HAVE A SEAT, SELF-SABOTEUR, YOU'RE IN POLITE COMPANY
Very few individuals with goals set out to deliberately hamper their potential. But for many bloggers, writers, content developers or fiction authors, self-sabotage is real. And its clever. Whether because of pesky writer’s block or habitual self-doubt, we creative types have so many ways to unintentionally develop habits that cost ourselves time, opportunity and money. This is ludicrous.
Why should you care what I think about self-sabotage? Another writer might say, so yeah, I’ve been writing professionally for over eight years. Everything from business proposals and press releases, to political commentary and breaking news, to persuasive essays and fiction. I previously founded Fictionista Workshop (now the Writer’s Collective), a collaborative, virtual workshop for online fiction authors that helped dozens of women get published. Blah, blah let’s connect on LinkedIn.
All of that means nothing. What matters more is that I’m a recovering self-saboteur. I’ve tried and failed at NaNoWriMo four years in a row. Many years ago, my obsession with perfection caused me to consistently miss dozens of deadlines that cost me paid writing gigs. As I type this, I have three fully outlined yet unfinished novels on my hard drive with word counts between 35k-90k. They remain in draft because they’re “not good enough”, ok?
The most promising novel is a 30-chapter 210k word creation from 2008 that’s now scattered across 15 folders on my hard drive. Everyone that has read it loves it. Friends and family ask when it’ll be published. The book’s Facebook page has over 1k likes. 8 years later, I’m just now inching closer to being finished. Just typing that makes me feel like an idiot because that’s what I was, no doubt. Needless to say, I know a little about self-sabotage and my writing is the only area of my life that I formed these awful habits.
How did I stop? By realizing I might have a problem, observing my behavior and committing daily to stopping. That’s it. There’s no magical cure. Just stop. So please allow me to share with you the top three ways I self-sabotaged and how I quit so you too can stop being ridiculous.
1) PARALYZED BY OVER-THINKING BECAUSE YOU’RE A WRITER
Any writer on the Internet that hopes to find success must conduct hours of research in order to effectively compete for a reader’s respect and intellectual real estate. I often write about complicated matters in politics and hot-button social issues. My readers depend on me to succinctly and reliably synthesize information for them.
This requires me to know what I’m talking about and conduct an insane amount of research, which I happen to love. Because if I make one misstep in an article or get one fact wrong, readers (and fellow writers) can eviscerate my entire piece, and maybe my professional reputation. This same rule applies for bloggers and content writers, and often for fiction authors.
With so much data swimming around in a writer’s head, the dreaded condition of “analysis paralysis” can easily set in. When writing for the Washington Times, I fell into this trap for years. Each week, I would collect allllll the details, all the statistics, all the quotes, all the history and slam that data into a working draft. After three or four hours of analysis, my draft looked like a totally incoherent word salad.
There was a method to the madness, of course. And several more hours later, I would realize how crazy busy the draft had grown and curate the sections by dividing them along subject with giant capital letters. This also required me to re-read everything and slide in relevant data under these headings, many of which later would prove to be redundant.
My pieces were meticulously well-researched (if I may say so, and I may), but why did I do these dumb things? I lost the flow of my narrative by over-thinking. In the pursuit of perfection and an excessive need to prove a point I felt worthwhile, I pulled myself into too many directions. I wanted every single relevant piece of information to make my argument infallible to critics and so air tight, that no one could counter it. This drive is what I once called passion. And that’s partly true. But that obsessive push can morph into a form of self-sabotage rather quickly.
Highly-efficient and productive people evaluate the trade-off between time spent on a project and its level of perfection. They learn when to move on. When enough is enough. Get your facts straight, say what you want to say and stop over-thinking. Execution is so much more essential than perfection. Without it, we produce nothing.
Ask yourself: do you over-think and do your drafts and writing processes reflect this bad habit? Do you miss personal deadlines or prime times for posting and sharing on social networks because you’re just not ready to let go? Do you have that draft of your breakout novel collecting dust because it’s just not good enough yet? Because it’s just not perfect because it’s just not ready because it’s just not right? And stuff.
