How to Stop Being a Perfectionist and Just Write Your First Draft

Perfectionists typically edit their early writing because it hurts to see it emerge in such a messy state! But editing too early does your writing a disservice and can cause a lot of frustration. If you’re a perfectionist- or you can’t help yourself from editing as you write- read on to learn how to stop trying to be so darn perfect and just write your first draft!


When it comes to approaching the first draft, perfectionists do not have it easy. Why? Because for any first draft to be able to arrive at something meaningful, interesting, and engaging, it needs to be allowed to flow freely from the writer’s unconscious mind. Such flow is necessary because, as Flannery O’Conner famously said, we often don’t know what we think until we read what we say.

The problem is when flow truly flows, it’s usually a mess, full of bad grammar, fragments, and disjointed ideas- the stuff of a perfectionist’s nightmare.

Where intellectually, the perfectionist may understand that this unschooled excavation of the mind is not only important for getting to the locus of a story or the purpose of your ideas, but critical. Emotionally, however, the perfectionist, who is accustomed to managing their affairs so they perform at a high level, often sees this linguistic equivalent of a garbage fire, feels terror at being confronted with such an uncontrolled jumble, and begins editing those early ideas right away. (Nothing to see here!)

This instinct to edit the early writing to make it presentable- even though it’s not being presented to anyone but the writer- ensures it will remain exactly that: nothing to see here.

Not only do you end up with thin, even uninspired writing, the process of editing while writing is like trying to stop a bull from charging. You might be strong, but the bull is stronger. Those clashing forces set the perfectionist writer up for frustration and potential writer’s block.

spiral notebook with pen and writing

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Why Writing Has to Be a Two-Part Process

Producing a written text has two parts. One part is the generation of content; the other part is the editing of content.

Applied Linguist, Janet L. Kayfetz

Writing must be a two-part process:

  1. The early “let ‘er rip” phase, when the ideas manifest and work themselves through
  2. The “clean up on aisle 7″ phase when we put on our beady-eyed editor glasses and judge the heck out of the material that was allowed to come to life in its own right time to make it sit up and act right.

Puddle of water on woodgrain surface

If you merge these two parts and judge, critique, or edit a first draft as it is being conceived may make the writing look presentable, but its essence will be superficial, reserved, and perhaps lacking in the riskiness or freshness that comes from exploration and going rogue. Sometimes the happiest accidents are those that set work apart and put it on the map.

Not only will scrambling to cover the cracks in the first-draft while writing turn the work into all show but no substance, truncating one’s ideas can also lead to frustration because you know you’ve stopped some very interesting stuff from happening, and once it’s gone, it’s near impossible to call it back. 

While being a perfectionist in certain instances can be helpful- when applying for a mortgage, for instance- it works against the writer, who needs to allow their writing free rein. Such writing is what ultimately becomes something that affects change, infiltrates its readers and makes them feel and think, and adds to the literature of its kind in unique ways.

How Can You Stop Being a Perfectionist and Just Write Your First Draft?

If you’re a perfectionist, how can you fight against your natural urge to edit and instead just allow yourself to write your first draft (warts and all)?

Visualization, trust, and accountability

Note: a glass of wine or soothing cup of tea never hurt either.

fist pounding laptop keyboard

Visualization

In her seminal book, Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg talks about the writing process as your two hands. You have your writer hand, and you have your editor hand. Each hand has to be free to do its job. Let the writing hand write, and later, once the ideas are down, let the editor hand go to town and do what it does best.

If, however, your writing hand is doing its first-draft work when suddenly your editor hand comes in and clenches it, you’ll see that not only can you physically no longer do much of anything, most of all writing, you’re also now physically embodying stress. (In novels, don’t the characters “clench their hands” when times get tense?)

Tip: If you can’t hold on to the first-draft reverie required to get into flow and keep looking back to critique your early writing, take a breath or two. Then visualize your two hands floating through the air in front of you free as balloons, and know that each hand- in its own right time- will do a great job.

a hundred balloons rising into the sky

Trust Yourself

 

You are smart, you are capable, and you can absolutely stop being a perfectionist and just write your first draft!

