Have you ever sat down to start a writing assignment and become so paralyzed with worry or anxiety that you can’t even get going?
Many beginning (and experienced, for that matter!) writers suffer from perfectionism, or “analysis paralysis,” that can lead to writer’s block. Once our self-censor kicks in, nothing we write is going to be good enough — or so our inner critic tells us.
If you suffer from perfectionism, try these eight tips to get over it fast — and get on with your assignment.
1. Try a “mind dump.”
Anecdotally, writers, artists, and even business leaders observe that holding on to worries and stressors can inhibit the ability to think creatively. A mind dump is simply a strategy to get out everything that’s on our minds because these thoughts may be causing anxiety and eventual creative block.
If you find yourself stuck on your writing project, take a few minutes to jot down, longhand, anything that may be getting in your way. Perhaps you are afraid of not measuring up because of an overly critical parent or sibling, for example. Or maybe you’re worried that your vocabulary, or grammar, or [your fill in the blank], isn’t up to par. Write it all down. Get it out. Then, if you are so inclined, wad the paper up and throw it in the trash. All gone.
2. Turn off your computer screen.
First drafts are all about getting the big ideas down; the perfectionist’s tendency to line-edit prematurely and excessively will kill the flow of creative thinking required in the early stages of a project.
When I teach writing in a computer lab, I always instruct my students to turn off the computer altogether and compose their first drafts by hand. The gasps are audible, but by composing without the distractions of a digital screen or the ease of electronic editing tools, writers can keep the ideas flowing and get them down before falling into the trap of slashing their work too soon.
Write with no outcome in mind other than to let yourself consider possibilities. Freewriting is the practice of letting your mind wander, allowing you to explore topics and ideas associated with it. Remember that, at this stage, it doesn’t matter what others may think about your writing. Just take it as far as you can go, and have fun with it. This freewriting step is only for your eyes — so no need to overthink, edit, or judge.
4. Draw a mind map.
A mind map is a visual roadmap or diagram of a topic, sometimes referred to as an “idea map.” This notetaking strategy is ideal for visual learners or those who can’t quite make sense of traditional linear outlines.
To begin, place your topic idea in a circle in the center of a blank piece of paper. With colored markers or pencils (or use crayons if it will make the activity more fun), begin writing keywords, ideas, or subtopics of your centered topic in connected circles around the page. Draw lines of association between related ideas. Branch off your subtopic circles with more keywords and ideas. When you are done, you’ll have a visual picture — and ideally, a clearer “map” of where you want to go.
5. Take a walk.
The last thing a perfectionist wants to do is stop working, but studies confirm that even moderate physical activity increases creativity. Stagnant physical energy can cause stagnant thinking, and exercise is one of the best ways to unleash the creative energy required for writing — and yes, even academic writing is a creative act. Walking speeds up the heart, pumping blood and oxygen into our organs more quickly — including into our brain. After even mild exertion, participants performed better on tests of memory and attention. In addition, research has shown that mild distraction can actually generate insights because it gets you relaxed and enables your brain to benefit from an “incubation period.” In short: Get moving.
If you are a perfectionist, you’re more than likely a slow writer because you constantly judge your output. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write as fast as you can. If you get to a place where you don’t know what to say, jot down “SKIP” or “COME BACK” to indicate that you need to revisit that section, but keep moving forward. Go back and clean up the spelling and grammar only after the 10 minutes are up.
7. Think in terms of drafts.
The word “essay” derives from the French essayer, meaning "to try" or "to attempt." First drafts are just that — a first attempt. Indeed, first drafts may be an introduction that leads to nothing, a conclusion with no beginning, or a middle with no beginning or end, or simply a rough outline.
Too many novice writers believe it’s possible to compose a full first draft — an essay with a captivating introduction, a body with compelling research, and a persuasive conclusion — in a single draft. On the contrary, it takes multiple drafts and painstaking revision to compose a strong paper. Writing is a process, and it’s not going to be perfect the first time. Just get something down and move on.
8. Separate the writing assignment from the writer.
There is you, the writer, and there is the essay with a due date. The writing is the content of the essay; the writer is a person with emotions. These are two totally separate entities. Often, however, perfectionists judge the writer and not the writing, and most writers judge their work much more harshly than others would. If you hear your inner critic every time you sit down to write — offering up discouraging thoughts such as, “That’s a stupid idea!” or “A boring topic!” or “You’re a lousy writer!” – consider this: Would you say any of these things to your classmates? No. Then stop saying them to yourself.
The writing may (at present) lack a controlling idea, but that doesn’t mean you (the writer) lack the ability to generate one. The writing may have sentence-level errors, but that doesn’t mean the writer lacks the knowledge to create a relatively error-free essay. Examine your specific thoughts, and consider if these critiques are grounded in reality or are instead faulty assumptions and interpretations of your own talent based on anxiety and fear.
Perfectionists are much more likely to suffer from occasional bouts of writer’s block than others. Perfectionism is based in fear — but often, these worries are groundless. By following a few simple steps to avoid your inner perfectionist, you’ll be able to quell your fears and get on track to overcoming writer’s block.