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Productive Writer No. 17


Overcoming Perfectionistic Tendencies


Are you trying to write a perfect thesis or dissertation? Do you delay starting to write, or postpone completing, because you know what you write won't be perfect? Do you wait for just the right time, right environment, right mood and inspiration to write? 

Hogwash. Just write. Because perfectionism is not possible. And if it were possible for you to write the complete and definitive thesis or dissertation, what would you do next? Switch topics for every manuscript you write because each will be the definitive work on that topic? (I'm exhausted just thinking about your writing life and academic career.)


Why are some of us perfectionists?

 Our wanting to be perfect can come from:

  • Being overly attached to the dissertation or writing project. It is a work of scholarship; it is not your life. (It just feels like it.) A dissertation is significant and has implications for successful degree completion, entry into postdoc or faculty roles or other careers, and the launching of your reputation as a scholar. Yes, the dissertation may be your most significant scholarship to this point. But the dissertation or any other writing project is not your life and does not define you. Professionally, perhaps. But life is more than your dissertation. (Make sure there are people in your life who will remind you of this. Regularly.) So don't become so attached to any writing project that you can't finish it...or even start it.
  • Not being aware of how long it takes to complete a project. Yes, you can take three years to produce your first chapter or 10 years to write a book, but not while the time-to-degree clock is ticking or, for faculty, the tenure and promotion countdown has begun. At times, it's better to get it done than persist in trying to write the definitive, perfect work.
  • Inadequate guidance from your advisor, mentor, or (for faculty) your department chair. Identify the expectations for your success. What is necessary to receive approval for the dissertation proposal? To get your advisor's sign-off on chapter four. To meet the promotion and tenure committee's standards for retention and advancement? Meet those expectations. Even exceed them. But no one will ever tell you that your work must be perfect. (If they do, let me know. I'm taking names.)
  • The mistaken belief that if we wait for inspiration to write, the outcome can indeed be perfect. Paul Silvia (2007) describes this waiting-for-inspiration excuse as a "most comical and irrational" barrier to productive writing. If you think you should write only when you feel like it, "ask yourself... How has this strategy worked so far? Are you happy with how much you write?" (p. 23). He goes on to add, "Successful professional writers...are prolific because they write regularly, usually every day." He then quotes Ralph Keyes (2003): "Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration" (p. 27).

Is your writing becoming a daily routine for you? I hope so. Now start writing that perfectly fine, imperfect draft. You can do it!


Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School