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How Labeling and Hyperbole Sabotage Your Writing Productivity

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Perfectionists, being drawn to reductiveness, dichotomization and rigidity, love labels. But the labels they use are almost always harmful in that they either denigrate the writer or increase the pressure she feels around her work. An example of good labeling would be to call writing "my job," and the particular piece of writing you're working on, an "experiment" or "early draft," since all of these labels ease any pressure you might feel to hold your writing to an unreasonable quality standard. But most of the labels perfectionists use are antiproductive, including those that deem a project to be "hard," "important," "my life's mission," or "the great American novel." (Also "perfectionist," by the way: it's a label I use when writing for convenience, but avoid using when speaking.)

True, some projects are more important than others. But that shouldn't matter while you're writing. Prolific writers learn to lose themselves nonjudgmentally in their work, trusting that their skills, community, and the writing process itself will get them where they need to go.

Of course, it's harmful to label yourself "lazy," "uncommitted," etc., but writers never fail to surprise me with their inventive ways of putting themselves down. One writer told me he was afraid of producing works that "polluted" the cultural sphere. What that label implied was truly awful: that if he doesn't write well, he's a kind of garbage or blight.

The reasons we procrastinate are always valid; however, this doesn't stop perfectionists from labeling their reasons as "excuses," "complaining," "whining," or "being high maintenance." Don't do this -- and also keep in mind that this kind of labeling is often used by oppressors as a control tactic. (It's also often sexist.)

Hand in hand with labeling goes hyperbole. Formulations such as, "This project was a total disaster," "I'm a total loser," and "It's going to take a million hours to edit this thing," are not helpful, whereas clarity of expression is. "It's going to take ten or fifteen hours to edit this thing," is a nonperfectionist statement because it is nonjudgmental and grounded in fact.

Epically blocked humorist Fran Lebowitz refers to her inner critic as a "Nazi general," a comic but ultimately self-defeating hyperbolic formulation. Also hyperbolic are Red Smith's bon mot about how, to write, you need only, "sit down at a typewriter and open a vein," and William Faulkner's overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can't get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.

These examples also show that hyperbole often goes hand-in-hand with grandiosity, yet another antiproductive perfectionist trait.

Make no mistake: labels create a powerful expectation. Only use those that support your success -- and feel free to use them abundantly.