Though lots of stumbling blocks litter the road to writing success, perfectionism—the personal pressure to get it right the first time—is a challenge that many struggling writers face. For them, a blank page isn’t a canvas of unlimited possibility, but rather a source of extreme anxiety. In this blog, we’re taking a deeper look at the connection between perfectionism and writer’s block and providing some tips to help students let go of perfectionism in writing.
Perfectionism and Writer’s Block
Many students loathe the writing process. They want to write a masterful composition without having to undergo the nuisance of proofreading, editing, and revising. In their eyes, the first draft has to be perfect, and they put a lot of pressure on themselves to make it happen.
Other students strongly believe that nothing they put on paper will be good enough, so they don’t write at all. They’re debilitated by their own anxiety about producing the perfect piece of writing. Author Anna Quindlen describes the problem this way: “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
However perfectionism presents itself, it’s a major obstacle that makes writer’s block difficult to overcome. That said, there are some things you can do to help your students overcome perfectionism in writing.
5 Tips to Help Students Overcome Perfectionism in Writing
Don’t let perfectionism hold your students back from writing success. Try using these five tips to reduce their anxiety and beat writer’s block.
1. Encourage Them to Start Small
Think about how you bake a birthday cake. It doesn’t just pop out of the oven ready to serve, right? You start with a plain cake and build from there, adding frosting flourishes, colorful sprinkles, and candles until it’s finally complete.
Writing is a lot like baking a cake, and it’s just as unrealistic for your student to expect a brilliant composition to take form in just one step. As with the cake, it helps to start with a basic foundation—a few plain sentences—that can be embellished later on.
For example, a student can start with something like this:
I am on a baseball team. Yesterday we played our best game. I got two runs. Gabriel scored the winning run. It was a close game. Our coach took us out for pizza.
Then, they can revise their paragraph by adding descriptive details and sentence variety:
I am on the Red Rockets baseball team with my friend Gabriel. Yesterday, we played our best game of the season against the Mud Ducks. In the bottom of the sixth, I hammered the ball and drove in two runs to tie up the score. During the last inning, Gabriel slid into home plate and scored the winning run. What a close game! Afterwards, Coach Dan took the whole team to Sammy’s Pizza to celebrate our victory.
2. Give Them Time to Practice
Writing, like any skill, requires practice. If your student is a perfectionistic writer, they likely don’t feel confident in their abilities. The only way to help them increase their writing skills and overcome their perfectionism is to provide frequent, low-risk opportunities to practice.
Freewriting is a great activity to flex student’s writing muscles and ease the grip of writer’s block. Here’s how it works:
- Set a timer for an appropriate amount of time, such as five minutes.
- Tell students to write about whatever they want to for the full amount of time.
- They must write continuously without stopping to think or make edits. If they get stuck, they can write something like “I’m not sure what to write” until inspiration strikes.
- When the timer goes off, have your student stop writing and read what they produced.
Additionally, try using writing prompts to help your students become less intimidated by a blank page. An interesting or unusual photo, with or without accompanying text, can also get their writing wheels turning.
3. Communicate Expectations and Modify As Needed
Sometimes, perfectionists are afraid to start writing simply because they don’t know how long their composition should be, or they’re overwhelmed by length requirements. When you limit your student’s writing to a manageable length, whether that’s five-to-six sentences or several pages, it makes the task feel less open-ended and stressful.
However, if your student is anxious about how much they are expected to write regardless, try breaking up the assignment into smaller chunks. Simply ask them to write a certain amount today, another chunk tomorrow, and then finish the full draft on the next day.
4. Teach Them to Embrace the “Sloppy Copy”
Creativity is a messy ordeal, and writing is a creative endeavor. So, why do students think it’s fine to make a mess when painting or working with clay but not when writing?
Like any creative process, the writing process isn’t always neat, tidy, and measured—and it certainly isn’t perfect. Assure your students that it’s okay if their thoughts spill out on the page in a jumble at first. And although it may be tempting to correct everything as they write, encourage them to simply write without scrutinizing every word, phrase, and sentence. A sloppy copy is meant to be sloppy, after all! They can focus on fine-tuning their first draft during the revision process.
As American humorist James Thurber once said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
5. Promote Progress Over Perfection
While revision is the time for students to make improvements to their writing, they still shouldn’t expect perfection. Before having your students reevaluate their sloppy copy, be sure to communicate to them that the goal of revising is to refine their writing, not perfect it. Any successful writer will agree that there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to revision–only progress.
Additionally, don’t forget to show your enthusiasm when your student finishes revising an assignment. Point out at least three things that you’re proud of in their writing and just one thing that they can improve upon for next time. This will help promote a growth mindset.
Above all, congratulate them for overcoming their writer’s block. Success breeds more success, and when your students feel like they were successful (even if they weren’t perfect), they’ll be less reluctant to write in the future.
Enjoying (or at least tolerating) the messy writing process is one of the toughest hurdles for students who experience perfectionism in writing. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible, as they learn to let go of the pressures that weigh them down.
Are you looking for an engaging writing curriculum to help your students kick perfectionism to the curb? With WriteShop, students learn to look at their writing objectively with lots of room for trial and error.