Stumbling block #5: Perfectionism
Welcome back to our series on 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing. Each week, you’ll gain more and more ideas for helping your reluctant or struggling writer leap over those hurdles that make writing challenging. If you’re new to the series, Stumbling Block #4 took a look at how limited writing vocabulary can hinder your student. Today we’ll explore:
Stumbling Block #5
Problem: Self-criticism, perfectionism and writer’s block go hand in hand.
Solution: Encourage your child to let go of precision by writing an unpolished rough draft that can be refined later.
The Curse of Writer’s Block
Writer’s block. The phrase itself is enough to banish every creative thought from your child’s head. When he’s in a stare-down with a blank page—and the page is winning—it’s easy to believe he’s the only one who ever wrestles with getting a thought on paper.
It should comfort him to know that everyone suffers from writer’s block at some point. Even famed novelist Ernest Hemingway admitted that the most frightening thing he’d ever encountered was a blank sheet of paper!
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Though many stumbling blocks litter the road to writing success, perfectionism—personal pressure to “get it right the first time”—is the mother of them all, and the key contributor to writer’s block.
Face it. Most children—yours included—loathe the writing process. They want to write a paper once at best, and they want you to love it. There’s no room in their world for the nuisance of proofreading, editing, or revising. For many of these kids, then, the first draft has to be perfect in their eyes.
Of course, the irony is that they’re imperfect individuals who believe that whatever they put on paper will never be good enough. So they don’t write at all. “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently,” says author Anna Quindlen.
Writing Tips for the Perfectionist
1. Write, write, write
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the more you write . . . well, the more you write! It’s very much like priming a pump: it takes water to produce water.
So how can you encourage your child to flex his writing muscles? One way is through a simple exercise called freewriting. Author, homeschooler, and writing teacher Dianne Dachyshyn uses free writing to ease the grip of writer’s block:
“The first time you ask children to do this, they will stare incredulously and grumble. They will be hard pressed to meet the time requirement of three minutes. However, after a regular discipline of free writing, they will begin to enjoy this time and it is amazing what they can produce. I often have to force them to stop at the end of ten minutes.”
Check out The Writing Well for more ways to try freewriting.
2. “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” –James Thurber
Believe it or not, one of the best solutions for a perfectionist is writing a rough draft. After all, writing is a debugging process.
First, your child writes something sloppy. This is the practice draft—the imperfect, flawed rough draft. Later, he goes back and fine tunes it. That’s why I love to call the rough draft a “sloppy copy.” Starting sloppy deals a blow to the blank page as the student puts forth ideas and gets into the writing flow. As author and poet Margaret Atwood so aptly put it: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
3. Learn to let go
Enjoying the process—any process—is one of the toughest hurdles for a perfectionist! I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it is achievable—bit by bit—as he learns to let go of the things that weigh him down.
Let go of precision. Creativity is a messy ordeal. Why does your student think it’s fine to make a mess when painting or working with wood or clay, but not when writing?
The creative process isn’t always neat, tidy, and measured, and it’s certainly not perfect. Assure him it’s okay if his thoughts spill out in a bit of a jumble, and it’s to be expected that he or his teacher will add marks to the paper during editing. Cleanup begins during the revising process.
Let go of pressure. Writing can be fixed. James Michener once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Even if you’re a famous author, early drafts just won’t measure up. This should come as welcome news to your young perfectionist!
As much as he wants to crumple up his efforts and keep starting over, encourage him to just get it written. Later, like every other author of great or small renown, he can work on revising until he’s satisfied. After all, writing is a process, not a one-time event!
Let go of perfection and finish the draft. Though it’s tempting for your student to try to correct everything as he goes, have him finish his rough draft without wrestling with every word, phase, and sentence. That’s what revising is for!
And don’t forget to show your enthusiasm and approval when he finishes his assignment. Success breeds more success, and when your child feels successful, he’ll be much less reluctant next time!
Sometimes your kids are perfectionists, true? And this can indeed hold them back from doing their best by seizing them with fear—but not always. Sometimes, well . . . they’re just plain lazy! That brings us to Stumbling Block #6: Laziness, which is the topic of next week’s article in the Stumbling Blocks series.
Share a comment: How does your child exhibit perfectionism where his or her writing is concerned?
2009© Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
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WriteShop builds the steps of the writing process into each level of the program, helping your perfectionists recognize the purpose and value of writing and revising. Train your elementary children early using WriteShop Primary and WriteShop Junior. For older students, choosing WriteShop I and II will help you equip and inspire successful writers!