Article writing tips, techniques, strategies

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Beating Perfection Syndrome so you can write

It's Saturday afternoon. Your partner has taken the kids to the
park. You have a whole hour to write. Instead of which, you sit,
staring out the window like Rodin's Thinker in jeans and a yellow
sweatshirt. Why aren't you writing? A tiny item called Perfection
Syndrome. You want whatever you write in this precious hour to be

During the week, you had a stream of plausible ideas. You wrote
three ideas in your notebook: an article about children's first
words (your six month old said 'truck'), an essay about male
vanity, and a short story about a blonde with tattooed arms and a

Just now, none of those ideas seems right. You've only got an
hour, so you want the perfect idea, the one that will justify the
sixty minutes you're about to spend on it. Instead, you do

Perfection Syndrome can destroy your writing career. It's a
killer, because if you don't recognise it for what it is, it
leads to apathy. The gap between what's in your head and what
manifests on the page is so wide that you may give up writing for
days or weeks.

I understand Perfection Syndrome, because it's something I battle
every day. The words on the screen or the page never measure up
to the words in my head. I start typing, and after a sentence or
two, stop. The words "this is garbage" light up like neon in my
skull, my stomach clenches, and I feel as if a ten ton weight had
dropped onto my body. It's not as if I'm a new writer. I've been
writing for over 20 years. Intellectually, I understand that it's
important to get words onto the screen --- any words. You can fix
whatever you write. Emotionally, I want the first draft to be
perfect. I've accepted that perfectionism is part of my
personality, and without a personality transplant, I'm never
going to get rid of it, so all I can do is out-write it.

Yes, out-write it. A practice that's helped is Julia Cameron's
Morning Pages method, which is detailed in her books: The
Artist's Way, and Vein of Gold. The first thing I do each morning
is write three pages in longhand. This primes the pump, and if I
accomplish the Morning Pages, I know that I can count on a
productive writing day, and Perfection Syndrome is beaten for
this 24 hours at least.

Updating my inner "writer" image also helped. Images are the
language of the right brain and the subconscious mind. Your
subconscious mind is the engine which drives you. My initial
image of my writing self was of a mountain climber, clinging to
vertical rock and ice, unable to see the mountain peak, but
terrorized by a crevasse below. No wonder I needed every word to
be perfect, if the alternative was death. A more nourishing image
popped into my mind. I saw my writing self as a seed-sower, the
old-time kind, with a deep hessian bag of seeds, walking along
the furrows of a field of fertile soil, scattering seeds with
both hands. Now, whenever I feel panicked about my writing, I
visualize myself as the sower, scattering those seeds. Ask
yourself what image you hold of yourself as a writer.

Strategies to beat Perfection Syndrome

The first step in fighting Perfection Syndrome is to acknowledge
that you've got it, and know that it's beatable. Any of the
strategies below will help.

* Morning Pages: first thing each morning, write three pages in
longhand. The pages don't have to be about anything. You can
write three pages of whining about situations in your life, or
three pages of "This is stupid, I don't know what to write". Yes,
but--- you're thinking: I'm supposed to write three pages no one
will ever see, much less publish? YES. Just try the process.

* Check in with your subconscious mind. Just wonder quietly about
the image you hold of your writing self. Either awake, while
daydreaming, or in a dream, and image will float into your mind.
If it's negative, change it to a life-affirming, encouraging and
hopeful one.

* Set a target number of words for each writing session. However,
set the word target and quality LOW. Even on your worst migraine
day you can write 200 words of gibberish. Or, promise yourself
that whenever you turn on your computer, you will write 50 words
on your current project.

* Keep a writing log for each writing session for a week. List
what you worked on, how many words you wrote, and how you felt
before you started writing and how you felt when you finished.
Your writing log will convince you that writing can alter your
moods: you'll feel better when you finish your writing session
than you did before you started. It will also convince you that
you can write when you're depressed, tired, or ill.

* Start a story prompts/ ideas file. A fresh idea may tempt you
if you're resisting working on your current projects.

* Where else in your life do you expect perfection? If you're
struck with Perfection Syndrome, it will manifest in other areas.
List five of those areas, and several ways to combat each

* Perfectionism leads to procrastination: do one task each day
that you've been putting off. Be willing to skimp on the task,
and do it badly, but do it.

Copyright © 2002 by Angela Booth

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Australian author and journalist Angela Booth writes about business, technology, health and creativity for print and online publications. She also writes copy for businesses large and small.


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