Several years ago, I took a series of intense creative writing classes in the Irish Writer’s Centre in Dublin city centre. Our instructor, a balding novelist in his late, tasked us with writing one great true sentence.
He gave us short stories and essays from famous literary heavyweights like Ernest Hemingway and Joan Didion to prove his point. But he warned us,
“Attempting to write a perfect sentence is like trying to throw a typewriter at the moon. No matter how many times you work on it or how strong you get, it’s impossible”.
After the series of writing classes ended, I spent months rewriting the same half a dozen short stories. I wanted to write one great true sentence, but they fell further from that bar each time I read my manuscripts.
Stricken with perfectionist tendencies, I avoided getting feedback from readers and an editor on my stories. Because of my pursuit of perfectionism, I delayed improving my craft through real-world feedback, finding readers and getting paid and discovering the types of genres I enjoy writing in.
1. Stick to Your Routine
Daily routines are powerful because they’re automatic. You don't think about washing your teeth; you do it automatically every day (hopefully).
If you follow a regular creative routine, you’re more likely to finish a project because you keep turning up.
The word procrastination derives from the Latin verb procrastinare, which translates literally as “put off until tomorrow.”
A good creative routine feels automatic, and, like brushing your teeth, it's not something you procrastinate about. On the other hand, spend the day waiting for inspiration, and you're more likely to say, “I'll do it tomorrow.”
Take baby steps every day. Create at the same time, in the same place, like in a coffee shop, library, or a quiet room. Use the same tools if possible.
Having an orderly routine for the rest of the day helps, too, like going to bed or rising at the same time. As 19th-century French novelist, Gustave Flaubert said,
”Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.
2. Manage Your Expectations
A creator sets an ambitious goal for a big project. They want to write and publish a best-selling Amazon book over the next three months. Or they try and launch a podcast that hits the top ten in iTunes. Or they’d like to go viral on YouTube. When that doesn’t happen, their self-esteem drops. They feel despondent and even give up.
Goals have a way of inducing anxiety and procrastination. Even if you hit them, you face an inevitable lull afterwards and a thought: Now what?
Instead, consider setting good, better and best goals. They’ll help you balance high standards with shipping.
- A good goal is one you can easily achieve and mitigates fear of failure.
- A better goal requires a big push of resources and effort.
- A best goal is a moonshot target like publishing a New York Times best-seller or going viral.
3. Solicit Early Feedback
Michael Cimino reworked his 1980 American western Heaven’s Gate endlessly without getting feedback from others. A perfectionist, he reportedly locked himself in the editing room and barred anyone from editing. One person said,
“Michael didn't want respect. He wanted awe. The idea was that the magic man was in his workshop doing his magic, and we should all just leave him alone and let him finish.”
When the film was finally released, critics and fans hated it. It’s one of the most expensive flops of all time.
Many authors send early drafts of their books to beta readers. They solicit feedback about what readers like and dislike and adapt their manuscripts accordingly, an approach I should have followed with short stories.
Famous film directors like Judd Apatow host advanced screenings to gauge if jokes and endings work before deciding on a final cut.
Software startup founders validate and test early minimum viable version of their products and services with a core group of beta users so they can gauge what features to improve or remove.
Consider how you can get feedback on your current creative project through polls, surveys or previews for your audience.
4. Stop and Recharge
A creator spends hours working on a book, course or business idea. Progress is slow.
If progress is one step forwards, two steps backwards, pause. Instead of pushing through, work on something else or take a break. Many creative breakthroughs happen away from the desk or the studio. They occur while a creator is busy with something else. Plus, a walk, a nap or even the day off serves as a respite from negative self-talk while at the desk or in-studio.
Even though you’ve stopped working, your subconscious brain continues to solve problems while you're away from the desk or studio. Then, when you sit down to write, create or compose, you’ll feel fresher and full of ideas.
Some days, I spend an hour or two editing a draft of an article. I take a break, return the following day and get through the same volume of working in half an hour.
5. Hire an Expert
I spent a year writing a book about my experiences as a young Dad. After finishing a draft, I spent another entire month copyediting all of the sentences in it. Then, I sent the draft to an editor who quickly found, fixed or called out some errors I’d missed.
Sure, I punched up a few sentences, but labouring over that draft delayed my publication date. Instead, I should have sent the draft to an editor sooner and used feedback from an expert to improve the book… and my book writing skills.
