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Making Friends with Your Inner Perfectionist

Making Friends with Your Inner Perfectionist

July 9, 2020 By Suzy Bills and DeAnna Burghart

Perfectionism can be one of your greatest assets as an editor, motivating you to perform at your highest level and to examine even the smallest details to ensure accuracy. But perfectionist tendencies can also cause intense stress, prevent you from starting on a project, and even create mental blocks because you’re so afraid that you’ll make mistakes. And as a result, your performance might even decrease. Oh, the irony!

Luckily, by taking a few steps, you can keep your inner perfectionist in check so that it remains an ally rather than becoming an enemy. Along the way, you’ll also become a better editor. Let’s take a look at each of the steps.

Step 1: Accept That You’re Not Perfect—and Don’t Need to Be

As distasteful as the idea is, editors aren’t perfect. But that’s okay—you don’t have to be perfect to be a highly skilled editor. Embracing the truth of imperfection can give you the confidence to try your best without fearing that you’re going to fail. And because you’re not afraid, you’ll probably be able to focus better on your work and fix issues that your brain would otherwise be too distracted to notice or know how to address.

Step 2: Work Hard to Become Highly Skilled

Of course, accepting imperfection doesn’t mean you don’t need to do the best you can and continue increasing your skills. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have AP and Chicago styles memorized. Simply assess where you are, and then make a plan to continually improve. You can build your skills by reading books on editing and writing, completing editing courses, participating in editing forums, and completing online editing quizzes (ACES offers a lot of great ones).

Step 3: Be Willing to Make and Acknowledge Mistakes

No matter how much training you complete and how attentive you are, you’ll eventually make a mistake. Errors can be embarrassing, but they’re not a reason to quit trying or to beat yourself up. Instead, assess the reason for your mistake, take responsibility for it, and use the experience as an opportunity to learn and to become better in the future.

Admitting your mistake to an employer or a client can be nerve-racking in addition to embarrassing. Will you lose your credibility or perhaps even your job? Will a client decide to never work with you again? These possibilities are very unlikely if you admit your mistake and then explain how you’ll avoid making the same mistake in the future. Most people realize that you can’t be perfect, and they don’t expect you to be. Rather, they want you to be professional by taking responsibility for your own errors. Doing so might even increase your credibility and the respect that others have for you.

Step 4: Evaluate Your Performance, and Determine How to Improve

A great way to continue improving your skills and avoid making the same mistakes over and over is to regularly review and assess the errors. One way to make this process less scary is to get in the habit of evaluating every project after you finish it. Ask yourself some high-level questions, such as the following:

Answering questions like these after every project will remind you to look for successes as well as mistakes. If you prefer a more streamlined approach, you may like “Rose, Thorn, and Bud”: after each project, assess what felt good, what felt bad, and what feels like an opportunity for growth or learning. Then develop a plan that will help you avoid repeating any mistakes in the next project.

One strategy to minimize the chance of repeating errors is mistake-proofing—a concept borrowed from lean manufacturing practices. Instead of inspecting your product (i.e., your manuscript) over and over to catch errors, inspect your processes: anticipate the ways and places that mistakes can happen, and then build in checkpoints to prevent them.

You might mistake-proof your editing processes by incorporating tools such as checklists, macros, and consistency checkers. Or you might change your processes by combining some tasks or doing them in a different order. Sometimes, mistake-proofing is as simple as reminding yourself to slow down and take breaks. However you mistake-proof to prevent low-level problems, you’ll improve your final product and be better able to spot high-level issues that might require training and practice to resolve.

Mistake-proofing can reduce errors, but inevitably something will sneak through—a typo, a math error, a mangled sentence. When that happens despite your best efforts, negative talk from your inner perfectionist can leave you questioning your capabilities. Before you let that voice send you into a panic, stand back and look at the situation objectively.

Are you working with a new client? If so, maybe you don’t fully understand the style, preferences, or processes. You might need to modify your checklists and procedures for this project. You may want to consider mistake-proofing your project kickoffs by creating a checklist of styles and rules you should review before starting.

If you’ve never worked on this type of project before, you may have rushed (or been nudged) into something before you were ready. If so, and if you expect or want similar work in the future, right now could be a good time for additional training or mentoring so you can improve your skills in the relevant areas.

Also consider the category of the mistakes. Maybe your errors on a project all relate to misunderstanding a particular rule of grammar, style, or punctuation. Or perhaps they’re more varied but they all trace back to misunderstanding the intended audience or a core concept of the work. These errors indicate the kind of training or coaching that might help you improve on future projects—taking a grammar class, using a punctuation workbook, or practicing project assessments, for example.

What can you learn from the overall distribution of errors? Say you bungled the number preferences throughout the project. That feels terrible, but focusing on relearning number styles might miss a larger issue:

The point is that even when you feel like you’ve made a lot of mistakes, it’s most helpful to assess them within the context of the project and your overall work. Be sure you’re addressing the problem (e.g., a bad habit of not checking the style sheet) and not a symptom (e.g., incorrectly styling numbers).

If the whole project feels like a mess, check in with yourself. Are you OK? Have you been getting enough sleep? Are you overscheduled? Have you lost interest in the project? None of those factors are an excuse, but they may provide an explanation. Before committing yourself to weeks of retraining, make sure you’re not robbing yourself of sleep or skipping meals to meet unreasonable deadlines. When you’re exhausted and overworked, you can’t capitalize on the training you already have. If you think these factors might have contributed to the mistakes, find ways to address them: schedule breaks, take a #StetWalk, negotiate project parameters, and so on.

Finally, consider the significance of the mistakes. Are they errors that only editors will notice (e.g., using en dashes in number ranges), or will they be obvious to readers too (e.g., their/they’re/their issues)? Both are important, but you may want to focus more urgently on issues in the second category—and perhaps have a trusted colleague check your work until you’re feeling sure of your skills.

Though assessing your errors is important, you don’t need to overanalyze them. One error that’s easily understood and easily prevented does not call for three days off the grid to examine your processes, complete additional training, or reconsider your career choice. Don’t give up on yourself that easily. Just develop a plan to address the issue. On your next project, try to do a little better. Double-check the document for any types of errors you’re prone to make. Over time, you’ll likely notice that you’re not making those types of errors as often or at all. Celebrate that improvement! But also remain humble and teachable, remembering that the best editors acknowledge their imperfections and strive to continue refining their skills.

Meet Your New Ally

When you accept the inevitability of errors, they lose their power over you. Your mistakes can become gifts—uncomfortable, awkward gifts, perhaps, but still valuable. By understanding them, you’ll figure out how to mistake-proof your processes and develop a road map to the skill-building opportunities that matter most to your career. You’ll also get better at monitoring what’s going on in your life and taking care of yourself. You’ll reap the rewards of turning your perfectionism into a true asset.

Header photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash.

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