Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Perfectionism and Overthinking

So continuing the series on authorial self-sabotage I thought it was time to talk about perfectionism and overthinking. All of this, so far, has to do with removing roadblocks that keep us from getting that first draft done. Perfectionism and overthinking are tied together in my mind.

There’s a great David Foster Wallace quote regarding perfectionism, “…Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”

I like that quote because it is absolutely true. If we are afraid to move forward in a first draft because that paragraph or sentence has not been perfected, we’ll never move forward. Here’s some tough love regarding that tendency. We have to stop thinking that every word on the page is precious, that every linguistic utterance must blossom with wisdom and/or literary gymnastics.  To fiction writers and fiction readers story is everything. That darling sentence with multiple clauses and 5 dollar word descriptors might not serve the story. In my case, I determined that those rare gorgeous sentences serve the story best when they arrive because of story, and not the other way around.

Another very practical truth when it comes to writing fiction is that it is always best to remember that a first draft can and will always be tweaked. Those carefully crafted words and sentences that you agonized over? Half of them probably won’t survive the first, second or third round of edits. That might actually be the most useful thing to realize when perfectionist tendencies start to take control of your first draft process. Letting go of the idea of first draft perfection is, for some of us, the first step to getting to a completed draft.

Overthinking, in my view is a close cousin to perfectionism. One of the ways I define overthinking when it comes to crafting story is when you have a plot, a direction, you know generally what needs to happen on the page, but rather than doing the work of putting words on the page and starting the story, you get hung up on not knowing certain incidentals and you let that hang you up for hours, days, weeks. A friend of mine has described the experience of having a character walk past a copse of trees and she could not move forward in the text until she figured out exactly which type of tree she wanted those trees to be. The group of trees were not integral to the story, they were a detail of the landscape, but not knowing what sort of tree it was kept her from making progress. My answer to this type of thing when working on a first draft is to make a parenthetical note directly in the text to come back to it later so that I can move forward while I have time carved out to get work done. A detail like that can always be determined later.

I’m interested in how other folks deal with the problem of overthinking when it comes up. Another tactic I have is to step away from the text for a couple of minutes and come back. Sometimes those few minutes of critical distance can put the story/text problem you are thinking about into perspective and give you either an answer or at least a way to move forward.

How about everyone else out there? How do you cope with these problems when they come up?

As I’m looking back on these little posts about writerly self-sabotage is that it seems to all come back to the notion that rewrites are your friend.



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