Perhaps you’re not writing a book? Identify what you’re great at, and get the experts in for the rest. Podcasters hire audio engineers. Website publishers sometimes hire developers to fix technical problems. I hired an editor (eventually). Who can you hire to improve your work so you can ship, ship, ship.
6. Accept Flaws As Part of the Process
The 15th-century Japanese practice Kintsuigi describes the Japanese art of report broken pottery with lacquer and gold. It translates as, “to join with gold”.
A creator of this type of pottery embraces flaws and imperfections. They see beauty in simplicity.
Instead of eliminating every flaw and crack in your work, accept that some imperfections and flaws lend character and personality to the final creation.
Kintsugi doesn't mean shipping a book full of typos or a rambling, unedited podcast or video. Ship something you’re proud of, even if it’s a little edgy or rough. Think of video creators who include B-roll and outtakes in their work.
7. Ship It
A creative plan is important but...
Shipping more work consistently unlocks more chances for soliciting feedback from fans, followers and the market. On the other hand, how will you ever learn by working on a few private masterpieces for years? Many creators find shipping hard, though. The French poet Paul Valéry wrote,
“Un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé…mais abandonné.”
Later on, both Gore Vidal and Oscar Wilde adapted that quote. It’s more widely known today as,
“A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”
Creators, at least successful ones, share their work with editors, readers and fans. Professional ones are probably against a deadline or commercial constraint, too. They must ship eventually. Sometimes, the result is Pop. And sometimes it’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
8. Separate Yourself From Your Work
A creator releases a project into the world. To their surprise, it’s a success. Now, it doesn’t longer belongs to them anymore. Sure, they may hold the copyright, but their loyal audience feels a sense of ownership.
If you're engaged in knowledge work and create something people like, congrats! But your new fans may interpret it in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Ask Star Wars or Game of Thrones fans.
The musician Nick Cave told his fans,
“Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist but with the listener.”
The same applies to negative feedback. I hate reading bad book reviews, so I stopped reading the good and the bad ones. Good and bad feedback isn’t an evaluation of your self-worth. And a creator can’t do much about what someone thinks of their work. Instead, they’re better off moving on.
9. Expect to Screw Up
Film director Judd Apatow says nobody’s IMDB ratings are perfect. He points out that a third of creative work is usually a screw-up or misfire, including Spielberg and Scorsese.
(Arguably, some of Spielberg’s and Scorsese’s stinkers include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Boxcar Bertha)
Are these high-profile examples? Certainly, but every successful author has one or two books that didn’t sell in their back catalogue.
Popular podcasters and YouTubers can point to old shows and videos they laboured over only for their audience to hate or ignore it. And most bloggers and content publishers know a paltry 20 per cent of their published work drives 80 percent of their readership.
Creating isn’t a high-stakes game like healthcare. Unlike brain surgery, nobody dies if you publish a flop or have a bad dad. Making mistakes is part of the job as a creator.
So when (and I mean when) you screw up, go back and fix those mistakes. Correcting typos or re-uploading a video or podcast doesn't take much work. And if a fix isn’t practical, learn from it and move on.
10. Accept Some Dissatisfaction
Many creators express dissatisfaction with the final results of a big project. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was ashamed of his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Irish musician Bono said about U2’s 1997 album Pop,
“It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music.”
(I liked Pop).
And filmmaker David Fincher said about Alien 3,
“I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times, and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
(I did not like Alien 3).
Sometimes, they’re right, sometimes not. If creator feels satisfied, they’re less likely push themselves next time around or embracing a different challenge. It’s far easier to become derivative.
U2’s 1997 album Pop led to the far more successful 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And Fincher? He found his creative voice and massive success with Fight Club, Seven and Gone Girl.
Perfectionism Solutions: The Final Word
These days, I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. I try to ship early and often, even though I struggle with self-doubt. Having unrealistic standards, like trying to throw a typewriter at the moon, is unhelpful. It prevents me from getting feedback from readers and learning about the craft.
Most creators care about their craft and the quality of their finished works. Finding a balance between maintaining high standards and shipping regularly isn’t easy. But it’s the best way to improve at your craft, build a profitable creative business and enjoy a better life.
What are some of the warning signs of perfectionism?
You’re probably a perfectionist if you hold yourself or others to ridiculously high standards and can’t relax or finish anything as a result. Perfectionists also procrastinate a lot about their work and associate it with their self-worth.
What is the difference between obsession and perfectionism?
Obsession describes a problematic behaviour whereby somebody understands they are at fault, but they can’t do anything about it, like cleaning the same surface repeatedly. Perfectionism describes holding oneself or others to impossibly high standards.