How to Overcome Writing Perfectionism Using Empathy

This is the third installment of the I’m Writing A Book series.

I’ve written about writing perfectionism in the past, and since then, I’ve come to terms with the fact that writing perfectionism is always going to be a part of my personality. It’s not so much about killing the perfectionism as it is about managing it.

And the best way to do this, as I outline in the video, is to use a little empathy:

When it’s time to edit your work, imagine that you’re editing somebody else’s work instead of your own. Imagine that this is the work of your best friend, who you want to see succeed and realize his/her dream of being a published author.

Would you be as hard on your friend as you are on yourself?

Would you tell him/her to destroy months of work, re-plot the entire novel, kill off a character, just because you didn’t like A, B, C?

Probably not.

This was—hands down—the quickest way to get out of my own head and manage writing perfectionism.

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Millie’s Note: How do you manage writing perfectionism?

The post I mention: Writing and Love, It’s About Control

13 thoughts on “How to Overcome Writing Perfectionism Using Empathy

  1. afraidofailure says:

    Hey Millie!

    Reckon in the future you could also do a write up alongside the videos? Would be awesome since some of us would rather prefer reading, haha.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. lucius_pixel says:

    I wouldn’t mind being your neighbor. It’s rare I feel that way.

    http://nickyisdeep.wordpress.com

    I wonder about writing perfectionism myself.

    I frightened myself writing this on a cerebral level. It’s frightening how fragile the meaning of a document is.

    https://nickyisdeep.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/apex-writing/

    When writing, and authoring, I find that what I am observing is an ever increasing level of wanting to perfect pure abstraction. I find writing is similar to trying to perfect a collage of every expanding meaning.

    Writing is like trying to perfect a number. Which can be done in my mind to an extent, but it can be difficult to levy perfection upon something that is symbolic in nature.

    To draft perfection though.

    Marvelous.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for sharing! It’s interesting how you say writing is like trying to perfect a number. Numbers are objective, but writing is inherently subjective. I think a lot of this has to do with our perception of perfectionism as a whole. Mathematicians have long cited Euler’s identity as the most beautiful equation ever, but you need a mathematician’s insight in order to appreciate its beauty.

      If the world is our mirror, then our perception of our work becomes the reality. If we look at our manuscript as the work of a friend, then we’ll be less likely to want to pulverize it through our perfectionistic tendencies.

  3. Matthew Kosak says:

    I think perfectionism in this case, is largely an illusion. Mostly, it is due to nagging doubts of the subconscious, probably self directed. But something to watch out for, I agree and the two types you bring up are interesting and unique. I think if you look at a lot of the published novels, closely, you will see a lot of errors, not just spelling or grammar but others as well, I’m not bothered them. Ray Bradbury would apparently retype other’s works just so he could see how it felt or looked on the page. It’s not a bad idea, and the method you bring up can certainly work, I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all. I think Tarantino deliberately destroys perfectionism, i’d say he’d be an anti-perfectionist filmmaker, (I’m thinking of the scene where he’s asking teh Wolf if he’d like “cream or sugar??” so maybe non-perfectionism is a kind of non-conformance to whatever the norm is, but Disney would be perhaps the opposite.

    • Millie Ho says:

      You brought up an interesting example in Tarantino, who I actually think is extremely perfectionistic. His obsession with knowing all there is to know about filmmaking, not through theory, but through an aggressive hands-on education, is an example of perfectionism out of love. However, he’s not as rigid as most perfectionists because he’s “light on his feet” and is able to quickly pivot from the script depending on new developments during the filming process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfT1Hhs9OoM

      A lot of this has to do with his extreme confidence in his abilities. Perfectionism is an illusion, I agree, and it’s an illusion that stems from a fear of failure. So perhaps another technique to add on to this whole theory of overcoming writing perfectionism is humility. Published novels contain errors, and as an unpublished writer (like myself), you’re not an exception. You don’t matter that much, and ironically, there’s a lot of comfort in that thought.

      • Matthew Kosak says:

        Thanks for the link Millie, it’s a great interview. In part II Brad Pitt does start talking more about his take, and seeing the film something like a novel with “five parts.” What’s interesting is that Tarantino is so uniquely “non-bs-ing” about describing exactly what he’s doing, without spoiling anything of course. I read that Inglorious Basterds script closely actually before I saw the film so it was interesting to hear their takes on Aldo’s character etc.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbCzbNkr01k

  4. kvennarad says:

    Thank you for yet another interesting and thought-provoking talk.

