Why Freelance Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

by John Soares on September 26, 2011

perfectionism-01As a freelance writer you definitely need to do high-quality work, but you need to know when to avoid perfectionism and stop working on an assignment, a story, or a blog post and call it good enough.

There’s a saying I’ve encountered many times, a variation on a Voltaire quote: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Now this is a delicate point. You definitely need to make sure you’ve done a great job, but too many writers go over and over their words making minute changes that result in only marginal improvements, and sometimes they actually make things worse.

Perfectionism, Time Management, and Productivity

Avoiding perfectionism is a key time management skill that will dramatically increase your productivity. It will free up lots of time for you to work on other writing projects or devote to other important areas of your life.

Perfectionism and the Freelance Writer: An Example

I once wrote an instructor’s manual for a brand new textbook, probably about 50,000 words. Typically I would write a section and then immediately edit it. I’d also give it a quick read the next day.

When I was all done, I read through the entire manuscript one more time. It took several hours for the final read-through: I only made a couple of minor changes in wording and found maybe one or two missing commas. Since then I no longer do the extra round of editing, and I save myself a lot of time and energy.

Your Take

How has perfectionism affected your productivity and your writing? How do you determine how good is good enough?

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emily Suess September 26, 2011 at 7:52 AM

If I’m not mindful of what I’m doing, my perfectionism will take over and I’ll waste a lot of time proofing my work. Well, I can’t really even call it proofing after a certain point. Eventually it just becomes nitpicking.

To combat this, I simply do the final proof just before the piece must be sent to the client. I can catch any typos or errors, but I don’t give myself time to fret over whether “coffee,” “java,” or “joe” sounds better when any will suffice.
Emily Suess recently posted…ABCs of Freelance Writing: N is for Negotiation


2 John Soares September 26, 2011 at 10:22 AM

Emily, that is an excellent technique! The key is to make sure there’s enough time to do the edit just before the final copy is sent.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers


3 Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog September 26, 2011 at 9:30 AM

My instinct is to write a chunk, then edit; write another chunk, then edit. And especially when those ‘chunks’ are no more than short paragraphs, the strategy stinks. Instead, I work against my instinct and I to set a timer for a reasonable amount of time (half hour – 45 minutes). I commit to writing straight (no editing) for at least that amount of time. I get more written, and only THEN do I allow myself to edit. I find that editing is a bit of a procrastination tactic. There is only so much tweaking and refining you can do.
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4 John Soares September 26, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Ruth, I actually mix my editing strategies depending on what I’m writing and how I’m feeling. I actually tend to do an initial edit as I’m writing, probably because I’m concerned I won’t catch that error in a later read. But when I’m really in the flow, I just go and go.
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5 Lori September 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM

John, it took three and a half years on staff at an understaffed, overworked office to cure perfectionism in me. Actually, I was cured on day one. I was too busy to care about being perfect. I wanted to be finished and on to the next thing. :)
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6 John Soares September 26, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Tight deadlines force us to forgo perfectionism. I’m glad you got the lesson early on — not all of us did!
John Soares recently posted…Life Isn’t Fair: On Freelance Writers Who Write For Free or Low Fees


7 Dave September 26, 2011 at 10:07 PM

It’s media and venue dependent for me. Anything on a blog I’m not that worried about. Definitely 80/20 rule here.

If I’m writing technical material, my standards are far different. If there is math present, and I’m also setting the type, it has to be at an absolutely professional standard. It won’t be perfect by any means, but it would take a professional typesetter (or research engineer) to find the flaws *I* know it shipped with.

For math and code, it’s right or it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s not publishable. If it’s right, but it’s ugly, it’s probably worth rewriting until it’s elegant. Especially for code. Ugly code is an engineering disaster waiting to happen.

The challenge for me has been to keep the audience, the topic and the venue and media in mind.
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8 John Soares September 27, 2011 at 6:04 AM

All excellent points Dave. I have only very limited experience with coding, but what I do know is that if even one character is incorrect, the result is usually total failure.

I actually started college as an engineering major, and sometimes I miss the beauty and accuracy of math.
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9 Michelle September 26, 2011 at 11:10 PM

I’m with Ruth – I have to just start writing or perfectionism will keep me from ever starting. If I will allow myself to write for a decent chunk of time, then I can go back and edit. It’s always easier for me to get my thoughts written and then go back – this usually leads to more ideas, better details and a better flow.


