Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are You a Perfectionist?

Academic publishing requires diligence, attention to detail, conceptual innovation, and hard work, among other things. It does not require perfectionism. In fact, perfectionism can impede academic writing and publishing, and it is important to be able to identify your perfectionism and figure out how to get past it.

What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism revolves around two false premises: 1) that writing the perfect piece is an attainable goal, and 2) that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Although we all want for our work to reflect the excellence to which we are committed, it is crucial to get away from the idea that our work must or even could be perfect.

One reason your writing does not have to be perfect is that your intention is not to have the final say on a matter, but to contribute to an ongoing dialogue. Your attempts to publish in peer reviewed journals and books are your contributions to a conversation, not the end of the conversation. Your writing should be provocative and thought-provoking so that people will respond to it. If it were perfect, there wouldn’t be much to respond to.

Perfectionism leads to Procrastination
For many academics, perfectionism leads to intense procrastination. There are two ways that this works: 1) you are reluctant to write until you have the perfect thing to say; and 2) you are hesitant to share your finished work until it is perfect. If you refuse to write until you have the perfect idea, you likely will find that you write very little. And, if you fear submitting your work before it is perfect, you may find that you never submit it.

One of my colleagues recently shared with me that she finds it difficult to write before she knows what she will say. She will sit down at her computer and be unable to think of anything innovative or even relevant to her project. So, she will busy herself with other tasks – laundry, cooking, paying the bills, cleaning – until she comes up with just what she wants to say. When she finally comes up with the idea, she rushes to the computer and writes it all down. I asked her how often she actually comes up with ideas while doing all of those other tasks. She admitted it had only happened twice this semester.

Although it is true that we sometimes can think of great things while we are engaging in other activities, if we wait until we have something ground-breaking to say, we will find ourselves writing only on those rare occasions. Instead, a much better tactic is to put that perfectionism aside and to allow ourselves to write every day, even if we don’t think we have very much to say. You just have to trust yourself that good ideas will come while you are writing. Trust me, they are more likely to come if you sit down in front of the computer and begin to type or pull out a pad and a pen than if you give up and decide to do laundry all day instead.

Perfectionism Keeps You from Submitting Articles
Another colleague of mine recently told me that he has been sitting on a near-finished article for several months. He continuously finds reasons not to submit it to a journal, even though his tenure case depends on him publishing articles. One of the reasons he is reluctant to submit the article is that this article is central to his research agenda, and his research is at the center of his self-identity as a social justice activist. He, like many academics, sees his article not just as a reflection of his work, but as a reflection of himself. He does not just fear his work being evaluated by external reviewers, but fears putting himself up for evaluation. Since he sees his article as a reflection of himself, and not just his work, his perfectionism is in full gear.

Of course, your work is not you; it is what you produce. When you pour your heart and soul into your work, however, it is hard to separate the two. The first step to getting around this type of perfectionism is to recognize that it is occurring. Once you are aware that your reluctance to submit is related to your feeling that you are your writing, you can begin to have a conversation with yourself that allows you to see that you are much more than your writing. Your writing is just one aspect of your identity. And, it is an aspect of your identity that you need to share in order to enrich. Although you may keep a private journal to record your most intimate thoughts, your academic writing is not meant to be kept private: it is intended to be shared and critiqued. What ends up being critiqued is not you, but your writing.

Perfectionism is pervasive among academics and can lead to a lot of anxiety and stress. However, many academics are able to be happy and successful despite their perfectionism. The key lies in recognizing your perfectionism and figuring out how to deal with it.

I’d love to hear from you: what are some ways you have dealt with perfectionism?


  1. I wish you had written this back in 2000-20001, LOL! I was still in the academe then, teaching Sociology, while finishing my master's thesis. It took me a long time (let's not get into specifics, hahaa)because of my perfectionism....didn't want to submit anything to my adviser unless I felt REALLY comfortable with the chapter or whatever. Anyway, obviously, I finished it, got my degree and was just happy to be done with it. Thanks for the tips you wrote above and I'll continue to keep those in mind as I write my blog articles! The perfectionist side is still very much alive although now I know that the need to write and produce something is more important! Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Joy. How do you deal with perfectionism in blogging? Do you write a post and then let it sit before posting? Or are you able to just write and click publish?

  3. OK, I am about to start dealing with it re teaching. What I am discovering via your blog, with which I am now (obviously) obsessed, is that I have with teaching all the problems everyone else has with writing.

    How I got this way: since birth my father, a professor, lectured on how it was important not to spend too much time teaching. It would be your demise, etc. So I've always been nervous about it: I cannot spend too much time. I am jumpy whenever I am preparing class or grading, looking over my shoulder, etc., and I feel sort of guilty/fearful about the fact that I enjoy the students and some courses. It's as though: people had better not find out, because if they do I will not get tenure (I have tenure).

    Yet at the same time, where I went to college the professors were on a 2-2-1 load (quarters) and teaching only in field, so they were very well informed and had had a lot of time to work up these classes.

    It took me just a little while to comprehend that to do a good job you didn't have to be as well informed as they were - they had a lot more horsepower than they really needed. I still look at lower level teaching as this huge mountain I must climb, and which I, at the same time, should not spend any time on. I'm rational about upper level and graduate courses, but then those are related to research and the students already have a lot of academic skills, so I just figure out how much preparation time I want to put in and keep it to that, and everything is fine. It's the lower level courses I find really intimidating and although I don't recognize myself in the discussions about perfectionism as related to writing, I see "perfectly" how these things apply to the way I view lower level teaching.