Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Getting past perfectionism with "free writing"

Perfectionists do things well. If you’re a perfectionist as a writer, you probably check and double-check every fact, deliberate over every word choice, and structure your sentences with impeccable grammatical correctness. These things are good.

Unfortunately, perfectionism has its downside as well.
Perfectionism can be crippling.

Have you ever faced a blank white page, the computer cursor blinking at you from the upper left corner, and felt completely immobilized?

Nothing I write will be good enough.

How do I even start?

All I need is the perfect first line, then the rest of the story will flow from there.

But the perfect first line fails to materialize. You make a few attempts, only to backspace in frustration when the words don’t conjure exactly what you had in mind.

Your fingers drum the desk in time with the blink of the cursor.

Deep breath. It’s all good. You know how to deal with this. They taught you how at the last writing conference. So you grab your writing muse by its scrawny neck and try again.

This time you go gung-ho. A whole paragraph flows out. Then another. This is great. You’re gonna be the next Steinbeck. The next Hemingway. The next Lisa Samson or Francine Rivers. Your words will go forth to the masses and bring transformation to peoples’ lives.

Then you read back over what you’ve written.

It’s terrible. Completely, irredeemably bad.

You select the whole pile of drivel and hit delete. It’s obviously time for a coffee break. Some chocolate might help, too. You slink from the room, casting a guilty look over your shoulder at the still-blank screen, the cursor blinking a challenge you don’t think you can meet.

Can anyone relate?

The internal pressure to be perfect can make it extraordinarily difficult to begin a task or follow it through to completion. The bar you set for yourself is so high you get a nosebleed just looking at it. You compare every word you write to the authors you most admire, noting every flaw and fault and shortfall in your work.

And while sometimes this commitment to excellence can be a very good thing, other times you just need to unzip all those restrictive expectations and let yourself breathe a little.

Have some fun again with this whole writing thing.

Let yourself play.

You see, story-telling is a creative art. The side of the brain responsible for imagination, spontaneity and fun is the right side, and this is the mode of thinking we need to tap into if we desire fertile words to spring up on our page. For us perfectionists, however, the left side of the brain can be a constant tight-lipped, toe-tapping presence.

You spelled that word wrong.

That’s a dangling participle right there.

Your voice is as dull as dishwater. You really think anyone will read this dreck?

Trying to write with the critical, editorial side of the brain engaged is like trying to drive with the handbrake on. One technique I learned years ago that helps me unlock the free, fun-lovin’, loosey-goosey creativity on the right side of my brain – without all the criticisms and comparisons from the uptight left – is the technique of free writing.  

You may have heard this referred to as “automatic writing” or “stream of consciousness.” The idea is to sit down at the computer – or with a good old-fashioned pen and paper – and simply write EVERYTHING that comes into your head, without censorship or editing.

No punctuation. No purpose.

Just… write.

Write as fast as you can. Write impetuously. Write without thinking about what you’re writing. Write until you feel like your hand might drop off.

One thought will flow into the next, and the next. Much like rivulets of running water, merging and diverging, the brain forms a constant stream of associations. Your job for this exercise is not to judge or qualify or harness these, but simply to record every whimsical direction your mind chooses to wander.

This can be a great tool for unlocking writer’s block. It’s also useful as a daily warm-up, say for five minutes before starting work on your MS.

Free writing teaches you to write instinctively and reminds you of what it’s like to play with words for the sheer pleasure of it – the way you used to once, perhaps as a child, when you simply wrote for fun, with no expectations.

When you’ve finished, you may choose to read back over what you’ve written. It will undoubtedly make no sense whatsoever. That’s okay. The end product is not the point.

The point is how it makes you feel. When I take the time to do this, I feel limbered up, fluid, reckless, ready to dive in and splash words around on the page with abandon.

And my perfectionism is stunned into silence… for a while, anyway.

Your turn. Perfectionists, raise your hands. Do you ever find your perfectionism stifling? Do you have any tips that have helped you to loosen up and have fun with your writing?

Images courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


V. Gingerich said...

I recently ordered a Neo electronic keyboard because I thought it would suit my gypsy lifestyle.

It does, but there's another benefit.

You see, the Neo screen shows only six short lines of type. That's only six lines of misspellings and dangling participles. Just enough to orientate yourself, pick up the thread of the story, and write on. So freeing. So anti-perfectionism.

Bonnee Crawford said...

(Insert raised hand here)

Yeah I'm definitely a guilty perfectionist. But I already discovered that if I want to get anywhere with my writing, I have to tune out from my self-doubt and expectation of failure and give myself a chance, without caring how good or bad the end result is. Definitely a good warm up exercise to get the creative-juices flowing. :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh yes, I can definitely relate! And when I take the time to free write, it is amazing how freeing it really is! Great post!!!!

Susan Hollaway said...

I struggle with turning OFF my internal editor too. I loved your post.

Doing a power hour is really helpful to me. I just try and write something "new"-- fast and furious for one hour. I try to limit distractions and focus, focus, focus.

