How To Keep Writing: 5 Tricks To Sneak Past Perfectionism

I hate that little guy on my shoulder. He’s worse than any external critic. I type something and then he goes whispering in my ear, how it should be better, how it really isn’t worthy. And before it, I’m holding down the backspace key and those wonderful black letters will be seen nevermore. I know

If only he’d shut up every so once in a while! Fortunately, it is possible – and easier than you may think. It doesn’t even require heavy drinking! After many years of writing, sweating and swearing I’ve figured out quite a few strategies to tackle that whispering evil bastard (though everybody has their own ways). Here are my top 5 tips for how I get myself to write when the writing gets tough.

Outline your way to a full text

The first one is to start out with the bullet points and then slowly work your way up. The idea here is that you start out by making a rough outline, which you then expand with each pass through, adding new insights, new subdivisions and a more detailed account each time through. A bullet point gets sub points, then becomes a paragraph and finally gets polished.

Can’t figure out how to word a point so that it works yet? Fear not, go on to the next one and write that one down instead. Write what you can write and slowly, in the back of your mind, you’ll find that those bits that you can’t write are slowly crystalizing as well, until they too find their way onto the page. And before you know it, you’ve got a complete text.

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And, as we all know, once you’ve got one of those it’s just a simple matter of polishing it to a fine sheen. That isn’t half as hard as filling a white page.

Use the most dangerous writing app

Okay, this one isn’t for the faint of heart, because if this goes wrong it can be immensely frustrating. And yet it works. The most dangerous writing app is incredibly simple, really (and it’s absolutely free). You set a timer and if you don’t type anything for five seconds within that time limit, everything you’ve written gets deleted. And there really is absolutely no way to get it back. Now that will get you motivated, I’ll tell you – especially if you think there might be some gold in those words you’ve already written.

One trick that works, if things are getting really desperate – CTRL + A and CTRL + C do work. So if the panic really starts setting in, that quick key combination will be useful.

Also, remember that it’s about quantity, not quality, so even absolute gibberish will reset the timer. That means all you’ve got to do is keep going and hopefully something coherent will come back out after a few seconds of holding down the ‘x’ button.

Writer slightly tired (And preferably grumpy)

Yes, it sounds utterly crazy, but for me it works a charm. When I’m tired, the little guy on my shoulder is too. Often, especially if I’ve got a deadline looming, this means that this slightly different frame of mind will mean I don’t care quite as much about perfection and at least want to get the damned words out on the page. I’ll worry about editing them tomorrow.

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And really, that can be a great place to write from.

So next time, wait until the evening and force yourself to write. I’ll normally set myself a target of words (1000 perhaps) that I have to write before I can go do something else. Then, as I really don’t want to be writing and really want to do something else, I just start to write. I’ll vomit up the thoughts that have been cluttering my mental space, without a filter and without that little guy bothering me (he’s snoring).

And you know what? Sometimes when I look at it in the morning it’s actually much better than what I could have come up with rested. There is a spontaneity to it that no amount of editing can replicate.


Grab a Dictaphone and just narrate the whole piece onto the little tape as you wander through the city streets. You can’t look back, you can’t edit and so all there is, is to go forward and let things happen as they will.

As an added bonus, you can go for long walks and allow where you live to sneak into the story in unexpected ways (it always does when I do it). Suddenly a character develops the habits of somebody you bought coffee from, you describe a nature scene that you find in the park, or a headline in a newspaper stand gives you a great idea of where you can take your story.

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Change your audience

Sometimes the reason you’re trying to write something perfect is because the audience you’re imagining is incredibly demanding (or you’re incredibly demanding of yourself when you’re writing to that audience, same dog, different leg).

In that case, just change the audience to somebody less demanding (your journal, your sister, your friend) and then worry about editing it up to the standards of your intended audience some time afterwards (and take out those things you really shouldn’t say in public). Just this simple change of perspectives can sometimes be all you need to turn your writing from a chore into a pleasure.

Last thoughts

There is no such thing as perfection or perfect content. It doesn’t exist, not in writing, not in anything else. Everything we see is at least a little subjective and with writing that is doubly true. So don’t strive for perfection, strive instead to become better than you were.

I always see all of my writing not as the words on the page, but the mental journey I went through to get me there. If the words on the page happen to work, then that’s an added bonus (especially if I’ve got a client), but my mental process is the focus of my writing. That is really the first and foremost way that I defeat that guy on my shoulder – he doesn’t matter because he’s not who I’m writing for.

Patrick Cole is an entrepreneur and freelancer. He is also a contributing blogger for several websites. Patrick loves self-education and rock music. Connect with Patrick via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.