Defeating perfect enemies

Here is the single most useful piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard, and I apologise for not thinking of posting it sooner. It came from my PhD supervisor, lo these many years ago, and it really helped me to get started in earnest on writing my thesis.


If you’re procrastinating, blocked, or otherwise having serious difficulties starting a piece of writing, it may well be because you’re a perfectionist.  You’re possibly unsure of what exactly is required of the piece – the scope, the tone, the structure, the length – and your perfectionist little brain won’t let you start working on something that it knows won’t meet your high standards.

If this happens to you: just start writing. Dive straight into that first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect is the enemy of the good*, but it doesn’t even have to be good. Not at this stage, anyway.

The trick is to make your perfectionism work for you, rather than against you, by shifting it to a different stage of the writing process. Trust yourself: trust that if you put your perfectionist tendencies aside during the drafting process, they’ll still be there later, waiting for you, and will kick in during the editing phase. You will, inevitably, re-read your dodgy imperfect first draft, recognize the flaws, and start to restructure, reword, fill in gaps, cut unnecessary sections, lather, rinse, repeat. C’mon – you’re a perfectionist! You just know you won’t put up with an imperfect draft for long! You’ll whip it’s arse into shape in no time!


Of course, you then have to turn your perfectionism back off again after a final thorough editing and proofreading, because otherwise you’ll never submit the damn thing.

Blog posts are excellent training in this regard. I’ll publish a blog post at a waaaaay earlier stage than when sending a document to my boss or another colleague. I might notice the occasional typo or clumsy wording, and go back and tweak once it’s posted… but then again, I might get lucky and have comments to respond to instead. Which is much more fun, obviously.


*supplementary advice: as I learned just last year, during a writing course I took at work, procrastinating until just before a deadline is another way to defeat this enemy. If you wait long enough, the deadline will become so urgent that you’ll accept that the piece doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be on time (and good enough), and you’ll be able to start writing. Some people will never be able to eliminate this deadline crutch, but the main thread of the advice above may help you to take the first wobbly unaided steps.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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14 Responses to Defeating perfect enemies

  1. HGGirl says:

    A very similar piece of advice given to me in an academic writing class: Don't aspire to be a good writer; aspire to be a good *editor*. Just get something down on that first draft, and then practice your editing skills to create that finished document. (Another good time-saver…work on the high-level organization before carefully wording sentences. That perfect sentence might get cut because it just doesn't fit!)

  2. ScientistMother says:

    puke on a page! I always start the writing by puking all my thoughts onto the page. I type out exactly what I'm thinking, in all its garbage. It gets my ideas on the page, where I can then start sorting and editing into more coherent pieces. It must work, because AwesomeAdvisor said I write very well :))

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    HGGirl, I guess it's a fairly common piece of advice! I'd never heard it before (or since), but maybe it's obvious, everybody already knows it, and this post was completely unnecessary.Oh well, it was good writing practice for me :)ScientistMother, damnit! You come here and sum up (and indeed trump) my entire post with the four words "puke on a page"! It's not something that comes naturally to me, but I'm glad it's working for you!

  4. The bean-mom says:

    "Puking on a page" doesn't come naturally to me, either, and is something I have to work on (like Cath, I have perfectionistic tendencies in this regard). Something I read somewhere by a writer of fiction: "You can edit a badly written page. You can't edit a blank page."

  5. chall says:

    THanks Cath: It's soooo true. And puke on a page is what I end up doing, close to a dead line when there is now time to "second guess myself but rather just crunch it together". That said, there is always a risk that you end up waiting just a little too long…. and really, it's not worth the agonizing close to dead line days… so I am trying to just "write".I'll take this and the other advices by the commentators and start doing my writing very soon!

  6. Alyssa says:

    Love it, and something that I started doing during my PhD. Once I stopped looking for the "perfect" word/wording, I just felt this freedom! One other thing to remember is no one will read that draft but you – just write what's in your head, including the "um's" or "is this what I mean?" or "a word that means bad, but better", so you can just move on. It's a wonderful way to go 🙂

  7. Lisbeth says:

    Excellent advise – but gee, I wish someone would come up with the perfect (easy preferably!) cure for elimination of the deadline crutch…

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Bean-Mom, so true! The first draft is definitely the part I find the hardest.Chall, I believe some people enjoy the adrenaline rush of a good deadline. I'm not 100% immune myself, but I'd like to have the choice – I'm often waiting for other "deadline writers" to finish their parts before I can start mine!Alyssa, I totally do that too – if I can't think of the right word, I put the wrong one and highlight or bold it so I know to try and replace it when I edit. It's a nice system that prevents those complete screeching halts that happen when you're searching for the perfect word!Lisbeth, me too! I'm managing some baby steps thanks to the course I mentioned, that helped me understand the process better and build in time for revisions etc. But it's hard to break those lifelong dependencies drummed into us since high school!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The deadline motivation used to work for me but then I read Douglas Adams and realised that some deadlines are more permiable than others.-antipodean

  10. Anonymous says:

    this bit of writing advice might be common knowledge to some, but it is still good to hear. I suffer from wanting my writing to be perfect early on, then I end up procrastinating. I think it also goes hand in hand with over thinking. I spend so much time thinking about the exceptions to what I am writing that it takes forever to get my thoughts out. I wish I could puke on the page…

  11. ScienceGirl says:

    Must learn to puke on a page, I am a much better editor then writer! Now if I could only eliminate the deadline crutch, too! This post has some catchy phrases for me to keep in mind from now on 😉

  12. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Antipodean, I suspect you might have to have Douglas Adams' kind of success before you can enjoy that kind of cavalier attitude to deadlines!WOOSH!Anon, yeah, I should have linked this post to my overthinking one from last week!ScienceGirl, don't you have someone to puke on pages for you now? 🙂

  13. ScienceGirl says:

    So far, she's not a puker (I hope it stays that way!!! 😉

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