Stumbling block #5: Perfectionism

by | Nov 30, 2009 | Struggling Writers

Do your kids struggle with perfectionism and writer's block? Creativity is messy! Help them learn tricks to overcome their need to write perfectly.

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!

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.

Perfectionists need to remember that creativity is messy! {10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing}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.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

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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!

Photos: Abhi and D. Sharon Pruitt, courtesy of Creative Commons


  1. Kim

    Love your attitude, Loralee. I hope your son hops right on board with you!

  2. Loralee

    I can’t wait to tell my #2, perfectionist son the quote by James Michener (“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”)! If someone who has had several 1000 (+?) page books published can rewrite their creations, then hopefully, he will see that rewriting a couple of paragraphs is no big deal!

  3. Kim

    See, I knew it! 😉

  4. Amy

    Kim, I just read it! 😉 You were right!


  5. Amy

    My #2 son and I are avid perfectionists, so this post spoke directly to me. He hates re-writing! Matter of fact, he hates doing anything twice (a math problem, spelling words, etc, etc – unless it is watching the same movie again and again ’til he gets the quotes down! 😉
    I really can attest to the just write to write exercise, with a time limit. I tried this and it seemed very daunting at first, but after awhile, knowing that it was indeed possible and what’s more, even helpful, I learned to enjoy it. It was a huge release for me to know that I could write whatever came to mind and it didn’t have to be perfect, because the fact was when I wrote like that at first a lot of foolishness comes out until sometimes you hit a groove and can’t stop! I can’t wait to teach my kids all these AWESOME things that I’m learning.
    I also agree with Jimmie that if the revision process is done over a period of several days, it would seem less intimidating and discouraging.

    Amy in Peru

  6. Kim

    You’re right, Jimmie! A wise parent will introduce her children to the writing process at a young age rather than wait till junior high or high school.

  7. Jimmie

    I think that emphasizing the writing process is key to this obstacle. From the very earliest (1st grade) I made my daughter’s writing assignments stretch over many days as she worked from prewriting to publishing. Very, very few people can simultaneously think about all the facets required in good writing. And when they try to, it inhibits creativity and productivity. My daughter is 5th grade now, and she totally grasps the concept of planning, drafting, and editing.

  8. Kim

    Isabelle: Not all children are perfectionists—even if their moms are! 🙂 Sounds like he’s making progress. Taking time to rewrite a word is a good step for an 8-year-old.

    Tammy: Thanks for sharing your girls’ positive experience with WriteShop. I hope you know they’re not alone in their dislike of revising—particularly in this microwave world of instant results! Even if they never learn to love the editing process, hopefully they’ll at least learn to appreciate and respect its value.

  9. Tammy

    I don’t know if you would call my three daughters perfectionists when it comes to writing. Writing is the subject they dislike the most because they don’t like that it is not instantly completed as their workbooks or cd-rom programs are. Your Writeshop program has helped. They absolutely love your story builders. I believe their big hang-up is the fact they have to write and rewrite. Hopefully these ten tips will be helpful with our journey. Thanks

  10. Isabelle aka Canadianladybug

    Alexandre is not perfectionist yet. He is only 8 but I fear that he gets myperfectionism… OUCH!

    But these days when he makes an error, he will take the time to erase it properly before re-writing the word. He sometimes goes too fast. I would like him to slow down so that he takes the time to think before writing…

  11. Kim

    Here’s my take on this, Diane. In college, students need to write all kinds of papers that will benefit from careful editing and revising—from one-page essays to 12-page research papers. But they’ll also face many timed-essay situations where thorough editing and revising just aren’t possible.

    Timed writing operates under a slightly different set of rules. SAT evaluators aren’t looking for perfection and polish. Recognizing that a student is performing under pressure, they just want to see that she can organize and articulate her thoughts in a timed setting. The perfectionist still has to learn to write against the clock, realizing that these essays can’t undergo the same careful revision as her untimed ones.

    Fortunately, if a student does a lot of free writing and essay practice (both timed and untimed), she will eventually be able to write excellent timed essays—even if she is a perfectionist!

  12. Diane Allen

    Perfectionism is a major problem with my daughter. I vow and promise to use these suggestions!!!!

    As I read about the need for editing is occurs to me that the SAT essay (and the GRE essay) process do not reward those students who need the editorial and revision process to be separate from the composition process. Mmmmm. What are you thoughts on that?



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