In the spring of 2021, I lost my mind.
I was stressed to my eyeballs, and couldn’t write a damn thing. This madness had nothing to do with the global pandemic, and everything to do with the Perfect Tyrant living in my head.
At the end of last year, I decided to get serious about writing my own novels. After only a few weeks of hard work, I was already gaining traction on a few public forums. I put out my first book for free, and it gained hundreds of thousands of views in the first months. Even more exhilarating, my new Patreon was growing rapidly.
It was exciting. And terrifying.
The pressure to perform – to output better and better chapters, numerous times a week – began to form a crushing vice on the inside of my skull. Stress headaches, awful eating habits, obsessive work habits. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent reworking – and reworking – every single chapter. Every single sentence.
I remember one day I spent 14 hours at my desk, only getting up when my body demanded a break, because I thought I had to do it. The Tyrant living in my head said:
“If you don’t write perfectly, why would anyone read your story?”
Of course, nothing is perfect. But when you want something so badly, you go about chasing it in all the wrong ways.
How Does Perfectionism Start?
When I first started writing, I was writing only for myself. It was so easy because nobody was going to read my stories.
Thus, the Tyrant slept. He didn’t care what I did, because there was nothing for him to rule over.
But when the first few readers started to trickle in… When I tasted the first spring waters of success, the Tyrant began to stir. He said:
“If people are going to read this, then it needs to be incredible. Better than anything else out there.”
The more readers who came to my story, the more I began to succumb to the Tyrant’s whims. I ached over every line. I reworked the first ten chapters to death – even though I still didn’t know how the book ended.
The harder I tried to make my writing “perfect,” the harder it became to write.
The worst part?
I spent days agonizing over some chapters, while others I wrote in only an hour or two. And nobody could tell the difference.
The Perfectionist Tyrant does NOT make your writing better. A true tyrant will crush the joy of writing out of you, leaving only an empty wasteland of guilt. Or, at least, that’s what happened to me.
So, I’m telling you right now: if you have a perfectionist living in your head, you need to overthrow that bastard. Worst case scenario, you need to grab a shovel with both hands, and whack him over the back of the head.
Surprisingly, killing your inner perfectionist is so simple.
When you overthrow your Tyrant, you will write faster, better, and publish more stories. You will be the happiest writer you’ve ever been.
Are You a Perfectionist Writer?
- Do you often procrastinate when it’s time to write?
- Are you afraid to put out “bad writing?”
- Are you obsessed with the results of your writing, rather than the joy of actually writing?
- Do you set writing goals that sound good, but are impossible to reach?
- Are you always critical of your own work?
- Do you set writing goals that will leave room for nothing else in your life?
- When you fail to meet your goals, do you find it hard to keep writing (a.k.a. the all-or-nothing mentality)?
If you answered yes to any of these…
…or, if you’re like me, and you answered yes to all of these…
…then the perfectionist Tyrant has a stranglehold on your writing.
Let’s talk about mindset first.
The Truth about Perfect Writing…
…is that it doesn’t exist.
Nothing is perfect.
What a blessing that statement is. What a freeing, beautiful thing to hear. When you accept that you will never write a perfect story, you can instead focus your energy on making stories that are “just” great.
Here’s another myth: if you spend more time on a certain project, it will be better.
Every change you make to your writing has diminishing returns. I once wrote a post about editing a story 21 times (if you read it, those 21 tips are largely from the first three drafts).
Guess how many publications offered to buy it? Zero.
After the first three edits, I didn’t learn much. And instead of “improving” the story, I was really only changing it.
The only way to guarantee you will get better at writing is by writing more – not by rewriting ad infinitum.
Perfection is Also Pronounced ‘Paralysis’
If you’re constantly paralyzed, if you’re constantly “stuck on making the words great” or if you can’t stop yourself from going back and editing (before your project is even complete) – then you will always be 5, 10, or 100 times slower at writing.
You will learn so much faster, and produce so many more amazing stories, by accepting that good enough is good enough. Overtime, your “good enough” will become someone else’s “holy cannoli, this story is incredible.”
