Conquering perfectionism in a dissertation.
December 14, 2003 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Conquering perfectionism. [more inside]

So, I'm trying to write a dissertation, which is a long process. During this process, I've discovered that the only thing that's kept a latent case of severe perfectionism in check was the existence of serious severe deadlines. Now that I'm working at my own pace, my perfectionist tendencies are in full bloom. And while a touch of perfectionism is probably a good thing, this seems excessive. Every day I'm deleting as much as I'm writing (if not more) and, for months now, I've been reluctant to stop futzing with a chapter that seems only 95% finished to me. I know I'm holding myself to an unreasonably higher standard than necessary, but I can't seem to change that. It's slowing me down considerably, which is a terrible terrible thing.

What I'm asking for, from others who may struggle similarly, are tips on conquering perfectionism. How do you keep writing on the days when everything you type seems stilted? How do you convince yourself that a piece of work that maybe you're only sort-of satisfied with is nevertheless good enough to send along (to your advisor, your workshop group, your editor...)? Are there any good tricks I can use to keep my perfectionism from unduly slowing my rate of progress? (Self-imposed deadlines don't seem to be working.)
posted by .kobayashi. to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just write the damn thing and hand it in, .kobayashi. No matter how much of a perfectionist you are, it'll never be perfect. (in Jack Nicholson voice:) Perfection? You can't handle perfection! In fact, it will get worse.

The only trick (but it works) is to put off all the writing until the very last minute (do lots and lots of reading and fretting, though) and then go at it hammer and tongs. It'll be all right on the night, believe me. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:49 AM on December 14, 2003

May I ask what you find imperfect about your writing? Is it your style, or your manner of making arguments, or what? Obviously your facts (if there are any) ought to be unassailable, and your method of linking Concept A to Concept B must be clear and logical. So if you find you are constantly twiddling with the writing style, allow yourself only one style rewrite per page and force yourself to be satisfied with it. Otherwise the important part, the meat of your dissertation, will suffer.
posted by contessa at 9:12 AM on December 14, 2003

I always find that perfectionism comes from identifying myself too much with my work. Find ways to remember that you are not your thesis. Your thesis is just a step towards other things in your life, things that you've probably forgotten by now. Think a bit about what you are going to do once you've completed it, and for now, take a break and do some other things with yourself that remind you of who you really are.
posted by fuzz at 9:12 AM on December 14, 2003

You can try different things -- if you can touch-type, type blindfolded, for instance. Try working on paper instead of on the computer (you're less likely to reread accidentally, and it's harder to revise. Plus you will know you can always edit it when you go back and type it all in in the end). Creating thorough outlines of what you're going to write can also help a lot: If you do revise your outline, you've wasted much less effort in improving what you're saying; it gives you an opportunity to think about how you would actually say what you're saying without having to set it down and then fix it; and when you do sit down to actually write it out, it's often much easier, better, and more seamless than it would be otherwise.

There are probably other techniques you can discover for yourself; it's different for everyone.

The big thing, though, is to get your priorities straight. What's the purpose of each draft? For all but the last, it's not perfect prose, one would imagine. Decide what you want out of each draft, and keep your sights set on that -- try to be efficient. It takes discipline, but if you make the effort, you will acquire it.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:14 AM on December 14, 2003

"Hello, my name is dobbs and I suffer from perfectionism."

.kobayashi., I know exactly where you're coming from. I tried everything, and asked everyone, and couldn't find a solution... until I Turned Pro, according to the definition in The War of Art by Steven Pressfield [excerpt].

Pressfield lumps all the excuses people come up with for not writing (or doing whatever is their calling) under the heading of Resistance ["Resistance will bury you."]. He then very systematically takes shots at these reasons and offers solutions to them.

Oversymplified, Turning Pro consists of:

a) Showing up every day.
b) Show up no matter what.
c) Stay on the job all day.
d) Being committed for the long haul.
e) The stakes are high and real.
f) Accept renumeration for your work.
g) Do not overidentify with your work.
h) Master the technique of your job.
i) Have a sense of humour about your job.
j) Receive praise or blame for your work.

