For me one of the biggest drags on writing has been the feeling that it’s “not good enough.”
Non-suckism, a.k.a. perfectionism, is something every writer must overcome.
Yet many don’t realize it because of this wildly misleading label “perfectionism” that’s bandied about.
I certainly don’t feel that “perfectionism” sounds like it applies to me.
How about you, are you trying to be perfect?
If you’re anything like me, the answer is definitely no.
I’m just trying not to suck!
But once you look past the label “perfectionism” and on to what it’s really referring to, you’ll realize that it may apply to you, as it does to me.
Of course, you want to become a better writer, and that’s a noble aspiration.
But it can hold you back from continuing your work.
You WILL become a better writer by finishing your work.
“You learn by finishing things,” as Neil Gaiman says.
And in the mean time, you have to let the writing happen and be what it is.
Chances are your draft or proto-draft is not going to compare favorably to a finished, reviewed, and published piece. So there is no point in comparing it to that.
You may have to repeatedly finish things, over many years of finishing things, to get near the articles or books you might be comparing yourself to. Now may be the time to enjoy watching your writing improve.
But, no doubt, it can be hard sometimes to deal with your opinion of the writing as it’s on-going.
What to do:
1. Don’t be the only audience to your writing.
When you write, you can spend hours “reading” your work, while it would take your audience only a few minutes. This is natural: it’s simply because it’s slower to write than it is to read.
But the problem is you’ve got the opportunity to store up hundreds of impressions and opinions.
They build up in your mind! They combine forces, or they each get attached to imaginary professors and colleagues and start speaking to you even.
Instead, give little parts of your writing to trusted friends to read, and give them a specific question to ask. Any bit of feedback they give you will be better than letting your imagination run wild.
This is much better than simply writing alone with the idea that when you’re done you’ll SUBMIT IT TO THE JOURNAL!!! or you’ll GIVE THE CHAPTER TO THE PROFESSOR !!!
That’s a lot of pressure when you are drafting, all along living with your private thoughts in the run up.
It might be an imposition to throw an unfinished chapter at a friend and say, “tell me what you think!”
But it isn’t bad at all to give her or him 4 pages and ask “is there something that needs to be explained here, or does it make sense as it is?”
Or some other specific question. Just getting out of the field of limitless possibilities for critique– and out of the limitless time to form them– will take a lot of steam out of the not-suckism cooker. When someone gives you some feedback to hold on to, even if you decide you won’t act on it, your imagination no longer runs as wild with innumerable criticisms.
Then you just need to make sure you finish things so that you can grow as a writer in the future.
Every finished piece is an investment in your writing ability.
Which brings up the next thing you can do:
2. Use steps, not deadlines (but also deadlines, because… well, that’s how we roll)
Get accountable about when you are going to do to the writing.
And this doesn’t mean the big day when it’s due. Don’t worry over whether you will or won’t be worried about that, because you will!
What you need to concern yourself with is identifying small steps to take and always know what the next one will be. Then showing up for this little duty.
You probably wouldn’t just skip out on the class you have to teach. Or the meeting you have to be at.
Yet even though writing is crucial to your survival as an academic, you may do all the other things you “have to” do first, and put writing last.
Put it first.
If possible, get writing out of the way first thing in the day. If not, schedule some of your writing sessions as unbreakable appointments.
That way you can look at your schedule for the week and see if it really displays your priorities.
When you look at your schedule, does it look like writing is important to your life and survival?
The number one thing you can do to combat not-suckism or perfectionism is to transfer your attention on success from the quality of your first to draft to the act of building a writing habit and Writer’s Momentum.
Instead of trying to write great, or not sucky, try to work on scheduling in some writing sessions and be great, or not sucky, at that.
We’re going to have this desire to be good, and not bad, anyway. It’s natural.
But it’s not working when that energy is directed toward the quality of the writing exclusively, and not to the process.
To be sure, writing the Great American Dissertation that Gets the Job or the Great Book that Keeps the Job might seem like the place to direct all the attention. Or the dissertation or book that doesn’t suck.
You can’t resist that completely.
But if you can put your energy into being The One who Keeps Their Writing Appointment or The One who is Focused on Doing Small Steps, then you will be in the company of not only the ones who succeed in academia but in the company of almost all the greatest writers of all time.
Almost every one of the greatest writers wrote steadily, in small increments, and by keeping to that grew as writers, naturally.
Writing is the solution to problems in writing. You have to show up. You don’t have to be perfect and in fact, at least in my experience, you have to be willing to suck.
Sucking is not easy to commit to, obviously!
Much better if you sidestep that, and commit instead to doing the small steps day by day that will get you to finished. It’s in that environment that growth as a writer comes.
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