You Can’t Edit “Nothing”
As a writer, you are both the stonemason and the sculptor. But first, you are the stonemason.
Your foremost goal is to keep the stone stockpiled.
Granted, you should aim for high quality stone. But if you only settle for “the best rocks,” even the fine regolith will start to look inadequate.
The search for “perfect” is a fool’s errand. Embrace the rocks you have, and sculpt something great.
Even the legendary Statue of David was made from someone else’s old, recycled marble.
6 Ways to Stop Being a Perfectionist Writer
The perfectionist Tyrant lives in your head.
Which means, if you want to kill him, you have to work on your mindset. But the Tyrant is also a bit of a worm (i.e. hard to kill). So, you need tools – and when those fail, as all tools inevitably must – you also need systems to fall back on. Floors, to prevent you from hitting rock bottom.
Over the last six months, I wrote and edited the first drafts of two books. There’s more work to be done, but I want to show you the ideas that helped me overcome my perfectionism.
1. Set Goals
Your perfectionist is insatiable.
So, you need to be reasonable. The only way to do that is to set goals, and work towards meeting them.
I set two goals every day:
- Time spent writing
- Words written or edited
I don’t set astronomical goals. I set goals that I know I can complete, even if I have a bad day.
Still, there are times when I fail (more on that later), but the more days I abide by these goals, the better I get at setting new ones. You learn, after a hundred days of writing chapters, how long it takes to write one.
And once I reach a goal, it’s impossible for the Tyrant to take over, because I’ve already given 100% that day, and what more can anyone ask for?
Every day that you write, start by writing out your goals. If you don’t, your writing will become aimless. And you’ll never get a grasp on how long it takes you to reach your goals.
Someone has to make the decisions. And if it’s not you, it’s the Tyrant.
2. Take Breaks
I used to think my goals were reasonable.
I would set sky-high goals, and I would write like ten hyper-caffeinated demons lived in my fingers.
For a day, maybe a week, I’d feel awesome. What a great writer I am.
But all the while, the Tyrant was lurking over my shoulder, with a grin large enough to swallow me whole. Waiting for the inevitable crash.
I would wake up, and feel dead. And when you wake up – fully intending to write – and find that you can’t put a single word on the page… nothing is more soul-crushing. Everything begins to drag. All your bad habits suddenly feel so damn attractive.
The fix? Take breaks.
A happy mind is better at everything. When you set your goals, make sure you include healthy chunks of relaxation, too. Find ways to refresh yourself, and it will become easier to slip into the flow of good, exciting writing.
- Stretch your muscles
- Read a book for 10 minutes
- Water some plants (preferably yours)
- Walk around the block and breathe the good air
And whatever you do, avoid doom scrolling. Nothing will drain your imagination faster than an unending abyss of algorithmically-generated junk food.
3. Time Yourself
This one blends well with #1 and #2.
I always set timers: write for X minutes, relax for Y minutes.
Personally, I use the Pomodoro technique:
25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Every two hours, I take a long break.
It also helps me to measure if I’m getting more done in a set chunk than before. I’ve gone from writing 200/words an hour, to 1500. So… That’s pretty nice.
This is the exact timer I use. I love it, because it’s so tactile, and it’s separated from my phone and computer, so there’s no chance I’ll get distracted.
4. Quit on Time
You might be able to write for 20 hours a day, but it’s not sustainable.
Writing books – or games, or any long story – is a marathon. No, that’s wrong. It’s waaay longer than a marathon.
You have to figure out a rhythm for your life that is sustainable. That means if you only write on weekends, that’s perfectly fine. If you only write for an hour in the morning, great.
But whenever you write, you must quit on time.
You’re not allowed to promise yourself “if I squeeze in another hour just tonight, just before bedtime…” or anything like that.
Promises like these are taxing. They create stress when you should be at rest, which destroys your ability to write during your designated writing times.
In the end, not quitting will put your further behind.