You're obviously breaking a number of these "rules," at least A - D and G - I.

I know that to some, the above may seem like mumbo-jumbo est-like nonsense, but the book worked wonders for me, if only to get me mad enough at myself why I was giving my employer eight hours a day of my time for something I didn't believe in at all but when it came to my own writing, I wasn't "showing up," so to speak.

I've now quit my full time job and write daily, working towards a specific goal. I'm happier with my writing than I was before, when I wasn't a writer but a perfectionist (ie, Brilliant ideas in my head and zero on the page.) Check your library or bookstore (cover price is us$12). If you're like me, you'll find his ideas to be a swift kick in the ass.
posted by dobbs at 9:29 AM on December 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

"Identify the purpose of each draft" is fantastic advice. Applying some polish to your work is fine, but it's also a fine line from there to rubbing it obsessively and murmuring about your precious. Controlling a spiral of unproductive re-editing involves having an objective and completion critera on hand before you open up the file and hack away at it.

For example, you decide today to get in there and restructure that section that feels like a set of bullet points loosely tied together. You'll be done when you can read your way in and out of it and it doesn't stand out any more. Having set the task you can then go in there, do it, save it and three backups, and close the damned file.
posted by majick at 10:14 AM on December 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

I have struggled with this as a classical musician; we have to deal not only with our own perfectionism, but often with a ridiculous level of perfection pressure from our listeners--especially when it comes to auditions or competitions. I let perfection pressure infect me to the extent that I ended up hating the horn and wanted to quit after nearly 20 years in the business. I got my musical life back by doing the following, and it's the same advice I give music students. Some of it is probably applicable to dissertation writing:

Show up and do the work. That is the number one thing. My equivalent of draft writing is my practice time at home. Show up to the work every day unless you have a damned good reason not to (and your conscience will tell you if you've got a good reason or a lame excuse). Have a starting and ending time for your work, and stick to it. Know what you're going to do when you sit down to work--"What's my outcome for this session?" is a good question, and if I forget to ask it of myself, I can count on an unpleasant practice session where my playing doesn't move forward.

Let it sound bad while you are practicing--in fact, if you don't sound like shit practicing, then you're probably not stretching your skills enough. It won't sound bad forever, but if you don't allow it to be bad at first, you're risking a trip down the sewer of endless nitpicking.

Don't try to learn (or create) new material and polish it at the same time. Learn the stuff, then polish it later.

If there are objective critera you will have to meet, find out what they are and make sure you quantify them. And quantify as much as you can of your own subjective criteria, as well. The perfection demon will use vague criteria as an opening to infect your brain, giving you that constant feeling of "not good enough."

Stop worrying what others are going to think of your work. Even if there's a lot riding on it, you still cannot control one word of what the critics write, or one vote on the audition committee. Your own self-respect, plus the love of what you do, should be enough to propel you towards high standards. If it's not, you're probably in the wrong business.

On preview, this looks an awful lot like Turning Pro. :^)
posted by Tholian at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

1. Where is your thesis committee? Ask them how much you should be fussing; if the answer is "not very much," then believe them.
2. Extension of #1. Perfectionists should beware of their own judgment. (Yes, I have the disease.) Remember that you're too close to the work to judge its effect. When it comes to articles, for example, I send my work out if I find myself doing too many minor adjustments--that means it's time to have a (hopefully) unbiased reader take a look. For the same reason, about two years ago I decided that, really, it was time to stop revising the dissertation and start shopping the manuscript around.
3. As a publisher said to my father thirty-odd years ago, "You wrote your doctoral dissertation to prove that you know your field. We assume that you know your field." In other words, don't think that your doctoral dissertation has to look like publishable manuscript; even the best doctoral dissertation requires considerable revision and pruning before it becomes fit to set before an audience. Presume, in other words, that your thesis is a preliminary (not rough, but preliminary) draft for something potentially much better.
4. Along the same lines, while the dissertation should demonstrate that you know your stuff, keep in mind that it's also demonstrating your potential. It's not like the French system, in which scholars write two theses (the second being a Very Big Thesis, often completed only in late middle age).
posted by thomas j wise at 11:07 AM on December 14, 2003

Let your thesis advisors decide whether you should make revisions or not. (Depending on the disposition of your advisors, you may need to replace the word let in the previous sentence with make).

