5 ways writers can handle perfectionism
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
A buddy sent me a direct message on Twitter a while back letting me know about a small error in my article from that day’s newspaper. I wrote that a particular touchdown happened with 22 seconds to spare in the first half when it was actually the first quarter. A small detail, but a detail nonetheless. “Just a little EDITING for you,” he wrote.
"Thanks ..." I said in a short reply. I know he meant well, but that one tiny mistake – a mistake that I somehow did not catch in countless self-edits – haunted me for the rest of that day. OK, I lied. It bothered me for the rest of that weekend. But why? Because I’m a perfectionist. I believe all good writers are to a degree. We love what we do, and there’s something special about telling a perfect and captivating story. Keyword – "perfect."
It doesn’t matter if it’s a sports article, a political piece, or a feature on a lady who grew up wanting to be Betty Crocker. We are storytellers, and we want to get the story right in every possible way. So God forbid if there is even the tiniest mistake – grammatical or factual. Even if no one else was anal enough to spot the error, the bottom line is we are in a business where having facts straight and all our I’s dotted and t’s crossed is paramount. If an error is there, it sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a daily struggle for me. So what’s the answer? Mistakes happen. They make us who we are – human. But again, tell that to someone with all-or-nothing thinking and unrealistic standards.
Here are five things that have worked for me – a recovering perfectionist. Know the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism I feel like my perfectionist tendencies make me the solid writer that I am today. I care about what I put my name on, and I care about how I represent my clients. My creativity allows me to break free from robotic writing and captivate a reader as best I can. More often than not, I write clean copy. That’s healthy perfectionism. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get it right.
The unhealthy part is when you become depressed and let one error out of 10 articles ruin your entire day. Overcoming that is easier said than done even for a guy like me. But if you can recognize the difference, it will allow you to take a step back and perhaps keep everything in perspective. Errors don't define you as a writer unless you allow them to. Retrace your steps to find out where you went wrong Remember when you lost your car keys, and your mom said, "Retrace your steps. Where do you last remember having them?" The same can be said when trying to improve your writing. The first thing I do when I find a mistake in my writing is to analyze it constructively. I ask myself how it happened and what the circumstances were. More importantly, I figure out how I can avoid it in the future.
Take the case above where my buddy recognized the error with the touchdown. Instead of letting it ruin my weekend, what I should have done immediately was look back to see where I went wrong. As it turns out, I was using incomplete notes and got into a rush after the game with the impending deadline. It sounds trivial, but I could then use that as a teaching tool for myself moving forward. Don’t dwell on the mistakes, praise your successes Dwelling on the negative never helped anyone. Once again, that's something mom probably told each and every one of us at some point. And it's true. Do you think retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning focused on the number of interceptions he threw in his final year or the fact that he helped his team win the Super Bowl? We can't all have a perfect game. You should be thinking about the positives, and how you just had another piece of work published for everyone to read. You should be thinking about all the positive responses from readers, and the pat on the back from your editor. Praise your successes and enjoy the process of chasing a goal.
The truth is, if someone who reads your article is as hung up about one tiny grammatical error as you are, then you did a horrible job of storytelling. And that, to me, is inexcusable. Talk to other writers No one understands the mind of a perfectionist writer like another perfectionist writer. A fellow writer can be a great source of compassion, constructive criticism, and tips of the trade to not only avoid errors in the future but help keep it all in perspective. Lighten up For goodness sake, writing is supposed to be fun. It’s not open heart surgery. Heck, I quit a job as a banker to do this writing gig full time because the previous job stressed me out and wasn’t fun. I’m doing what I love, and if you are too, you should remind yourself often of that fact. A pastor once said to me, “There was only one perfect man, and even he didn’t have it easy.”
Think about that, and cut yourself some slack.
*STEVE GAMEL is the Owner/President of Edit This, a writing and editing services company located in Denton, TX. Along with being a sports writer for the Denton Record-Chronicle, Steve handles anything involving the written word. Give him a call today to help give your business a clear voice.