“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”Oscar Wilde
Have you ever completed a piece of work and then just kept staring at it, making small changes, and feeling unable to let it go and send it out into the world? If so, you might be suffering from the need for perfection. It’s a real thing and it holds creative people back.
The need for perfection is a sense that nothing you ever create is quite good enough.
What causes the need for perfection?
The need for perfection often stems from a feeling of not being good enough. Creative people are often our own worst critics, and if we’re not careful we can end up drowning all our productivity in excessive self-criticism.
Perfectionism can also be a type of procrastination. If you’re afraid to start something new or work on a different project, you might put it off and put it off by continuing to revise an old piece of work.
How to let go of the need for perfection
If you’ve diagnosed yourself with this incredibly common creative affliction, read on to learn a few of my favourite strategies for tackling it.
Identify what you’re afraid of
As we discussed above, perfectionism often comes from some kind of fear. So the first thing to do if you want to cure yourself of the need for perfection is to identify what you’re afraid of.
Is it that your work will be rejected (and that you’ll feel this is a rejection of you?) Is it that letting go of one project means you’ll have to start another? Or perhaps you’re afraid people will laugh at you or think you’re bad at what you do? By identifying and naming the fear, you might find that it has less power. You can also reach out to others for support and reassurance. Whatever you’re afraid of, I can guarantee that another writer or creator has felt the same at some point.
Remember that perfect doesn’t exist
There’s no such thing as perfection. That’s partly because as people and creators we are by definition imperfect. But it’s also because art is so subjective. Have you ever read a book or watched a film that it seemed like everyone was raving about, only to wonder what all the fuss was over? That’s because – say it with me – art is subjective. There is nothing on earth that will appeal to absolutely everyone. By realising that your work will resonate with some and leave others cold, you free yourself from pursuing a perfection that simply does not exist.
Seek a second opinion
It is extremely difficult to assess our own work objectively. That means it’s easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over something, trying to figure out what we need to change to make it better.
The cure? Seek a second opinion. I don’t mean ask someone to tell you that the work is perfect (as we’ve established, perfect doesn’t exist. You wouldn’t believe them anyway!) But by seeking someone else’s input, you might find that your work is much stronger than you think it is. Ask a friend, colleague, or hire a professional like an editor to help you.
Put it away
Been staring at a piece of work for what feels like forever and still don’t know what’s wrong with it? Put it away. Leave it alone for at least a few days. A couple of weeks is even better! When you come back to it, you’ll have fresh eyes and be able to see more clearly what (if anything) needs changing.
Work to a deadline
I love deadlines because they force me to stop obsessing over perfection and submit something that’s just “good” or even “great. If you’ve had a pitch accepted, secured a commission, or are working for a client, you’ll have an inbuilt deadline. If not, you might need to get a bit creative.
I enforce mini-deadlines on myself all the time. Take this blog, for example. It’s a personal project and no-one is going to tell me off or fire me if I don’t publish when I say I will. But I’ve made a commitment to myself to post twice a week (usually on Tuesdays and Fridays, though there’s some flexibility there). This is a self-imposed mini-deadline, and it encourages me to push past my need for perfection and actually publish something.
Remember that you can change something too much
All editing is not good editing. There’s such a thing as changing a piece of work so much that you end up detracting from its quality rather than improving it! If you’re starting to change things for the sake of changing them, in pursuit of some nebulous idea of perfection, it’s time to stop. If you don’t, you risk making your work worse rather than better.
Make yourself hit “send”
I can’t even count how many competitions I’ve meant to enter and then haven’t, or how many pitches I’ve intended to send and then chickened out of. Why? You guessed it – perfectionism. The funny thing is that, when I did finally push past this fear and enter my first short story competition in over a decade, I won! (I also won another runner-up prize in a separate content and have been shortlisted several times in others).
So make a promise to yourself: you will hit “send” on whatever you’re working on. Enter that competition, pitch that publication, send your story to that editor. Give yourself a deadline (see above) and challenge yourself to stick to it!