If you're reading additional secondary sources--stop reading. If your chapters feel 95% done, you've read enough.

As others in the thread have said, it's more important that the dissertation be complete and defended, than that it be perfect. Knowing that does you no good if you don't believe it, though, and it can be hard to believe.

Are you writing with a word processor, or in longhand? The ease of composing text on a computer can facilitate lazy first drafts and many subsequent rounds of futile editing. On the other hand, when you have to actually take the effort to write your thoughts on a sheet of paper, you tend to consider your sentences, paragraphs, and arguments more carefully. I wrote the first draft of my dissertation chapters by hand, and then fed the second draft into the computer from my handwritten manuscript. I'm obsessed with clarity, readability, and style in my academic writing, but with this process of editing I rarely needed a third draft of anything I wrote. (I also found it much more efficient to print a copy of a file and edit it on paper, rather than edit it on screen--I don't know why.)
posted by Prospero at 11:54 AM on December 14, 2003

As a fellow perfectionistic-procrastinatory writer (though of fiction, not theses), I would say that what I find most helpful when I get in this situation is to do what's usually hardest for me: ask for direct help from others. More specifically, you might:

1. Identify someone with whom you have good rapport and whose brains you trust. This person doesn't have to be a Subject Matter Expert in your field, though it would help if she/he knows enough to get the general drift of your diss. A fellow grad student would be great, if there's someone congenial.

2. Make a contract: you will meet with this person on X date, at which point you will hand over Y pages of text. Schedule additional meetings as often as necessary. I advocate direct face-to-face meetings over e-mail, precisely because it's more inconvenient for your reader, hence it raises the stakes and will make you more reluctant to show up without the stuff you've promised or otherwise flake off.

3. Tell the person, "Your basic mission is to let me know if this is good enough; if it's clearly written, flows sequentially, if statements are adequately supported, etc. If you see problems, let me know clearly what they are."

4. Once you have physically handed over the promised section, it is out of your hands. It is gone. You do not get to go back in and futz with that section except to fix problems clearly identified by your reader. If necessary, back it up (ideally, in a couple of different places), and then delete it from your hard drive.

5. It works best if you can arrange frequent meetings to hand over small chunks of text. Keeps the mind oriented toward short-term achievable deadlines.

Baseline: it's about trusting someone else's judgment that what you've written is good enough. (Not the most fantastically brilliant and insightful work ever produced--just good enough.) We perfectionists cannot trust our own judgment of our work, because our judgment is whacked. Trying to unwhack your judgment at the same time you're writing a dissertation is just a lot of work, so I'd advocate learning to trust someone else's, as a stepping stone.
posted by Kat Allison at 12:23 PM on December 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

Further advice: Stop reading MeFi and get back to work! Actually I think I'm talking to myself here ... ;-)
posted by carter at 12:29 PM on December 14, 2003

I'm not on your committee, but if I were, I'd be a nasty sonofabitch and tell you this:

It doesn't matter how perfect your dissertation is if it isn't turned in and done. The most mediocre dissertation that passed through charity and sympathy is better than the finest dissertation in the history of humanity that's not done yet.

Your dissertation is not supposed to be perfect, or fabulous, or even necessarily good. It is merely supposed to be good enough, and your committee know better than you when you've hit that mark.