The goal is to be excited each and every time you sit down to write. It’s critical for your brain to decompress. True rest helps you shed your stress, which in turn makes you a better writer.
Your inner Tyrant will rebel, at first. But in time, he’ll be pleasantly surprised with your constant, inexorable progress.
5. Fail Like a Champion
Back to #1: you’re going to fail. A lot.
Failure is only a bad thing if you never learn from it.
Be kind to yourself when you fail. Try to listen to your failures, and figure out what happened. I try to journal after every writing session, and especially when I fail my goals, because if I don’t spend 10 minutes focused on why, then I’ll keep failing the same way.
If you hate yourself for having a “bad day” or if you get mad that you’re less disciplined than you think you should be… remember, that’s the Tyrant talking. And we hate that guy.
We must be better than him. To forgive ourselves. To lower our expectations, so we can stop getting in our own way.
6. Love the Hard Days
James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, was instrumental for my writing success.
Here’s one tip that always stuck with me:
The days you don’t want to work are often the most important.
It’s about momentum.
Say you wake up, and your head is pounding, and you know you have to write, but wouldn’t it feel so nice to stay in bed for another fifteen minutes?
These are the most important days. Because if you refuse to give up – if you try, and write even one sentence – you add to your writing momentum.
Instead of screeching to a halt (and having to spend extra energy the next day getting back up to speed), you will maintain your growth.
Even if you only write a single sentence.
The hard days matter the most, because you get to cement your writing habit in place. It doesn’t matter what you write. It doesn’t matter how good, or how bad. It only matters that you write (your readers won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad days anyway).
Now, when I wake up and feel a “bad day” coming, I get excited. Because I know that while everybody else would give up, I get to grow even faster.
How Do You Know When it’s Good Enough?
Writing is not a science.
It’s a craft.
Perfectionism does not have an on/off switch. Instead, you start to develop a feeling for it.
Is your internal editor helping you achieve your dream? Or is he turning into a tyrant?
Your internal editor is there for a reason: to make your story better. The problem comes when all you can hear is “that’s not good enough” and you get stuck writing the same thing over and over.
Here’s a hint: if it takes you four hours to write two paragraphs, you have a tyrant living in your head.
Set Your Own “Good Enough” Baseline
It helps to have a baseline, a threshold where you always tell your internal editor to “shut up.” Again, this baseline is a feeling, and it comes from experience.
Good writing should feel exciting. For me, that’s the threshold. If I’m excited, if I feel compelled to follow my characters down whatever path they’re running – then that’s all I need to keep going. My internal editor can shut up.
The writing doesn’t always come out smoothly. It won’t always flow. But it should always be exciting.
If you feel bored, or if you dread the thought of writing your story, then you might want to listen to your internal editor. Get drastic. Change something big. Or move on.
Don’t ever feel like you have to stick with something you hate, just because it felt like the right idea at one point in time. Everything in your story can change.
You are sovereign in your own world.
Go master your writing perfectionism, and make incredible things.
Best Books to Overcome Writing Perfectionism
Perfectionism has no end. All writers, from the four-year olds writing their first story, to the masters of the craft, all writers have their own personal tyrant.
Bookmark this post, and come back to it when you feel your Tyrant has grown to strong.
And if you need more (I’ve already mentioned Atomic Habits, which every writer should read), check out these resources for perfectionist writers:
This book is a treasure trove of step-by-step advice for writers. Anne Lamott gives a fantastic, realistic perspective on how writers can produce satisfying work in the simplest way: bird by bird.
Want to get motivated for the rest of your life? Steven Pressfield’s War of Art will glue you to your chair, and make you feel like an absolute keyboard warrior – without the tyranny of perfection.
I recommend this book to everyone. Greg McKeown shares the incredible concept of making your life better by removing what you don’t need. Especially useful for writers who struggle to find the line of “this is good enough.”
I read this book on a whim. I was surprised by how much I loved it – and how down-to-earth the ideas were. This is Rachel Aaron’s guide to bumping your daily wordcount from 2k… to 10k.