Thanks again for an awesome post!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I read somewhere that it is essential to allow ourselves time to think. During dishwashing. During ironing (what's that). As we set the table or pull weeds. That is when great idea potentials can be born.

So much of it is in letting our minds slow enough for the good stuff to seep out.

Great post!
~ Wendy

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Wanderer: Oooh, I love it! What a great tool! That does sound very freeing.

Bonnee: Hurray, glad I'm not the only one! You're so right - it's so important to let yourself forget about the end product and just go for it. Easier said than done, I find.

Sherrinda, thanks!! We should all form a little Perfectionists Anonymous club. :-)

Susan, I LOVE that idea of a "power hour"!! You can get a lot done in an hour if you manage to shut down that pesky internal editor. What a great suggestion.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Wendy, that's fantastic!! My mind is so slow right now I should have good stuff seeping out all over the place! LOL.

Okay, so I'm a little baby brained atm.... but seriously, I love that concept of using the mundane moments as time to think. I have lots of those moments, so that sounds doable to me. ;-)

Julia M. Reffner said...


How did you get inside my brain? LOL. I know what you mean about those spaced out moments with kiddos, sometimes I get halfway through an idea, then I lose it. But if its any good, it will usually eventually come back. Great post, one I really need to heed. :)

Anonymous said...

Karen, thanks for this post. :) I'm raising my hand at your question. I am a perfectionist by nature. The first two times I tried to write my story, I'd write, polish, polish some more, read it out loud and polish some more. By the time I was ready to move to the next chapter, there was no more story flow in my brain. When I did NaNo for the first time last November, I discovered the beauty of just writing!

Now, I give myself permission to write a lousy first draft and just get the story out. If I've done some pre-planning, the story usually flows. Then I let my internal editor loose to do her work of fixing it up and making things pretty.

WENDY--I read that post too. I've been working more time for my brain to just be free. :) Good to see you here today.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Sometimes I pretend I'm telling the story to a small group of people sitting around an open fire. I look for the curiosity in their eyes, the smiles or sadness in their lips. If I can achieve that, I fling the words onto my screen and don't look back...until later.

Lindsay Harrel said...

*raising both hands*

Yes, I'm a perfectionist. I'm an editor for my day job, which makes it even worse. But when I write my first draft, I FORCE myself to just write. To remind myself I can always go back and edit, make it better. The words just have to get out first. You have to have something written in order to improve it!

Ashley Clark said...

My hand is SO raised on this one! I've been freaking myself out for days, tweaking my first couple chapters before I send them off to my paid critiquer for the conference. What I've found helpful is to force myself to stop editing and not do any edits until I've completely finished my first draft. Otherwise, I spend so much time doing edits that I waste time in scenes that end up getting deleted! It's much easier for me to write first, edit the big picture elements, and then do line-by-line editing. That said, I still really struggle with that first draft... I always want it to sparkle just as much as the final draft does!

Sally Bradley said...

Karen, I hear you!

I've been working on a new WIP, and it's going fabulous--now that I'm past the first scene.

What worked for me was that I told myself I was just going to mess around with the opening scene, just write some stuff down and see what happened. Yes, I knew everything that I wanted to accomplish with that scene, but this was just "fun."

I even saved the blank document as "Freewrite" and then started writing.

It just flowed. I was amazed. I really think psyching myself out had a lot to do with it. If it was bad, that's okay. It was just for fun anyway.

But it turned out far better than I expected. So I received it as a scene, put it in my draft file, and haven't looked back.

Weird, but it worked!

Joanne Sher said...

My hand is TOTALLY up. Free writing is GREAT - haven't done it in QUITE a while though. I think I may be due, Karen.

I also used to use one-minute writer ( Another habit I REALLY should get back into.

Unknown said...

I am but I'm not and I love your dreamy ideas.
I'm a perfectionist if I'm writing for my magazine sometimes.But I don't get quite so het up

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Julia, glad you can relate! :-)

Jeanne, I agree, NaNoWriMo is awesome! I've only done it once, and it nearly killed me (I'm a slooooow writer) but it taught me a valuable lesson about getting that first draft out there without interference.

Mary, I LOVE that visualization. Beautiful.

Lindsay, you're dead right. You can't edit a blank page!

Ashley, yup, I've been guilty of wasting time polishing sentences that later need to be discarded due to big-picture edits. It makes so much more sense to save the line-editing until last. I'll admit it - I really find that hard.

Sally, I love that idea, and it's cool that it worked so well for you! Glad your new MS is going well! It's nice to hear what you're up to. Was just thinking of you the other day... :-)

Joanne, another one!! Yeah! Perfectionists of the world unite! :-) One-minute writer sounds cool, I'll check it out!

Tiffany, that's a good thing. I'm learning that every personality type has its strengths and weaknesses. It's all about understanding what those are and turning that knowledge to your advantage. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

thankyou :-) I have been pondering the possibility of free writing my under-grad essays, as I get so bogged down in note-taking and obsessed about keeping track of all the references. One day, maybe I will be brave enough to try! I have bookmarked this page to help psych me into it.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Great idea, Anonymous! Can't hurt to try! I wish you all the best.