If your perfectionist hackles come up during your first draft and you start itching to touch that backspace or delete button, deepen your feelings of trust- really sit with them.

Remind yourself either by journaling, leaving notes for yourself, or saying it aloud, that you must allow this first draft process to happen- this is the natural order of creative work, and you cannot fight nature because nature always wins.

Let go, trust in the process, and know you’ll have much more interesting material to work with if you let it all pour out (especially the stuff you would have otherwise chopped out for fear it’d be seen in mixed company!)

 

Get an Accountability Partner, App, or Program to Help You Write Your First Draft

 

If you find you’re having a hard time not editing as you write, get yourself an accountability partner. This person can cheer you on, keep you level, and support you as you’re writing.

One of our fantastic writing coaches, Sally Cooper, uses this technique. She has her clients message “Done” at the end of their writing sessions. You can also use a shared accountability sheet, so you and your partner see when you wrote and your notes. Being seen by someone else is extremely helpful for motivating you to do the right thing for your writing.

Apps can also help you plug away with your first thoughts, particularly ones designed to keep you writing. The Most Dangerous Writing App, for example, holds your writing as bait. If you pause even for a few seconds to read over what you’ve written, the screen turns red, then redder, then your writing vanishes- forever. This app is a miracle for the perfectionist because you actually can’t look back, or you lose everything.

A program designed to push you past your perfectionism and just write your first draft is a brilliant way to keep your nose down and your writing moving ahead. Our 4-month book-writing programs in Novel, Memoir, and Business or Self-Development books hold you up through the challenges of the first draft. Each provides resources, inspirational and informative lessons, personal motivation from your mentor, and a custom calendar. The program inspires you enough so you recognize the merit of pushing on, and you’re supported to keep moving in all ways so you successfully yield a complete (if disastrous!) first draft. And what a relief it is to get to the point of having a completed manuscript that you can then edit to your heart’s content!

neon sign that reads this is the sign you've been looking for

Go, Perfectionist: You Got This!

As a perfectionist, seeing the mess of your insides turned out may hurt. You may feel afraid. Like an impostor. A hack. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed. All of these emotions that will make you itch to fix your grammar or delete that one line are very normal.

Knowing this is your challenge, if you surround yourself with strategies that enable you to just write your draft process, you will see the value in the approach with a massive payoff.

In time, with trust, and outside support, you can let your hands do their good work- one at a time. Soon you will have incredible writing to show for yourself that’s pretty darn close to perfect just as it is.


Struggling to keep yourself moving forward? We’re here to help with support that will get you writing. Reach out any time for a FREE conversation about your work to get you up and striving for publication. 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Marianne Scott September 27, 2022 at 8:57 am

    So true, Jenna, especially after you’ve published a wonderfully polished novel. Starting the process all over again feels like you’re the imposter you pretend not to be. With a first draft, what flows out of your fingers through your keyboard can be so ugly. However, a writer has to allow the words to happen however they crash onto the page. I mean that with all sincerity. A first draft is the debris left after a category four storm. I’ve been there four times, so I appreciate the work and clean-up of starting a new project. I believe most writers have a perfectionist gene, and it is not your friend until much later in the process. And there is a process! I trust it now. I am starting a new project this winter. My writing room will become a no editing zone. Wish me strength. I’ll need it.

    BTW – your video is inspirational.

    • Reply Jenna September 29, 2022 at 1:18 pm

      “A first draft is the debris left after a category four storm.” Marianne, that is the perfect way to put it! And you’re right; it is a process. Like everything, you can’t fast-track it (if only I could think about dinner, shut my eyes, and then it’d be ready!) It’s good you have so much experience with getting to the end result because you have taught yourself to be patient and generous with yourself. The more you are those two things, the more your mind will feel free and let the story out. You’re going to be awesome with Book #5! And thanks so much for your comment and your kind words- they mean a lot!

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