How to quit polishing and start publishing
Do you have impossibly high standards?
Do you hold back on hitting publish because you just want to polish your draft a little bit more?
Do you resist sharing because your writing isn’t quite ready for prime time?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you might be a perfectionist.
Eternal Polishing Syndrome
I was never diagnosed with this, but I suffered the symptoms.
As an art student, I wanted to impress my teachers, my classmates, and pretty much everyone.
So I’d spend all day Saturday and Sunday on one drawing. I’d outline, shade, and blend. Then I’d erase because I wasn’t happy with what I’d done. Then I’d outline, shade, and blend again.
This would go on for hours.
My work would turn out looking wonderful. But sometimes the paper would suffer for it. Erasers are harsh and every time you use them, a little of the paper comes off in the process.
If the paper had been thicker, I could have used that to create a 3-dimensional effect.
But paper isn’t sculpture. And even sculpture has its limits. You can only slice away so much wood or clay before you reach the point where you’ve gone too far.
And you know you can’t put it back.
As writers, we’re tempted to do the same thing with our words. They start off full of life and vigor. Sure, they’re rough around the edges. A little polishing won’t hurt.
But if you keep polishing forever, you rub all the life out of your writing.
When you have Eternal Polishing Syndrome, you’re more committed to the polish than the presentation.
What’s the Cure?
You don’t have to be a perfectionist forever.
Does that mean you’ll never struggle with it again?
I’m not saying that. I struggle with it all the time. I’ve found you have to fight back. You do that by changing how you approach your work.
Perfectionism is a habit. And just as you worked hard to develop it, you can learn to fight it.
My perfectionism was part of the story I told myself growing up. If I’m not perfect, people won’t love me. If I’m not perfect, what I do won’t matter to anyone. If I’m not perfect, I may as well not try at all.
I changed my ways when I changed my story.
My epiphany came when I found out my heroes weren’t perfect. In fact, some of them were more screwed up than I was. Yet, they figured out a way to make a difference.
You’ll never be perfect either.
Don’t worry about it.
Do these things instead.
Race against the clock.
As a perfectionist, I was also a procrastinator.
I wanted more time to gather data.
I wanted to polish my work until it sang.
I wanted all my i’s dotted and all my t’s crossed.
And when I was done, I found more things to polish.
Everything changed when I started setting time limits.
I was first introduced to racing against the clock in a creative writing class. Maybe you know the drill. You write a prompt on the top of your paper. You give yourself 5 or 10 minutes. Then you write whatever comes to mind, even if it’s gibberish. The key is to keep writing until the alarm stops you.
You’re not allowed to edit as you write.
You can’t erase anything, not even misspellings.
Your mission is to fill the page.
And if what you wrote sucks, you can do it over under the same conditions.
When I decided to blog every day, I knew I had to set limits. So I did — for everything. Writing. Editing. Polishing.
When the time was up, I had to ship.
This practice has done more for my productivity than anything else I’ve ever tried.
Cut out the B.S..
Since I’ve asked you to set time limits for everything, including editing, you may be wondering what to edit for.
I’m not going to tell you to leave in typos and broken sentences. I mean, we’re perfectionists, right? We want to sound good. We want our words to sing.
So I’m calling to embrace glorious imperfection.
That means you cut out the B.S.
Before you lose your mind thinking I’ve lost mine, let me explain.
B.S. is an acrostic. I’m a teacher, so I love memory aids. If you remember one thing, remember what B.S. stands for.
B is for Bad Flow.
This a before and after treatment for your writing.
Start off by focusing on one main point.
Then use the rest of your writing to drive home that one main point.
You can do that by answering these three questions:
Why does this matter?
What does it mean?
What do I want people to do with this?
You’ll have to put yourself in your reader’s shoes. If you were on the other side of the screen, what would convince you?
First, you have to care to read further. Once you care, you want to know what agreeing means for you. Then you need a way to apply it, otherwise, you’ll forget it.
That’s good flow.
When you meander, you can get off track. Side roads are detours that can take you further from your destination. They might be fun, but your reader might not want that adventure. We all have too many choices and too little time. If you can pack a punch and do it quickly, your reader will thank you for it.
S is for Stiff Prose.
Some of my college classes were invitations to nap.
It’s a shame you have to pay the price of a house to be bored by pompous professors protected by tenure.
That would never fly in the business world.
It won’t fly with your readers either.
When people interact with you, make it fun. Give them something that will leave them better than you found them. Show them you care by not boring them.
Say stuff that scares you a little. Offend people for the right reasons. Unleash the evangelist inside you.
If you’re stiff, your relationship with your reader will die.
Be fresh and lively instead.
You won’t make a difference if you don’t ship.
I believe perfectionists aren’t really scared of sending their work out. They’re scared of it not being perfect. They’re scared of feeling naked when they share something personal. They’re scared they’ll be rejected when they take a stand.
All of that could happen.
But maybe it won’t.
Perfect is an illusion. By whose standards? By what measure? How will you know?
Settle for effectiveness instead.
It’s effective when it grabs people’s attention. It makes a difference when it brings a needed change. It’s good enough when people start talking about it and sharing it with their friends.
Be an Effectiveness Addict. Make that your aim. Effectiveness lives in glorious imperfection. It’s one human reaching another imperfect human. It’s locking arms with others and saying, “I don’t have all the answers, so let’s go through this together.”
One more thing before you go.
Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career.
He also struck out more than most other players.
He succeeded because he picked the bat and swung a lot.
Today nobody remembers his failures.
People won’t remember yours, either.
Press on. Write. Publish. Learn. Repeat.
Soon perfectionism will grow strangely dim in the light of daring and glorious imperfection.
Go. Write something effective. Share it. You’ll be an Effectiveness Addict in no time.
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