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Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin Your Screenplay: 9 Tips

If you’re a screenwriter, the competition to sell scripts these days is so intense, you have to maintain the highest standards for your work. You absolutely have to write your best.

You will want your script to be perfect.  And that’s a reasonable goal.  There’s a healthy kind of perfectionism, when you always strive to do your best work.  However, there’s another kind of perfectionism called maladaptive or counterproductive perfectionism.

That kind of perfectionism is obsessive in nature.   It’s marked by a desire to be faultless to the point where one fears imperfection.  This kind of thinking leads certain people to equate errors in their work with personal defects. They view perfection as the only route to personal acceptance

This perfectionism can cause you to focus too much on what’s wrong with your script. On details. Your inner critic works overtime.  You become extremely hard on yourself, to the point where you’re difficult to satisfy.

Does this sound like you?  If so, you may find yourself trying to avoid mistakes all the time. You focus on the details. You might rewrite a scene or a bit of dialogue until you feel it’s perfect. As a result, you can lose sight of the big picture. All your energy goes into tweaking the dialogue, for example, when it’s the story that matters.

There is a relaxed approach to writing that allows you to take risks and experiment with story elements. This is a healthy way to write. The perfectionist doesn’t get a chance to write this way. There’s too much fear involved in the process.

This kind of fear leads to a more conservative and defensive approach. Creativity and originality suffer. You tend yo overlook opportunities when your thinking is too focused. You have to give yourself permission to fail.

It will help to recognize that perfectionism is a problem. Remember the difference between having high standards and being perfect. Pay more attention to your good ideas, don’t surrender to your inner critic. Trust your talent.  Don’t give in to fear.

I’ve compiled some practical guidelines that can help you escape the traps of perfectionist thinking:

1.Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Especially successful ones.

When your inner critic is on overdrive, you tend to feel like an inferior writer. When you compare your work with successful writers, you always come up short. It’s okay to feel inspired by Quentin Tarentino’s work. It’s another thing to measure your work by his standards.

A big part of being a good writer is having confidence in your work. When you’re always questioning, it kills creativity. Allow yourself to feel good about your ideas. Work from strength.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking in black and white (or all or nothing) terms. This kind of thinking goes like this, “If my script isn’t the best, it’s a total failure. There’s nothing in between.”

Remember there are a million shades of gray. And it’s okay to have flaws. Even he best scripts have flaws. Nobody is perfect.

2. Set realist goals. Don’t just sit down and start writing.

It’s overwhelming. If you try it, you’ll just shut down. It’s too difficult. Break your overall goal into small, doable (preferably one day) projects. Start with a character description. What is the protagonist like? Then, day two, what is the antagonist like? Write a brief plot summary, with a beginning, middle and an end.

When you’ve thought out the story’s overall structure, then flesh out act one. Give act one it’s own beginning, middle and an end. Make sure it sets up the major characters, and that they have character arcs. Remember characters change through conflict. Don’t rewrite randomly, stick to the plan. Allow the characters to grow.

3. Look at making mistakes as lessons.

As a creative professional, you’re going to make mistakes. You have to be confident in your ability to correct them. You’ve got to take risks if you’re going to keep your work fresh. When you play it safe, everything turns out bland. Bland characters. Bland story. And so on. No surprises.

You’ve got to be willing to try something new. And that comes with some fits and starts. You need to be okay with making errors. Be confident in the process. You’ll catch mistakes and correct them. In the process you’ll improve the script.

4. Don’t be perfect. Be yourself.

Find your voice. Don’t try to painstakingly craft perfect dialogue. It’ll seem stilted. You want to be good enough, not perfect. Think of your goal as being 80%. For example, you want conversational dialogue. You don’t want it to sound crafted and honed. Think about how it sounds to your ear? Keep it natural, but not boring.

Stay authentic. Steal from real life. Pattern characters after people you know. Write dialogue that’s entertaining and feels real. If you write what you know, you’ll have a lifetime’s worth of original ideas.

5. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Some writers will write a sentence, and then start rewriting. They’re not following a plan. They’re not moving on. They’ll rewrite that sentence six different ways.

Don’t get hung up on details. Perfectionists tend to over-write everything. Remember, it’s the whole screenplay that matters, not every word. Keep the big picture in mind while you’re writing. But don’t get overwhelmed. And don’t obsess over every decision, you’ll make yourself crazy.

6. Don’t be judgmental.

Perfectionists write something, then look for flaws. They’re highly critical of their writing, and everybody else’s writing. The idea here is to take it easy on your friend’s work. Cut them some slack. And go easy on yourself.

If you’re less critical of others, you may find yourself being less critical of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to other writers. Don’t judge, yet. Leave that for the second draft.

7. Remember, nobody’s born talented.

Some people think talent is something you’re born with. They feel that you either have talent or you don’t. You can’t afford to think that way. You want to think that your writing gets better with time.

The more you practice writing, the better it will be. Keep a journal with you. When you have time, practice writing scenes. Practice writing dialogue.

Watch how people behave. Observe them in action. Write down your observations. How do these people look, dress, and sound? Write down bits of dialogue. Your writing will improve.

8. Don’t take everything personally.

Perfectionists tend to take every setback or criticism personally. Setbacks are supposed to be part of the process. For the perfectionist, though, setbacks can stop the process. They lose confidence. They put the script away.

Don’t let setbacks kill your enthusiasm. They’re going to happen. You want to be resilient. Set the screenplay aside and come back to it in a better frame of mind.

Don’t give in to the perfectionist’s worst nightmare; thinking your errors are evidence that you “aren’t good enough.” You don’t want to lose interest in your project. You want to take another look at your outline, stay the course, and bounce back.

9. Trivialize the process.

Perfectionists tend to over-think the importance of their screenplay. They might see it as the first step in their screenwriting careers. Their expectations grow. They imagine life as a screenwriter.

All their hopes and dreams rely on writing their first screenplay. Some perfectionists will never finish one project. They’ll get bogged down with details. Especially when it feels like their entire future depends on it.

If you’re a perfectionist and you start off thinking “the rest of my life is riding on this screenplay.” If you do, every detail is going to haunt you. If you say to yourself, “I’m just moving words around on a page” the process becomes less threatening.

The “shitty first draft” is the term Anne Lamott, author of “Bird By Bird,’ came up with to trivialize the process of writing novels. You want to think, “it’s just a first draft.” Furthermore, it’s one of many. There will be dozens, maybe hundreds of screenplays in your future. So relax. And keep writing.

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Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin Your Screenplay: 9 Tips

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The compettiion is fierce, in graphic design, architecture, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2018). Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin Your Screenplay: 9 Tips. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 May 2018
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