Perfectionism -- II

April 16, 2010

This past week, I was at George Mason University and University of Virginia giving talks to doctoral students and new faculty members. Whether I was talking to the students or the faculty members, I saw the most heads nodding in agreement when I started presenting on the joys of perfectionism. But I don’t dwell on perfectionism or any of the derivations of writer’s block. I present on it long enough for us to laugh at ourselves; then I quickly move on to those techniques that help academic writers develop habits of fluent writing.

If you think about it, it is not in the least bit surprising that doctoral programs and faculty positions are filled with those who hold very high standards for themselves. We have held high standards for ourselves through years of academic preparation. Plus, as I wrote in my last column, we have good taste. That is, according to the Ira Glass video I referenced in that column, our good taste and our abilities typically do not match up, especially early on in our careers. Certainly they come together over time, but ultimately we start off with better taste than our ability can meet. This is the problem of perfectionism. We stop ourselves from engaging in those tasks that move us forward in our abilities because we spend too much time focusing on the small decisions instead of the big decisions. Or, we stop ourselves from getting the type of feedback early on that helps us to improve our ability.

In this column, I will present how I have seen perfectionism manifest itself in academic writers. Then I’ll suggest some specific remedies that have helped me and others transform our perfectionism from a liability into an asset.

Whenever I work with someone who is struggling about deciding on a dissertation topic, my perfectionism radar goes up. In these situations, I have noticed that they are not struggling over a decision about their dissertation topic; rather, they are struggling over a decision about their perfect dissertation topic. They tried out two or three topics, all of which were perfectly good topics, just not perfect. They can very eloquently tell me the reasons that this particular topic is not good enough and usually have another topic somewhat identified, although not completely formed. As a result, they have to spend more time struggling over a dissertation topic, but continue to put off committing to a topic and so delay working on their dissertation for a while more.

Another way that perfectionism manifests itself is when writers focus on finding just the right word -- no, not the right, nor the correct, not even the appropriate, but when they search for the perfect word. If you have a dog-eared copy of a thesaurus on your desk and have your online thesaurus open at the same time, you may know what I am talking about. Do you love flipping through a thesaurus? I do. Mine is always in arm's reach while I am writing. The difference today is that I have managed to keep in check my tendency to reach for my thesaurus while I am writing my first and early drafts.

Likewise, have you ever agonized over an eloquent introductory sentence or introduction? Yes, some introductory sentences are memorable. Tolstoy’s opening line to Anna Karenina is widely praised as one of the best opening lines of all time: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Dickens's introduction to A Tale of Two Cities is also in the running for the best opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....” Now I want everyone to be sitting down when you read what I will write next: neither of these books was originally published by a university press. Also, when searching around the Internet for memorable first lines, not once did an example from a scholarly journal pop up on the screen.

Chances are you can write a really good dissertation, a publishable book, or a journal article that makes it through the peer-review process. Although, the odds are against you if you want to write a memorable introductory sentence that reaches the heights of Tolstoy or Dickens. So as academic writers, while we may aspire to write that perfect, eloquent introductory sentence, perhaps we are better off writing a submission to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, also known as the “Dark and Stormy Night Contest.” Every year, dedicated members of San Jose State University’s Department of English wade through thousands of entries to identify the worst unpublished opening lines. I’ve posted some of my favorites to my Web site. I love reading through these comical opening lines for unwritten novels, but only after I have finished my writing for the day. Plus, they remind me that my goal is not to write a memorable introductory sentence but a good column, article, or book.

Another way I have seen perfectionism manifest itself is in prohibiting writers from sharing their error-prone early drafts with classmates or colleagues. As I told my audience last week, "The truth will be told." Eventually you will have to share your work with your dissertation adviser or committee members, or other gatekeepers such as colleagues or editors. Eventually you will have to show your writing to the light of day. Why not start by sharing it with a friendly audience first? Why not share it with an audience that you get to hand-pick?

While I will share particular remedies for each of these manifestations of perfectionism, I want to foreshadow that as you read this column and my future columns on the other forms of writer’s block, you will start to see that the remedies start to look suspiciously similar. Just as Tolstoy noticed that happy families share some common traits, so do fluent writers. I will offer to you what I offered to my audiences last week: The Single System Guarantee. I guarantee that if you employ prewriting, engage in a regular writing routine, keep a writing graph, and contract with writing partners or groups, you will meet your writing goals and will enjoy writing. I promise. Guaranteed.