    Early on in my writing career (such as it is) I decided that I wanted to write by the principle “Write the quality of stuff you would like to read”. Originally I was writing alongside other people on line, not exactly a competitive situation, but a situation where our efforts were juxtaposed and differences in our styles were obvious. I found that a lot of people simply told a story; if you like, you could break it down into narrative (what happened), description (what things looked like), and dialogue (what people said), with a result that the story itself was just a long synopsis without any flavour. What I actually LIKE to read myself is writing that displays craftmanship. I had a discussion about this with Sam Snoek-Brown (author, writing-teacher) and we came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter whether the work was canonical or popular, it didn’t matter whether it was literary fiction, cheap romance, a Western, a horror story, or what; what mattered was that it was obvious that the writer was in his or her métier, and was putting together something that was good to the touch. The result could be naive or sophisticated, but it had the hand of a craftsman on it, a craftsman had perfected it. Thus the scene at the front of the jail in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is perfect. The piece of dialogue in ‘Great Expectations’ where Mrs Joe DOESN’T say “Where has the pie gone?” but says “What’s gone – with the – pie!” Can’t put your finger on it, but it’s good. It’s something that works towards the creation of atmosphere, the fullness of characters, the credibility of the setting, and so on, that transcends the actual ability to think up a plot and put it down using modern technology.

    Now, if any such aspiration ought to lead to a kind of perfectionism, then that’s it – the desire to write like ‘the best’. But I am glad to say that it hasn’t turned out that way. I think this is for two reasons. Firstly, although I can seem to maintain a consistency of style and expression throughout a given work, I very often forget the detail of what I have written, with the result that when I go back to it some time later, I often find myself saying, “Wow! Did I write that?” I don’t say that to be big-headed, I honestly do forget how I put some things, and then I’m surprised at how well they turned out, how well I managed to “write the quality of stuff” I would like to read. I guess I’m lucky. Anyhow, the thing is that any inconsistencies etc. stick out like a sore thumb, and are easy to deal with. I have no need to be harsh or lenient on myself.

    Secondly, I think it’s because I am primarily a poet. I don’t necessarily mean that I prioritise writing poetry, or write more poetry than prose, or am better known as a poet, or even that I think of myself as a poet. I mean that no matter what I’m writing, that’s the slot I’m in, that’s my writing métier. This means, I guess, that I’m always aware of the cadence, the meaning, the word-choice, the rhythm, the structure of what I write, as I write it. Not stultifyingly self-aware, just with a useful level of awareness there.

    Anyhow, the overall result is that going back to my own work to revise it is like looking at someone else’s anyway. Whether that in itself brings objectivity, empathy, or what, is hard to say. But at least it does allow me to appreciate my own skill.

    However, I’m going to add a caveat. The last persons to give ones finished work to would be ones nearest and dearest. They will ALWAYS think that you are the best thing to hit the literary world since Jane Austen. They won’t be empathic, they will be uncritical, which is worse. There is always a place for a good, critical eye. Often that eye belongs to an agent, a publisher, or an independent editor. The trick when doing one’s own revision is to have sufficient compassion for yourself, but at the same time don’t lose your critical faculty. Nice balancing act if you can do it.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Having compassion for yourself while not losing an objective stance is really hard to do in the throes of writing perfectionism. I agree, the people who are closest to us will usually think the work is great regardless of whether it actually is, but the best thing about pretending to be your own friend/loved one is that you can avoid needless ego-stroking. When you’re role-playing as your friend, it’s an easy and quick way of generating compassion for yourself (instead of repeating mantras, for example) while injecting some level of objectivity in the review process because you’ve taken a few steps outside of your own head.

      When you talk about writing that is good and transcends genre and skill level, it reminds me of how writers sometimes intuitively ‘know’ things about the story that wouldn’t have been known during the actual writing of it, but only known when revisiting the work and examining it in retrospection. When something like that happens, I credit the writer’s ability to write honestly, because how else can you sense how something that happens in Chapter 10 works because of what happened in Chapter 2? There’s a continuity that can’t exist unless you were writing honestly.

      We all have to write to the beat of our own rhythm, and there are definitely different brands of writing perfectionism. For the all-or-nothing controlling brand, which I have, this trick seems to do the trick!

  5. aetherhouse says:

    Interesting thought process, and something I will surely adopt in my own work. Another thing I recommend is watching a lot of CinemaSins, because it will make you aware of a lot of “sins” your writing could be guilty of, but it also proves that even the most awesome stories are never flawless. It just depends on how big of a difference the flaws make, I think.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I went on a CinemaSins marathon once, and it was the best. Did you see the one where they pointed out all the continuity flaws in Lord of the Rings (i.e.: the Sting glowing blue when orcs were near did not always glow blue)? It really does give you a lot of comfort, and also a lot of humility, as well.

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