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Elisa Mattison M.A., Director

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From: Productive Writer []
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Subject: [MARKETING] Productive Writer #5: Overcome Perfectionistic Tendencies




The Productive Writer




April 19, 2013






















Keyes, R. (2003). The writer's book of

hope: Getting from frustration to publication.  New York: Holt.


Luey, B. (2004). The ticking clock. In B. Luey (Ed.), Revising your dissertation: Advice from leading editors (pp. 231-239). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Silvia, P. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


Sternberg, D. (1981). How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin.



Some of the information in the Productive Writer draws from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please let me know so I can clarify and correct.









Hjortshoj, K. (2010). Writing from A to B: A guide to completing the dissertation phase of doctoral studies.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.


















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Overcome Perfectionistic Tendencies    


Are you trying to write a perfect thesis or dissertation? Do you delay  starting to write, or postpone completing, because you know what you write won't be perfect? Do you wait for just the right time, right environment, right mood and inspiration to write? 

Hogwash. Just write. Because perfectionism is not possible. And if it were possible for you to write the complete and definitive thesis or dissertation, what would you do next?  Switch topics for every manuscript you write because each will be the definitive work on that topic? (I'm exhausted just thinking about your writing life and academic career.)


Why are some of us perfectionists?

 Our wanting to be perfect can come from

  • becoming overly attached to the dissertation or writing project. It is a work of scholarship; it is not your life. (It just feels like it.) A dissertation is significant and has implications for successful and timely degree completion, entry into post-doc or faculty roles, and the launching of your reputation as a scholar. Yes, the dissertation may be your most significant scholarship to this point.But the dissertation or any other writing project is not your life and does not define you. Professionally, perhaps. But life is more than your dissertation and academic career. (Make sure there are people in your life who will remind you of this. Regularly.) So don't become so attached to any writing project that you can't finish it...or even start it.
  • not being aware of how long it takes to complete a project.  Yes, you can take three years to produce your first chapter or ten years to write a book...but not while the time-to-degree clock is ticking or the tenure and promotion countdown has begun. At times, it's better to get it done and get it out the door than persist in writing the definitive, perfect work.
  • inadequate guidance from our advisor, mentor, or (for faculty) our department chair. Identify the expectations for success. What is necessary to receive approval for the dissertation proposal? To get your advisor's sign-off on chapter four. To meet the Promotion and Tenure committee's standards for retention and advancement? Meet those expectations. Even exceed them. But no one will ever tell you that your work must be perfect. (If they do, let me know. I'm taking names.)
  • the mistaken belief that if we wait for inspiration to write, the outcome can indeed be perfect. Silvia (2007) describes this waiting-for-inspiration excuse as a "most comical and irrational" barrier to productive writing. If you think you should write only when you feel like it, "ask yourself... How has this strategy worked so far? Are you happy with how much you write?" (p.23). "Successful professional writers...are prolific because they write regularly, usually every day. As Keyes (2003) put it, 'Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration' (p. 49)" (Silvia, p. 27).

Is this you?


Is Sternberg (1981) describing you?  "The myth of the perfect dissertation creates problems for graduate students." No dissertation or book is ever perfect. Every writer and author can think of changes they would make in a finished or published manuscript.  After a few drafts, further revisions may produce a different manuscript, but not always a better one, according to Sternberg. "One is reminded of Camus' character in The Plague, who spends his life rewriting the first sentence of his novel - endless versions of horses trotting down the Champ Elysees" (p. 160).

There is another reason you may be a perfectionist that has very little to do with making your writing perfect...and everything to do with procrastination.  Luey (2004) describes this when she addresses writer's block: "What most people call writer's block is a variety of minor intellectual or procedural disturbances. the inability to stop fussing about details." You don't produce much new content because you think there are so many flaws in what you've already written that you are compelled to work endlessly to fix them. "This is...a form of procrastination; it's much easier to fix what's written than to create something new. Fight the temptation" (p. 137-138). 

If you have not written any perfectly fine (but less than perfect) new words today, then set a goal of 500 to 800 new words, and get started.


You can do it!



Jan Allen


Jan Allen, Associate Dean 

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell University Graduate School






354 Caldwell Hall

Ithaca, NY 14850



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