I don’t know about you, but if given two months to write something, whether it’s 2 pages or 20 pages, I wouldn’t be starting immediately. Nope, you’d find me procrastinating on the writing up until the last day or two, then scrambling to get it done. After a bit of panic, I’d finally go into total focus mode and bang it out just under the wire.
Why, why, why did I do this to myself?
It’s not that I’m naturally a procrastinator – give me some work that I know I can rock, and I’ll section off blocks of time each day along with corresponding chunks of the work to finish all of it in an orderly and timely fashion. But writing something that other people were going to read and analyze? No, in that case, my main problem was that I was a hardcore perfectionist. (For real – I used to have a slip of paper from a fortune cookie that said “You have a yearning for perfection” taped to my old desk. The cookie tells the truth. I still have that fortune.)
So what happened was that I'd want the thing I was writing to be absolutely perfect, I'd build it up in my head that it had to be amazing, and I'd psyched myself out entirely and destroy any chance at productivity. I’d start researching (and researching and researching…), writing the piece in my head, organizing my thoughts and testing phrasing, and I’d stay good and stuck in this phase for a long time. Write it down? NOW? But…but…it has to be perfect before I can get it down! What’s the point if it’s not?
You can see where this is going. Or really, where it’s not going because I’d be caught in a loop of perfectionism and procrastination until the last couple of days before the deadline (self-imposed or not). It looked like procrastination but it wasn’t: it was just perfectionism taking over entirely. Once I was down to crunch time, the idea of perfection was thrown out the window in favour of getting the work done. Did it usually come out pretty well? Yeah. Did it come out the perfect way I intended? No, it did not.
This is how I used to be – always striving for perfection and always falling short of my overly critical standards. Perfectionism is the enemy of writers.
So what have I done to get past this desire for perfection that results in procrastination and a last-minute flurry of writing?:
- As this column suggests, I had to “respect the process.” I’m so concerned with things being perfect and knowing that it’ll take me forever to get there (read: never) that I know I’ll only have time to do one draft so it has to be the best possible draft. But by treating the writing as a process and not a huge, weighty task to be completed all in one go, I can slow down, write crap, and give myself the luxury of time to go back and tweak or rewrite if necessary. (It’s always necessary.)
- I had to really learn how to self-edit. I know, I know, the irony. The editor didn’t know how to edit herself. I’m great at editing other people because I can be objective with their stuff; it’s incredibly hard to be that way with my own. (This is why you can’t rely solely on self-editing for your work; you need a trained editor to provide unbiased feedback and correction.) For me, I hated reading back what I had written so I determined that all I had to do was write it perfectly to start. Toooootally logical, right? But taking the time to self-edit made me look carefully for weaknesses in the writing and catch my typos, at the very least. Also being willing to hand it over to other people to look at was a huge step – I get very private and territorial about my writing, so to show it to other people in its unedited state was a big leap for me.
- Be gentle and waaaay less critical of myself. Let’s be honest: perfection is an illusion. (Time to chuck that fortune.) I was never going to get there and – crucially – neither was anyone else. So why set myself up against an impossible standard? And even if perfection was attainable, how many people would expect flawlessness or be so lacking in flaws as to be able to even recognize it themselves?
So are you a perfectionist/procrastinator too? How do you combat this?