If so, write it down now. I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH OVER-THINKING. THIS HAMPERS MY SUCCESS. I WILL STOP. Then, on the top of your agenda, computer or on a sticky note, write: LET IT GO. And stick to it. Set timelines for yourself on an actual calendar. Review these timelines every hour or day and then stick to them. Review these deadlines and your progress daily. This sounds militant, but it’s necessary. Don’t try it. Do it. The process works.
2) DON’T WRITE, EDIT, WRITE, EDIT, AND REPEAT UNTIL WORDKILL
This is not the same as #1. Novelists know this principle well: if you write and then edit the sentence you just wrote before writing the next one, you’re a self-saboteur. I did this for years. It’s the reason that potentially successful novel is still sliced and diced 1000 ways to Sunday instead of available on Amazon.
If you write, edit, write, edit, and repeat until wordkill, stop. This is a bad habit to break and it’ll take time to kill this instinct. So seriously, just stop now so that new, more productive habits can form.
To stop myself from killing my creativity and workflow, I put a sticky note on my computer that clearly says: DON’T EDIT UNTIL YOU’RE DONE WRITING. This is really important.
Because if you’ve at least carefully considered what you want to write, unlocking your imagination or flood of ideas as you put finger to keyboard (or pen to paper) requires freedom from your own inner taskmaster. Do whatever it takes to stop this and let your ideas fall out of that sexy brain that’s so capable of lyrical magic.
Write as the inspiration moves you, but write it all out, even if pieces are missing or you could have done that last line better. As my editor once told me, “puke on paper”. Gross. But she’s right. Don’t stop when your inner nag says, “Ew. That sentence was awful.” Maybe it was, so come back to it later. Tell your inner editor to shush.
Think now, edit later. That’s how things get done.
3) BECOME THE SCULPTOR AND PULL UP YOUR PANTS
This leads to the next bad habit to many writers have developed, one I finally broke. Ask yourself: do you have a writing process that nurtures positive habits or one that leads you down endless, frustrating and counterproductive paths? Does your writing process effectively guide you to the finish line because you know where you started and where you’re headed? Or do you just dive in with no idea where you’ll end up? Because writing is all about creativity right? I just said so above, eh?
Directionless writing, or “pantsing”, isn’t the same self-sabotage I wrote about in #2. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants by opening a document and typing headlong into draft status with only a vague idea in mind. They have no general outline, no idea where the story or article will lead, and no specific structure. Everything is an imaginative freefall. This can be helpful to spark creativity with fiction, but for bloggers, this costs you valuable time and money, and can lead to frustration. Also, scattered presentation. You’re better than that.
Instead of choosing to fly by the seat of your pants, challenge yourself to become a sculptor. Your time is money, so what is your idea? Pick your clay. What exactly are you sitting down to write? If you can’t describe in 7 words, you probably don’t understand it. If you don’t start the writing session with a clear message in mind, why not write something else?
Rules are meant to be broken, but we know from the greats that an outline and coherent structure are valuable tools to form an excellent finished product.
So, before you sit down to write, craft out 5–7 potential headlines for your post and think about them. Actually write out your thesis statement to test your clarity. Maybe form a loose outline. Put your clay on the slab.
Once you know where you’re going, just write and do not stop. Mold that beautiful clay. After you have a working draft, sculpt, sculpt, and sculpt. Make your writing tighter, eliminate boring phrasing, etc., whatever makes your writing sing. Meg even made a list of tools to help you with that. Use it. Then, let go. Publish, share, promote.
If you’re a repentant pantser, challenge yourself to actually form a vision of where your words should lead before beginning. You’ll have a more productive writing and editing process. Productive writing and editing leads to timely publishing. This helps the writer.
So, do you think you’re a self-saboteur? If so, what will you do about it? I hope my tips helped. And remember, don’t take my suggestions as expertise. Every path to success is different. Remember that.
Originally published at Medium.