10 John Soares September 27, 2011 at 6:11 AM

I find it’s easiest for me to write continuously without editing when I’ve created a detailed outline. The outline keeps me flowing from one point to the next and lessens the possibility I’ll get stuck on what I want to say and then go edit instead.
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11 Gene Burnett September 26, 2011 at 11:38 PM

I float all over all of my work, sometimes line by line, sometimes back and forth between free-style and editing, sometime editing small chunks, sometimes much larger ones, whatever feels right. I’m mainly write for pleasure though and I don’t make my living at it. Time is rarely a factor for me, so I let my perfectionism come and go depending on how it feels. Sometimes it’s just a pleasure to work on something until I wouldn’t change a single word. Other times it feels fantastic to just say “Close enough.” Whether it’s a song or a blog post or an email, it’s either done when I’m tired of working on it, or it’s done when it feels done.

I can see how reigning in perfectionism would suddenly become much more important if time, money or reputation were in the balance. Whenever I’ve had those factors in play, whether it was house painting or cleaning a restaurant counter, I had to decide for each task, how close to perfect is appropriate and aim for that. It’s a really good skill to have by the way, when you have a job and want to keep it. Anyone who continually spends too much time on the inconsequential aspects of the work and not enough on what really matters will be a liability.

Good thought provoking post John.


12 John Soares September 27, 2011 at 6:15 AM

“Whether it’s a song or a blog post or an email, it’s either done when I’m tired of working on it, or it’s done when it feels done. ” I really like that!

I also like how you extend the avoiding perfection dictum to other types of work. No matter what we do, we need to manage our time well, and that definitely includes knowing when a given task is good enough.
John Soares recently posted…When You Should Write a New Edition of Your Book or Ebook


13 Anne Wayman September 27, 2011 at 7:28 AM

Love this quote of Gene’s too! “Whether it’s a song or a blog post or an email, it’s either done when I’m tired of working on it, or it’s done when it feels done. ”

Will use that for sure… and the thing that really cures my perfectionism when it surfaces is the absolute recognition that every piece of writing already published could be improved – some more than others. Plus, I wouldn’t recognize perfection if it knocked on the door and introduced itself. I simply have no evidence procedure for it.
Anne Wayman recently posted…3 Keys To Freelance Writing Success


14 John Soares September 27, 2011 at 7:50 AM

Anne, I think most writers notice how published writing could be improved, and that is a strong argument in favor of letting our writing get out to our audiences without excessive editing.

That said, I still occasionally have experiences where I’m reading an article in a magazine or on a blog and I go into editor mode: I start noticing ways to tighten the language and improve punctuation and word choice.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers


15 Anne Wayman September 27, 2011 at 8:16 AM

Yeah, I have those moments too – a sure sign I need to stop reading and get outside 😉
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16 Tom McGuire September 27, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Here are three guiding inspirational quotes:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well. ~William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1605

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ~Salvador Dali

And thus, I write like a winter blizzard of snow pouring forth, blanketing the ground in perfect still whiteness. . .
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17 Gene Burnett September 27, 2011 at 9:22 AM

Great quotes Tom….GB


18 John Soares September 28, 2011 at 7:41 AM

I also like these quotes Tom. The one from Shakespeare fits my philosophy best.
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19 Luana Spinetti September 27, 2011 at 9:32 AM

What I do is leave the computer and grab a notebook and a pen, then tell myself “Write down all you think, no scrupulosity nor fact checks. That’s tomorrow’s work.”

Sometimes it’s hard, especially when my family interrupts me every minute or when I get an attack of anxiety. Sometimes all I can do then is let go of my writing until I feel better; if I don’t do that, perfectionism manias comes up to screw it up even more.

~ Luana S.
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20 Mike Carlson September 27, 2011 at 1:50 PM

Hi John,

I have another angle on this topic. For quite a while, perfectionism was almost a debilitating condition for me. Often I would never even get started on something because I would fret over so many details before the project (in any area, not just writing) would even get started.

Additionally, I recall when I first went back to college, my perfectionist tendencies caused me a great deal of stress, trying to have every paper or project be perfect and striving for perfect grades. Then I found the key:

Stop worrying about the process. Rather, enjoy the process.

For example, since I majored in anthropology, instead of being a student worrying about grades, deadlines, word count, number of pages, and finals, I shifted my mindset to where I WAS an anthropologist. I immersed myself in the experience. I found my stress level went way down and my grades were even better.

I think that mindset is the key. Fer me, perfectionism equated to stress. I didn’t enjoy living that way so I found a way to change my mindset, and my results ended up being better because of it.


21 John Soares September 28, 2011 at 7:46 AM

You raise important points here Michael. A focus on perfectionism often keeps people from beginning anything.