This is especially true on the job market -- having your dissertation completed (or at least having a completed draft approved pending defense) is a huge advantage over people who aren't done yet. This because many people who aren't done in their job search continue "perfecting" their dissertation over the next year or two.

Perfecting or at least improving your dissertation is a future work as you break up the work for publication as several articles*. And that future work is intensely (if combatively) collaborative between you, different sets of anonymous reviewers, and journal and book editors, all of who probably have a better sense than you of what's good enough for publication in a first- or second-tier journal.

Were I back in your shoes (again), I would do these things:

(1) Print out, as big as you can, the slogan "ANY DISSERTATION THAT IS TURNED IN IS BETTER THAN EVERY DISSERTATION THAT IS NOT." Tell it to yourself every day. Get people on your committee to explain it to you in direct and forceful terms on a regular basis.

(2) Explain your perfectionism to your committee. Indicate that you would welcome kicks in the ass. If you don't have someone like this already on it, add someone to your committee who is prepared to be a blunt asshole about this. Get schedules, and get the committee to sign off on chapters as they come out -- after which, you're not allowed to revise the chapter (barring the inevitable bits of revision ***AFTER*** successful defense).

*ESPECIALLY* work with your committee to narrow, narrow, narrow the scope of your dissertation. Find out what you can cut out and still pass, and do what you need to to pass. For each and every chapter (and large subchapter), ask yourself this question (and get your committee to help you ask it):

Is this section directly helping me make my point?

If not, ditch it as future work. (As a precursor to this, I like making grad students write a one-sentence summary of their dissertation beginning with the words "I think that..." that their gramma/annoying kid brother/etc can understand -- it'll sound like the most banal piece of claptrap ever, but it will really help you focus on what your point actually is)

This doesn't mean not doing the rest of it. It only means doing the rest of it as an assistant professor getting new publications instead of as a grad student working on the same non-publication.

(3) Also probably with people on your committee, work on coauthoring related papers for conferences and publications. The deadlines that are part of these will help serve as periodic ass-kickings.

*Or one book, but almost everywhere 3 articles are better than 1 book for tenure purposes, so go that route to the extent that you can
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:47 PM on December 14, 2003

There's an old saying: "Don't let the best be the enemy of good enough." (of course, some times I feel we shouldn't let good enough be the enemy of better).

You've identified that a deadline forces you to move along. Give yourself one. A friend with a horribly messy apartment considered blackmailing herself with me as an accomplice: She was going to give me a check made out as a donation to an organization she abhors, and another made out to an organization she likes, in stamped, addressed envelopes, inside of other envelopes marked A and B. If she failed to clean up the apartment by a certain date, she'd call and tell me to mail envelope A. This is a rather elaborate way to get yourself to do something--just food for thought.

And if you need to obsess over something, start another project that allows for endless fiddling and work on that in your spare time.
posted by adamrice at 1:40 PM on December 14, 2003

Kobayashi, if you are like me and only get things done if you have a deadline. Pick a date, and that's your deadline. In order to hold yourself to it, give me a check for $1000, which I will cash if you don't show proof you've finished your dissertation by the agreed-upon date.

Foolproof plan.
posted by Hildago at 2:07 PM on December 14, 2003

Some good advice above.
Its always worth bearing in mind that your dissertation doesn't have to be brilliant, it only has to be good enough to pass. My experience is that barely anyone will read those things after that, the only thing it will be good for is getting you some quality papers and you can do those based on the data so everything doesn't need to be in the thesis. Just get the pass.
What helped me with deadlines was the rush to get stuff written and submitted before the field changed, but I work in a policy field prone to rapid change, so this may not work for you.
I'll just add a horror story about a perfectionist I know. Last time I heard he was in the 12th year of his dissertation, having started full time and gone part time after his 4th year, and this in the UK were 4 years should be enough for anyone's PhD. Don't let this happen to you.
posted by biffa at 3:11 AM on December 15, 2003

Great thread, folks.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:22 AM on December 15, 2003

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