In a future series of columns, I will write about the stages of prewriting. For now and for the purposes of addressing perfectionism, I will focus on the concept of prewriting and on contracting with writing partners. From what I have seen, sitting down to write is not the biggest challenge of those who struggle with perfectionism (for those of you who struggle with perfectionism and procrastination, yes; but that is really associated with the manifestation of procrastination more so than perfectionism). Nor have I found that keeping writing graphs directly addresses the issue of perfectionism. But as I mentioned earlier, all the fluent writers I have known have managed to incorporate into their writing adequate planning and organizing (e.g., prewriting), regularly scheduled times (e.g., a regular writing routine), some mechanism for tracking output (e.g., keeping a writing graph), and opportunities for sharing ideas and drafts with other like-minded friends who may or may not be writers (e.g., writing partners or groups).

Prewriting is so important for those of us who deal with perfectionism because we want to spend, and even waste, time on the small decisions at the expense of spending time on the big decisions. Prewriting helps us to focus on the big decisions. What is the big point that I want my readers to walk away with? What are the three sub-points that I want them to grasp? This may sound contradictory if you are struggling over a dissertation topic. Although with those who struggle with perfectionism, the issue really isn’t honing in on a dissertation topic -- it is committing to a dissertation topic. It is accepting that no topic is perfect and that there are many others that will be adequate. Some topics are better than others; none are perfect. In order to prevent yourself from searching for the perfect topic, you may want to contract with a writing partner, your adviser, or a mentor who can let you know when you have spent enough time on choosing a topic and when it is time to work on that topic. So if you are grappling over a dissertation topic, good, you know the importance of choosing a good topic. Although, please do not let the quest for the perfect dissertation topic prevent you from writing a good dissertation.

After you have committed to a dissertation topic, you still need to engage in prewriting, this time to ensure that you focus on the big decisions before focusing on the small decisions. Before starting to write prose, you will want to transform your dissertation topic into a one-page outline and then a long outline. This process will keep you focused on the big decisions, the decisions that matter for now. At each step, be sure to employ your supportive writing partners to review your work, give you feedback, and hold you accountable to moving forward. At any point in the process, the temptation to spin your wheels over writing the perfect short or long outline can hold you back.

As you begin to write prose, may I make two suggestions? The first suggestion is that instead of grappling over writing that introductory paragraph, you use a placeholder and write it later. Type in “Put intro paragraph here” and then move on with the rest of your writing. As you are writing and you find yourself leafing through that thesaurus while comparing it to the results of your online thesaurus, why not put down and close up both? Then type in "blank" and continue on with your writing. Later on, when you have that crummy first draft down on the page, you can write your introductory paragraph and replace blank with the appropriate words. I use blank as a placeholder every single time. Why? Because the last thing I do before sending a piece off to my editor is to search on blank and replace what I missed during the revision stage. I do not want to put myself in a position where I have used different, but assuredly clever, placeholders throughout my writing only to miss one in the revision stage and find it after my piece is published.

As a reader commented on my last column, “Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword!” Only after you have that crummy first draft down on the page can you leverage your perfectionism. After you have those words down on the page, you can revise and rewrite so that you can transform that crummy first draft into what Anne Lamott calls "good second drafts and terrific third drafts" (Bird by Bird, p. 21). Now you can leverage your ability to turn OK prose into great prose. In addition, because you have gotten into the habit of sharing your outlines and earlier versions with writing partners, it should be easier to share your early error-prone draft with your writing partners and to get good feedback from others who may also share your perfectionist traits. Ah, but the key to this being easy is that all along, your writing partners have also shared their early outlines and error-prone drafts with you. You see that others too start with crummy first drafts and through the magic of revision transform them into final drafts that are ready for public consumption.

Donald Murray, in The Craft of Revision, wrote “Lower your standards until you are able to write. Create, then criticize” (p. 178). This is the challenge for any of us who struggle with perfectionism. The challenge is to lower our standards. We need to put words down on the page so that we can revise and raise our writing up to our standards. As you are starting out, keep your standards low, and with every additional writing project, raise your standards. As I wrote in my book, “Your dissertation should be the worst piece of research that you ever write — not that your dissertation should be bad, but all of your subsequent research and scholarship should be better” (Demystifying Dissertation Writing, p. 20).

In my next column, I will continue writing this series on Writer’s Block. Watch for my next column on procrastination. Until next time, be well. As always, I look forward to your comments, suggestions, or questions.

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