And I totally agree that perfectionism can greatly increase stress, especially in education. I well remember undergrad and grad school. I was most stressed when I was most concerned about getting A’s. I eventually decided that I would focus instead on getting A-minuses. My stress went down, I enjoyed my subjects more, and I often still got A’s anyway.
John Soares recently posted…Writing Ergonomics: Top Tips for Proper Posture, Alignment, and Movement


22 Eric Soares September 27, 2011 at 4:17 PM

When I was a professor I advised my students to shoot for 90% on everything they did, which saves time and lets them relax and actually enjoy schoolwork. If they shoot for a 90 and get it, that’s an A-. If they shoot for it and get a 95 or 100, that’s an A. Yay! And if they shoot and get an 85, that’s still a solid B. I’ve found, in general, except for math or computer programming, it’s too hard to be perfect.
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23 John Soares September 28, 2011 at 7:48 AM

I agree Eric, as I just wrote in reply to Michael’s comment above. Too many students cause themselves needless stress by focusing on getting A’s and a 4.0.
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24 marquita herald September 27, 2011 at 6:53 PM

Some days I refer to myself as an “editor” rather than a writer … I’m working on it :-)
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25 John Soares September 28, 2011 at 7:51 AM

There’s definitely a time for editing, but we can overdo it.

And lived on Kauai for three years: 1996-1999.
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26 Mercy October 1, 2011 at 12:41 AM

This is a good point John, a writer must know where to stop editing to save time and energy. Thou, its not bad being a perfectionist, since we wanted to deliver quality work.
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27 Elizabeth October 1, 2011 at 6:09 PM

I was first called a perfectionist when I was about 10 and hanging out with some other kids on vacation. I actually didn’t know what they meant, but I certainly do now. I find that I’m actually less of a perfectionist on a topic I know well and really love writing about. Words seem to flow right out and when I give it read-over, the piece has life, a little glow. But the perfectionism and over-editing seems to creep in on something I’m writing about for the first time (like underground storage of archival material) and I’m not quite sure I’ve expressed myself just right.


28 John Soares October 1, 2011 at 7:42 PM

Elizabeth, I’m similar when I’m writing about something I’m not an expert on. I want to be sure all my facts are correct, and that can also lead to extra editing.
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29 Justin@criminal justice bachelors degree October 2, 2011 at 10:00 AM

That Voltaire quote is accurate but I never knew what it meant until I began writing. I have learned through experience that (for me at least) it is better to finish a draft, then edit, then rewrite. When I used to edit as I wrote it took me three times as long to get anything finished. I heard a quote, I forget which writer but he said “I’m not a great writer, but I am an excellent RE-writer!” Great post John!
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30 Amy@Goodbye Cellulite October 11, 2011 at 11:34 PM

Its a love hate relationship I have with perfectionism. When I get stuck trying to “perfect” a piece that is almost there, I put it away and work on something else for a while. When I come back to it, most of the time, I realize it was good to go.


31 Veronica Cervera December 11, 2011 at 5:39 PM

I agree. Perfectionism isn’t bad in theory, but it is when we start to overdo it. Starting with ourselves, it can be a very stressful life, paying attention to every little detail, making adjustments all the time because we can’t seem to get it just right, or demanding too much from something or someone that isn’t capable of living up to the hype. I’ve seen it, and it can really do harm to that person mentally and emotionally.


32 Damien Darby January 20, 2012 at 7:30 AM

For me this is an issue. When it comes to the 70k+ books, man, trying to make sure every paragraph is perfect, every sentence reads well, and there are absolutely no mistakes…sigh. Can one teach themselves to become the editor they wish they could afford?

Love the post, love the topic, well done.

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33 Pamela King Cable May 18, 2012 at 12:30 PM

As a fiction writer, perfection is the name of the game as far as literary agents are concerned. They require nothing less. A first time novelist can’t get published without it, no matter how fantastic the story. The competition is so great, it’s perfection that separates the sheep from the goats. Many writers are stressing over perfection to the point of giving up. After years of rejection, they either give up or self-publish. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed some agents do not practice what they preach. Their emails, blogs, newsletters, rejection letters, web sites, and social media pages are atrocious. Too bad, so sad for the writer, however. Wanting to get noticed by a literary agent without a perfect first manuscript is like a 300 pound woman trying to win a beauty contest. I love your blog, and more than anything I wish we could all practice a little less perfectionism. I just don’t see the literary agents buying into it. Unfortunately.


34 Gene Burnett May 18, 2012 at 12:57 PM

Pamela, I would flip that around and say perfection separates the goat from the sheep. Sheep are dumb, goats are brilliant. ;~)


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