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Seven Strategies for Banishing Your Perfectionism

I injured my arm while making Hollandaise sauce last year. It took me a while to figure out I had a repetitive strain injury. Ugh. I spend almost all of my working life at a keyboard. And when I'm not working I'm either walking (ok), reading (turning pages hurt), cooking (ouch!) or playing piano (I had to cancel my lessons.)

Perfectionism should have been the furthest thing from my mind after getting — and recovering from — this injury. But post-Hollandaise, I was reluctant to resume working on my book. It wasn't so much the pain in my arm. It was more my concern that my writing wasn't any good. Could that have been perfectionism speaking?

I was born such a raging perfectionist that my husband still teases me about it. I think it came from a confluence of my own natural tendencies, aggravated by my father's ultra-competitive scolding. ("Did anyone in your class get higher marks than you?" was my childhood theme song.) I've worked to relax over the years and, my husband's comments notwithstanding, appear to have mellowed. In fact, judging by my score on this perfectionism test, if I were any less perfectionistic I might, in fact, be dead.

Still, my reluctance to resume my book spurred me to do some research on perfectionism. If you feel perfectionism keeps you from writing, here are seven strategies to adopt:

1) Get started with just five minutes: I've written before about the magic of five minutes and I continue to believe it's a magic bullet for writers. Who doesn't have five minutes? And who doesn't know that starting a project is always the hardest part? Break through resistance by promising to spend five measly minutes writing — what do you have to lose? In fact, that's how I'm going to get started on my book again. At the time I had to quit I was working 30 minutes a day on it. I know it will take me some "conditioning" to get back up to that length of time — and I'm perfectly okay with that.

2) Separate the process from the product: The act of writing (the process) is far more important than what you are writing (the product) — whether it's an article, a website or a book. Focus on the process. The product is something you needn't even think about until much further down the road.

3) Don't conflate worthiness with achievement: You are worthy, whatever you decide to do. Writing, laying bricks, lawyering — these are essentially hobbies in the face of our real life's work: looking after family, friends, and ourselves. You may choose to write but that doesn't make you a better person. It just makes you a person who writes.

4) Allow/encourage a crappy first draft: I've coached many writers who are terrified of their first draft. They express disbelief when I tell them that no one else needs to see it. But a crappy first draft allows you to put your words on the page without terror. Then — and only then — you can move words around, add material, and delete. Repeat after me: no one needs to see your first draft. No one. It is personal and private. Write crap. Edit it later.

5) Set a time limit: Beginning with five minutes is good but you also need to know your end point. Don't allow yourself to write for limitless hours, even if you're ultra-enthusiastic about your project. Here are five excellent reasons why limiting your writing time is just as important as starting it.

6) Forgive yourself: So your first draft wasn't as good as you'd hoped. That happens to every writer — even apparently perfect ones like Alice Munro, who initially didn't tell her own mother she was writing stories. Remember: the only big failure is failing to write.

7) Reflect on your shortcomings and your successes: We all have strengths and weaknesses and if we're able to recognize them, we're able to grow as writers. Celebrate your strengths (which might be the power to write great dialogue, smooth transitions, or explain the complex in simple language) and minimize your weaknesses, whatever they are. Writers get better only by practicing.

Don't allow yourself to stop; don't be afraid to start.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.