Thursday, July 4, 2013

Perfectionism and Writer's Block: Baby Steps to Overcoming Both

One big cause of writer's block is perfectionism. This is what is sounds like at our house:
  • I can't think of anything interesting to say.
  • Everything I think of is stupid.
  • Everything I think of is boring.
  • I can't think of how to say what I'm thinking.
  • I can't describe it. It's too hard/complicated.

The fear seems to be that the sentences on the paper are just not going to do justice to the vision in the blocked writer's head, whether the vision is a specific, fully-fleshed out plot/character/idea or just a vague sense that whatever he writes should be clever and beautiful and correctly spelled. I wonder if this problem might be worse in perfectionist kids who also read a lot of good writing. It's like girls who read fashion magazines and then spend the rest of their lives feeing fat and ugly because they're not as thin as runway models or as picture perfect as cover girls. You don't even have to read the magazines to have this problem, actually. All you have to do is watch TV or go to the movies or stand in line at the grocery stores and see the magazine covers.

But that's a separate issue. Back to writing.

Reading good writing is a great way to internalize how good writing should look and sound. It improves vocabulary, gets people comfortable with complex syntax, and provides models for all kinds of skills. Tai can produce pretty sophisticated language for his age, mostly when he talks, occasionally when he writes; I attribute this to his reading and maybe to the language he hears around the house. But often his own self-consciousness and, I don't know—fear of not being able to match the quality of what he reads?—get in the way of producing anything at all.

And finally on to more practical things. Here are a few steps I've taken to try to chip away at the wall between the perfectionist attitude and producing writing.
  • We turned off spellcheck on the computer—those red lines can be so distracting. You're not supposed to worry about spelling in first drafts and journals anyway.
  • For a while, we used frequently misspelled words from journal entries to create spelling lists. I knew that the words will be used again, which gave my writer lots of practice. Sometimes if there was a useful spelling pattern involved, I just picked one word and added some similar ones. This made spelling practice immediate, regular, and practical. We did have quizzes, but they were more like check-ins—let's see if you can spell that word easily. If not, no big deal—just keep practicing. One great thing about homeschool.
  • Every once in a while, we go small—we do writing exercise that are just words or phrases or sentences. Perfectionists don't understand (or maybe don't like) that bumbling along and writing down every ridiculous thought as you go can help develop your thoughts. They want things to burst forth fully formed from their heads like Athena, and the thought of having to produce a whole perfect Something in one go can be paralyzing. If I were more patient and had more trust in the process, I'd stay with small and go bigger in baby steps, until we get to paragraphs. But I'm not.
  • An example of starting small: we have contests making lists of words, phrases, or sentences—I have a big handicap so Tai wins a lot; winning builds his confidence and makes things more fun for him, so he's more willing to challenge himself in the next round or the next contest/exercise.
  • Sometimes when we have a contest I award bonus points for mistakes. Deliberately make one that your perfectionist can catch. Then say, “Awesome! Bonus points for mistakes!” and award yourself an extra point.
  • If you can, get your hands on copies of early drafts of the works of great writers. Look in the library or on the Internet for collected/complete works, manuscripts, or drafts. Marvel together at how much the piece changes from the draft to publication.
  • I find specific things to praise, so that my writer knows what works (at least for me). Not a whole lot of things, either. Now he has a manageable number of clearly defined successes to try and replicate later.

Any additional suggestions are welcome, as always.

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