2 Tools for Getting Started on a Writing Project (By Avoiding the Trap of Perfectionism)
The tyranny of the blank page.
Anyone who’s ever tried to write anything (a story, a poem, an email, a song — you name it) knows what I’m talking about.
You spend your days fantasizing about writing, drafting sentences in your head and and jotting down ideas on scraps of paper or your phone.
Finally, you carve out some time to write, and you arrive at your writing space expecting to produce an exact replica of the ideas you've conjured up in your mind.
And that's when perfectionism rears its head...
As you pick up your pen or set fingers to your keyboard, suddenly you feel incapable of writing down what you've brainstormed.
Perhaps your brain goes as blank as the page in front of you.
Perhaps you sense anxiety creeping into your chest, and soon the doubt sets in: I don't know how to start. What should I say? I'm never going to be able to write it the way I imagined it. This isn't good enough.
All this, before you've even started writing!
When we sit down to the blank page, riddled with the pressure of perfectionism — the pressure to tell a story "right" or produce a piece of "good" writing — it's easy to become disillusioned with our writing practice before we've even started it.
We set impossible standards for ourselves, and then we beat ourselves up for not trying to meet them. But who wants to try when they know the metric by which they'll be judged is impossible to meet?
It's essential that we develop tools for dipping our toes into the creative well in spite of the judgmental, perfectionistic little voice snarling in our heads. Or else we risk being silenced for a very (very) long time.
The antidote lies in getting out of our heads and letting our creativity do the work for us, calling us back into the creative flow and away from rigid ideas of how our writing "must be."
To that end, the following practices will help you get out of your own head, reconnect with the joy of creativity, and access your project from a more limber, open-minded place.
How to Circumvent Perfectionism and Get Started on an Important Writing Project
1. Warm up with prompts.
An Olympic swimmer wouldn't expect to step up to the pool, dive into the water, and swim their personal best without warming up. Yet so many writers expect this of themselves every time they sit down to write.
Taking the time to "warm up" your creativity before you start working on an important writing project helps take the pressure off. Because you're not working on your story — the one that it feels so important to get right — you don't have to worry so much about the quality of whatever you write in response to the prompt.
What's more, by taking a few minutes to write purely for the fun of it, you give yourself a chance to remember that writing is pleasurable. And tapping into the joy of creativity often inspires more creativity. It softens us up so we're able to approach our project from within the creative flow instead of beating at it with a figurative stick.
Don't be surprised if writing responses to a few prompts gets your creativity so turned on that you find yourself diving into your intended project in spite of all the hangups you had a few minutes before.
2. Set a timer.
I hear this over and over again when I'm teaching writing workshops: People think that in order to be a "real writer," they need to set aside at least an hour of time to write every day.
But all this concept does is decrease the likelihood that they'll ever write anything, because rare is the average person who can set aside at least an hour of time to write every day.
We're all busy. We may never find an hour to write, or only rarely. Let's accept this, and figure out how to write anyway instead of waiting to write until "someday" when we've miraculously overhauled our lives.
Besides, there's power in starting small.
By using smaller chunks of time to write, you'll increase the odds of actually writing. The more you successfully find time to write, the stronger that habit will become, and the more time you'll have to be reminded of why you like writing in the first place. This reminder further incentivizes the practice.
So here's the tool:
- Set a timer (on your phone, your watch, the microwave) for 10 minutes. Or maybe 5. Or maybe even 3! It's all about creating realistic, manageable parameters. No matter what is going on in your life, you can find 3 minutes to write.
- Next, tell yourself that for however long the timer is set, you're going to write constantly during that time. You're not going to worry about editing; you're not going to worry about whether what you're writing is "good." Just keep your pen (or keyboard) moving for a few minutes.
By the end of those minutes, you may find that you're already absorbed in a project and want to keep going. That's great! If you have the time, by all means go for it.
Or, if you simply don't have the time right now, schedule time to work on the project again tomorrow. Even if it's just for another 3 minutes.
This tool is so helpful because, as with using prompts, it removes the pressure to write perfectly. Because no one can produce perfect writing in just a few minutes.
This makes us more willing to just dive in and start writing, which helps us break past the barrier of starting and increases the odds that we'll be inspired to keep writing.
It's Meant to Be Simple
Each of these practices is remarkably simple. And that's by design.
The aspiring writer's mind is already filled with so many stories and so many judgements; we don't need things to get any more complicated!
Instead, we can draw on these simple, effective tools to help ground us back into our creativity, away from the judgemental chatter of our minds, back to where the magic has a chance of happening.
How do you navigate the pressures of perfectionism when you sit down to write?