourself later anyway, because they didn’t do it “right.” It follows to that in your writing too. Maybe others just don’t get it. Maybe they aren’t good enough to edit your work. Maybe you feel the pull to do everything yourself, or else demand perfection from others–something that rarely keeps your working relationships healthy. That means covers, editing, beta read feedback, etc. Anything that’s not what you have in your “perfect mind” isn’t quite good enough.

9. You wait until the deadline to finish something–or even start it.

Writers live by deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise. And a perfectionist writer needs a deadline to make themselves submit anything. Otherwise we’d always be tinkering and never publishing. (And then once you do follow through to the deadline, you immediately see the flaws in whatever you just finished.)

10. A 5-star review doesn’t pull you up as far as a 1-star review pulls you down.

You already believe in your work, otherwise you wouldn’t have published it. You know it’s perfectionism on the page, so when that 1-star review comes in, you’re so devastated you start drinking. And you’re not a drinker.

But there are ways that perfectionism can help the writer too.

1. You always bring your A-game.

You don’t want to show up if your work is going to be crap. You know that just makes more work for you now and later. When you’re there,  you’re there. No halfheartedness about it.

2. You love what you do.

You have to. Or else you wouldn’t put forth the effort to make it happen, especially when it takes so much out of you.

3. You have–or had–confidence in your work.

Even if the reviews are mixed, you had to reach a confident place in order to publish your work. Now if only you can remember the way to that confident pedestal for your next WIP . . .

4. You (might) stay humble.

You may take pride in your work, but you’re always able to recognize that there are always writers who are better than you. And you learn from that because, after all, you want to be the best writer you can be. Heck, you want to be the best writer ever.

5. You pour your heart and soul into something, even if it’s just for five minutes or five pages.

Maybe it’s a two-page short story. Most writers would finish it in a week. You spent two months on it. Daily polishing and tweaking and debating every single word.

6. You have no shortage of ideas.

Your mind may be a perfectionist’s trap, but you also see ideas everywhere–if only because you see something someone else has done and realize “I could do that better.”

7. Your work has far fewer typos and editing errors than a “normal” person.

Yeah, they do happen once in awhile, but certainly not as much as they do to others because you can’t ignore it. You’d be humiliated if someone found a typo in your published work.

8. You don’t give up.

You may put off writing until the right time, or you may struggle with sitting down to write at all, but that doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten. And when you do get back to your WIP, you put in more effort than the average person and work until it’s right.

9. You revel in the beauty of the written word more than most.

When you read–your work or others’–you can more easily abandon yourself to the intricacies of language and the way a master author puts together a story. That’s what you want people to think when they read your work, and you’ll chase that beauty until you achieve it.

10. You are rewarded with great joy.

When those glorious moments of something coming out just right happen. They’re rare, but that’s the high you spend your entire life chasing. And, every once in awhile, you’ll have it happen. And it will be beautiful.

That’s how I see it, as a recovering perfectionist, at least.

Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind.

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