How to start—and finish—the writing project you’ve been putting off

Daily Briefing

How to start—and finish—the writing project you’ve been putting off

Leaders who aim for perfection often stand out for their high standards, attention to detail, and tenacity. But perfectionists can also get in their own way, embracing techniques that are counterproductive and self-destructive.

This is especially true when it comes to writing. Whether it’s drafting a grant proposal or finalizing an academic manuscript, writing can be difficult for many leaders. But perfectionists have an added challenge: they won’t rest until their draft is, well… perfect.

And this quest for the perfect manuscript can often lead to both procrastination and panic.

So how can perfectionists overcome these unproductive habits to start—and finish—writing? Here are a few recommendations from the experts:

Step 1: Don’t wait to get started

From waiting for the right moment to begin writing to waiting to summon the ideal opening sentence, perfectionists are procrastination experts.

But writing and productivity experts agree that it’s better to start right now than to wait for the perfect conditions to arise. You don’t even need a good chunk of time to make a dent in a big project, explains Olga Khazan, a staff writer for The Atlantic. Adam Grant, a productivity expert and organizational psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvaniasays he’ll even use the few minutes between meetings to start a project. 

And your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. “Write fast, edit slow,” recommends productivity expert Laura Vanderkam. Vanderkam, who has written several books about productivity, explains that “when you write a lot… you know that the first thing you write is not going to be perfect.” Let yourself write a terrible first draft, then edit that draft carefully. “You will make it better, but it’s so much easier to turn something into something better than to turn nothing into something,” she says.

Step 2: Don’t sweat the small stuff

During the writing process, it’s not uncommon for perfectionists to feel stress or pressure—especially shortly before a deadline, notes Rebecca Schuman, author of the scholarly productivity series “Are you Writing?” for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

And this stress can lead to anything from editing a draft beyond recognition to trashing a near-complete manuscript and starting over. “You keep revising it… and revising it… and revising it, until it’s an unrecognizable version of its former self,” writes Schuman. “You abjectly refuse to let anyone look at it until it’s ‘ready,’ by which you mean ‘perfect,’ which it will never be, so maybe you should just start over, right?”

But this last-minute panic won’t elevate your work, argues Schuman.

To see your work more objectively, she recommends listing everything you feel is inadequate about your draft, including the actions you feel you need to take to remedy it. Then, as a separate list, write down the “actual, dispassionate fact of the situation that vaguely corresponds to that feeling,” suggests Schuman. For instance, your anxieties about your draft could include feeling that your “entire thesis is garbage,” while the facts may acknowledge that one particular section of the draft isn’t quite right, and the thesis relies on that section.

Schuman then recommends ignoring everything that you initially listed about your draft, and instead making the edits that appear on your second list.

And don’t stress over perfecting every element of your final draft, adds Schuman. After all, “done is better than perfect,” acknowledge Thomas Curran, a lecturer at the University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, an associate professor at York St. John University.

Sources: Curran/Hill, Harvard Business Review, 1/26/18; Schuman, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/13/19

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