3 Times It's OK For Writers To Be A Perfectionist

Recently a subscriber asked me how to deal with perfectionism as a writer. She wrote:

"The problem is I'm a perfectionist. Even though I know that's not healthy for a beginning writer, I still criticize everything. I like to plan out every single detail, I just can't write without it. If there are any tips you could share on how to deal with this problem, that'd be sweet"

This question really hit home for me, because as a writer I did (and still do!) struggle with the same thing.

I recently finished a 13-month edit of my 321-page novel, and during that edit I wanted to throw myself out a window because every word had to be perfect. Every sentence had to flow into the next, every comma needed to be in the right place.

There were so many days I asked myself why I embarked on this writing journey, because it seemed like my perfectionism would never let me finish the book.

Now that I've finally finished the book and can see the fruits of my perfectionist labor, I know it was worth it.

Being a perfectionist made me insane, but it allowed me to create work that I'm proud of, work that readers are excited by, and work that's garnering positive responses and feedback as I venture into the publishing field.

So does being a perfectionist drive a writer crazy?


But is it a problem?


Show me one great writer, musician or artist that wasn't obsessive (actually, please tell me if you know one) because to be great at what we do, creatives have to be obsessive! They have to be perfectionist!

They have to question every plot point, every piece of dialogue, every grammatical choice and ask if it's the most effective way to tell their story.

So don't be discouraged by your perfectionism because being a perfectionist is going to let you write amazing stories.

All you have to learn is when to let your perfectionism drive you and when you have to let go and just write.

Alright, then when is it okay to be a perfectionist?

Whether you want to traditionally publish or self publish, there are roughly 3 stages of writing:

1) Outlining

2) First Draft

3) Revision/Editing

Depending on your writing process, your strengths, and your weaknesses, you can spend any amount of time in any of these writing stages.

The time you spend in each stage doesn't matter, but when you choose to be a perfectionist does.

Should I Be A Perfectionist When Planning: YES

If you're the type of person who loves plotting out your novel and building out your story world in advance, feel free to let your perfectionism go crazy here.

Those of you who have been with me a long time know I love to use J.K. Rowling as an example, because she is the most prominent and most successful example of how being a perfectionist when you plan can create amazing stories.

J.K. Rowling struck literary gold when she decided to write about a boarding school for wizards. But the amazing idea is not why Harry Potter is so good (good being a huge understatement - Harry Potter is life).

Harry Potter is amazing because J.K. Rowling sat down and spent five years planning out the Harry Potter world and story line.

Could she have taken her amazing idea and started writing immediately? Yeah. Would that story still have been published? Probably.

But would it have changed the world?


So if you want to be a perfectionist when you plan out your story, go ahead!

Just make sure you don't get so wrapped up in planning that you don't actually write anything.

Should I Be A Perfectionist In The First Draft: NO

This is the single biggest mistake I made when completing my first novel.

Like many writers I believed that if I went very slowly and let my perfectionism take control I could save myself the need to revise and make a publishing-worthy novel on the first draft.

Like many writers (if not every writer...) I was wrong. Dead wrong.

I wasted time trying to make the sentences/characters/prose/dialogue perfect when I should have just been writing the story. Being a perfectionist when writing the first draft isn't only a bad idea, it is a tremendous waste of time.

Accept the fact that even the best of writers have to revise AT LEAST once and turn off your perfectionism so you can get the first draft written.

Should I Be A Perfectionist When Revising: YES

Now I'm going to warn you - your perfectionism will drive you crazy during this stage of the writing process.

It will seem endless. It may make you feel like you will never finish revising your book or that you should just settle because it's "good enough."

Being a perfectionist when you revise will be awful, but no matter what don't stop, don't give up!

Whether you're trying to traditionally publish or self publish, you want to be 100% happy when you send that book into the world. That means no dialogue that makes you cringe, no descriptions that feel too clunky.

This is your story to share, so if there's ever a time for you to try and make it perfect, it's here.

Alright, there you have it!

Good luck turning your perfectionism into an asset and let me know in the comments! How does perfectionism effect you when you're writing?

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Tomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi is the #1 NYT and International Best-Selling author of book and upcoming movie CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE.