10 Ways to Get Back to Productive Writing
May 31, 2019
Perfectionism, by definition, means “striving for impossibly high goals.” It is one of the most paralyzing obstacles writers face.
If you’re striving for perfection and seeing your work endlessly falling short of an impossible ideal, feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed will usually result in procrastination instead of writing. I call this combination of perfectionism, paralysis, and procrastination the “anti-creativity cycle.”
Here’s how you can break that cycle and get back to productive writing.
1. Close your “escape hatch”
Screenwriter Corey Mandell describes perfectionism as a writer’s “escape hatch.”
Because perfectionism leads to procrastination, we perfectionists often “run out of time” to do our best work, and can only do the bare minimum, thereby never giving ourselves a real opportunity to see what we’re truly capable of as writers. We “escape” facing the truths of our abilities.
Recognize that it’s scary to find out that we might fall short of our perfectionist visions, but also be aware that not trying at all is far worse.
Close your escape hatch by committing to writing on regular basis, planning out your deadlines, and working incrementally to get there so you don’t have to binge write at the end. Give yourself a chance to see yourself shine.
2. Be suspicious of both success and failure fantasies
Do you find yourself daydreaming about winning Oscars and becoming the next Big Thing in Hollywood? Are you worrying about getting another script (or more) written before you’ve even finished the current one, in case “they” ask what else you’re working on when they buy it?
Or, are you envisioning disaster scenarios of spending the rest of your life on the streets or in financial ruin because you sacrificed everything to become a writer and your writing never makes the cut?
3. Be equally suspicious of extreme fantasies, either positive or negative. They’re a sure sign that perfectionism and resistance are running the show.
Writing asks for day in, day out showing up and doing the work. It isn’t always glamorous, but it gets the job done. When you find yourself indulging in these kinds of fantasies, bring yourself back to the reality of the work.
4. Catch yourself in right-wrong thinking
If you’re afraid you’re “not good enough,” “not cut out to be a writer,” or worried you’ll “get it wrong,” chances are you’re painting yourself into a perfectionist’s corner.
When you’ve internalized messages that you have to perform at a certain level in order to be accepted, it’s easy to get stuck in thinking there’s only one right way to do things. Not true!
Remember, this is a creative industry, and there are always new ways to think outside the box to surprise and delight your audience. That’s the beauty of this job. There’s no “right” way to write.
5. Freewrite past perfectionism
If perfectionism is paralyzing, “freewriting” — working fast and loose — could be an antidote.
Hillary Rettig, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block, recommends freewriting as a way to unleash your creativity and intellect.
Freewriting is stream of consciousness writing, a technique often used in journaling or for writing morning pages. Freewriting is unfiltered, raw, badly punctuated, filled with typos — but fresh, real and true. It’s a powerful way to experiment, discover and break through perfectionism because it leaves room for you to “just write.”
Got a scene you’re stuck on? Start writing and see what comes out. No judgement, no evaluation, just writing.
6. Be ready to write many drafts
Along with freewriting, Rettig also recommends writing many drafts. In each draft, you’ll correct a few problems at a time and keep refining and shaping as you go, getting feedback along the way as needed.
Rettig says, “Setting out to write many drafts is the opposite of what many people seek to do, which is to try to write as few as possible... The ‘limiters’ think they’ve got the quickest process, but they’re wrong because setting an arbitrarily low number of drafts causes you to struggle to perfect each one, which is not only an inefficient process but an invitation to perfectionism.”
Since scripts usually require multiple drafts, going into the process welcoming the iterative nature of the work is a good way to enjoy it and keep perfectionism from taking hold.
7. Play with writing longhand
While you’re freewriting, you may want to write longhand. Many writers feel freer when they do so. If you find yourself freezing up when you’re facing a blank page or working on a critical part of your script, try writing longhand on paper.
The feeling of writing “outside the draft” and in a less final format can free up creativity and insight.
8. Work in small increments of time
When perfectionism is so paralyzing that you’re procrastinating for days on end, jump start the process and commit to writing for just five to 15 minutes at a time.
You’ll find that the first few minutes can be painfully difficult, but as you work past that point, the words and story will come back to life in your mind again.
Then — and this is the crucial part — make sure you do it again the next day, building up to more writing over time (but not so much that you trigger perfectionism again!).
9. Embrace learning and growth
When you’re writing, mentally create a positive learning environment to work in.
Approach your work with the belief that you’re always going to be learning, growing and improving as a writer. In other words, have a “growth” mindset where you recognize that the best way to become proficient is to write, make mistakes, write more, make more mistakes, and try again. And who’s to say what’s really a mistake anyway?
Commit to enjoying the process of growing as a writer, even on the days when it feels hard. Perfectionism doesn’t have room to creep in when you’re focused on learning.
10. Strive for excellence rather than perfection
Last but not least, leave perfection for the Powers That Be, and strive instead for excellence. You want to aim high, but not so high it’s impossible.
Excellence is exciting. It’s a high bar, but it’s a professional bar, not an impossible one. Give yourself the gift of aiming to do your best work — and enjoying the heck out of it along the way.
Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment
Where do you see yourself in terms of perfectionism? Is it stopping you from writing? What might you apply from today’s article to help you move past it and into action with your script? Take a few minutes and jot down a commitment to yourself, whether you start with writing for a few minutes a day, experiment with freewriting, or simply promise to pay attention to shifting your writing mindset into a more positive place.
Got Questions You Want Answered?
After working with hundreds of writers over the last seven years, writing coach and Called to Write Founder Jenna Avery has answers for you about how to balance your life and your screenwriting, trust yourself more as writer, fulfill your call to write, and more. Submit your questions to email@example.com or via Jenna’s online form at https://calledtowrite.com/final-draft and she may choose your question to answer anonymously in a future article.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter who specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer-director. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing and fulfilling your creative calling at calledtowrite.com, writes for ScriptMag and Final Draft, and teaches at Script University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers, including “How to Choose Your Next Book (or Script!)” when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list