Writer’s Block: Perfection is the Enemy of Good

Voltaire certainly had a way with words. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Voltaire, in Candide
Did you throw away the key to your own gate?
Photo by Travis Saylor on Pexels.com

When we get in our own way

Do you have a loud internal editor? I know I do. It’s that voice in your head saying, “Um, are you sure you want to write that? No, no, no. This scene just won’t do” or something along that vein. At its root, the voice is your own fear speaking to you. Writers refer to it as the Editor, the Critic, the Censor, or even more colorfully as “The B*tch” or “The Jerk.” I call mine the Critic and use feminine pronouns. Giving the voice a name is the first step toward controlling these defeatist thoughts. The name you choose doesn’t have to be anything with negative connotations, either. Our internal editors are a part of us. We’re hard-wired to avoid things that could cause us pain or discomfort. Perhaps the thought of anyone seeing your work fills you with dread because you’re fearful of derisive laughter. Or you simply doubt your own abilities and despair of ever getting it right. Cue the Critic, who steps in to dissuade us from engaging in this “risky” behavior. However, the threat she perceives is only an illusion. She means well–much like an overprotective mother intends to shield a child from harm–but in the long run it only stifles creative self-expression. 

But how do you get her to shut up while you’re in the drafting or writing phase? Just google “silencing the inner critic” and you’ll find all sorts of advice from experts. I’ve read an article briefly explaining four methods to silence that noisy editor but there are plenty of others. Most of them have the same refrain. I’ll summarize the “gist” of what I learned in my search. Keep in mind that using this strategies won’t fix things overnight; you need to be persistent and get into the habit before you can change this behavior.

First, identify the voice of your inner critic and listen. Figure out exactly what she’s telling you. This might seem counterintuitive when your goal is to silence the voice. However, if you learn to recognize her editorial suggestions as such you’ll know what not to listen to while you’re working. 

Next, you could address the Critic’s concerns. Inner dialogue can be very powerful. Construct the counter arguments to the critic’s statements using positive phrasing. 

The Critic: “You’ll never be a good writer.”

You: “I will be a good writer if I keep practicing and honing my craft.”

The Critic: “Why do you even bother? This is never going to be perfect.”

You: “My book doesn’t need to be perfect to tell a good story.”

Go through all of the Critic’s excuses and objections, point by point, and dismiss each of them. Ask her (yourself, really) what is the worst that could happen if you write a crappy rough draft. You’ll edit it once you’re finished, anyway. The trick is to finish it.

Okay, so she’s still telling you you’re doing it wrong. Instead of telling the Critic to shut up, treat her as a partner and broker a deal. When you’re stuck trying to find the correct word to describe something, simply insert a symbol or random stand-in phrase you can search for later; e.g. “If I put a triple hashtag here now as a placeholder, then we can come back and fix it later after I’ve finished this writing stint. Deal?” If this sounds crazy…well, it does sound crazy. You are talking to yourself, after all. But there’s nothing wrong with that when it helps you work out a solution to a problem. If talking to yourself out loud bothers you, perhaps you can enlist a trusted friend to play the role of the encourager.

Let’s say your Critic still won’t keep quiet. Consider seeing a counselor or therapist because this is probably impacting other areas of your life as well. I met with a counselor and she shared some strategies with me. There is nothing wrong with seeking help when you need it. Sadly, society tends to stigmatize mental health issues and treat mental health as a whole as unimportant. But matters are improving. May is Mental Health Awareness month, by the way. I’m of the mind that everyone could benefit from seeing a therapist at some point–and I’m not talking about the wine bottle. 

The bottom line is, you’re getting in your own way. Don’t allow perfectionism to block your path.

Feel Free to Write Garbage!

Practice makes you better

Keep writing, even if it’s only a few paragraphs a day. Did you know that being bad at something is the first step toward being good at something? It’s true! Set aside your desire to write the perfect manuscript; it’s humanly impossible to achieve perfection in this broken world. With the notable exception of Jesus Christ, being perfect is impossible on this side of heaven. 

Practice won’t make you perfect. However, practice will certainly improve your proficiency. You can become a good writer, even an excellent one. All it takes is the humility to seek constructive feedback, dogged persistence, and consistent exercise of your creative muscles.

Here’s a tip I learned about recently. If you can manage it, obscure your monitor in some way so you can’t see what you’re writing from the Critic (a.k.a. yourself). Put a piece of paper in front of it. Hang a towel over the monitor or turn off the screen if it’s separate from your mainframe. Change the font color to white in your word processor and also turn off the spelling and grammar checks. Otherwise those nasty little green and red squiggles will distract you.

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

― Michael J. Fox

Use peer pressure to your advantage

Joining a weekly, in-person writing session like Shut Up and Write can also help. I recently signed up as a local coordinator in my hometown; hopefully the local library will work out as a venue. Just being around other folks busily click-clacking away on their laptops may help to temporarily silence the Critic. You could also participate in group writing “stints” online if COVID is a concern or your writing buddies live far away. I once participated in an online group session with writers around the world and I finished a short story in twenty-minute writing stints over the course of a few hours. My Critic wasn’t absolutely silent but she was quieter than when I worked alone. In my opinion, this is a vast improvement.

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

― Salvador Dali

Comparison is the thief of joy

You control your emotions. Do not let them control you. Above all else–and this is difficult for most folks–do not compare yourself to anybody else. Everyone has their own special situation in life that either encourages or inhibits their writing process. I have a friend who can pound out the first draft of a book in less than a month; two weeks, even. Apparently, she doesn’t have an internal editor–at least when it comes to actually writing a first draft. I both admire and envy her “prolificness” because my productivity seems significantly slower than that. However, if I dwell too much on envy it brings me down and stifles my creativity. I happen to be hard-wired to edit while I compose; my content is less “rough” on the first pass than hers. We all have different strengths to balance another’s weaknesses and vice versa. 

Need further convincing? See a past article on how comparison is the thief of joy

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”

― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Takeaway Message

Keep writing! And don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it be friends, a counselor, prayer, or all three. I would certainly recommend prayer. Never forget: God lovingly created you with a distinct purpose, a unique voice and something of value to offer the world. Somewhere out there, an audience awaits your lovingly crafted work. Your writing could be the shining light in the darkness for someone who desperately needs it.

I hope today’s article encouraged you in some way. Feel free to share and spread the love. Have any questions, observations, or suggestions for topics? Please drop them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Some Resources

Author Learning Center




Shut Up and Write

Springtime flowers!

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