How to Sidestep Perfectionism and Rediscover Joy in Writing

I haven’t worked seriously on a picture book for years.

Although I do fine during the planning and conceptualization phases, perfectionism kicks in as soon as I actually start to try to write the text. My inner critic gets a front row seat, where she can peer over my shoulder, megaphone in hand, and shout warnings at me. “That rhyme is boring!” “The rhythm’s shaky!” “Your word choice isn’t original or evocative!” –and so on and so on.

If I slip up and give her any attention at all, my inner critic starts in on the big picture criticisms. Your story concept is unoriginal—you’re not really a picture book writer—you freeze up when you try to write poetry—so why are you wasting time here?

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But I figured out how to sidestep my inner critic and her megaphone. I don’t try to shut her out or argue or contradict her — I just smile and nod and keep on writing, because none of the criticisms actually apply. You see, I’m writing in pretty colors on unlined paper, which isn’t really writing. And I’m not writing a PICTURE BOOK; I’m simply playing with words, creating long lists and fitting together lines like so many puzzle pieces.

Besides, half the time I’m “working” in my PJs, curled up in bed with a cup of hot chai. How serious can it be?

By using this technique, and limiting the amount of time I’m “allowed” to work on my story, I’ve made it so that my mind can’t stop playing around with ideas. Phrases pop into my head while I’m walking the dog or relaxing in the hot tub. And despite two days when a virus pretty much knocked me out of commission, I’ve drafted half the story in the past week. Is it perfect? No! But it’s a solid start, the sort I might be able to revise into something actually worth submitting someday.

Does perfectionism get in your way when you’re trying to write?

It’s tempting to tackle perfectionism head on. We become self-analytical, searching for cognitive distortions and, when we find them, arguing about them with our perfectionistic alter egos.

I think that this sort of self-analysis and deep thinking can be helpful—but it can also create an unwanted distraction that prevents you from writing.

After all, if you’re journaling about cognitive distortions, black-and-white thinking, and unrealistic expectations, you’re not writing your story. If the “goal” of perfectionism is to avoid criticism or rejection, then doesn’t that mean perfectionism wins?

The unwritten story can’t be rejected…but it can’t be read, either.
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The Joy of Writing Play

Have you watched kids at play recently?

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Image courtesy of .dianna. on Flickr Creative Commons

I’m talking pure, imaginative play, where they aren’t necessarily trying to make anything, produce anything, or win anything. They’re just fooling around—mentally trying on different characters, scenarios, and abilities.

They’re making up stories.

Pure play is characterized by a lack of judgment or pressure, and because of that, it frees the imagination. The inner critic doesn’t get much sway here. You don’t often hear kids in the midst of make-believe saying, “That dialog sucks!” or “What a lousy idea!” They might argue over who gets to be the princess or whether that cardboard box is a racecar or a baby carriage, but they don’t usually argue over the worth of the ideas or how those ideas are executed.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

When I started making up stories and writing them down, there was no inner critic present. Why should there have been? I was just playing: making up stories to find out what would happen next, writing the daydreams that I wanted to read and, later, writing chapters about unicorns and kids with magic powers so my younger siblings would beg me for the next installment. It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I started to worry about things like passive voice, dialog tags, head-hopping, and whether I could write well enough for publication.

The problem is that if we focus entirely on the work of writing (improving our craft, marketing, building platform), it’s easy to forget the joy that brought us to writing in the first place. We forget to play. Our inner critic gains power, and that childlike voice of creativity can be squashed.

Do you ever feel blocked? Stressed about writing? Pressured to produce? Overwhelmed?

Sometimes, the best antidote is play.

Join me tomorrow for some writing play ideas, and give yourself some practice creating without that darned inner critic getting in the way.

Has your experience with the writing process changed over the years? How did you feel as a young writer compared to how you feel now?