Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


June 4, 2021

Perfectionism and editing: getting unstuck

I recently attended an Editors Canada webinar “Taming the Inner Perfectionist” by Suzy Bills. Perfectionism is common among editors. It has its good side: motivation to do great work, and its bad side: fear of failure. Bills’s webinar outlined a wise strategy for setting realistic expectations and at the same time supporting yourself so that you can do the best work possible.

As I listened, the discussion of how perfectionism can lead to procrastination made me think about what makes me feel “stuck” on a project. I find that editing insecurity sometimes strikes at the start and finish of the project, and it can lead to inefficiency. At the start of the project, sometimes I find it difficult to prioritize all of the tasks, or I feel as if I have to decide every possible style issue before starting to edit the first page. At the end of the project, I’m tempted to re-check my work or I worry that I’ve forgotten to do something.

Getting started

My two main strategies for getting going on a new project when I’m feeling some uncertainty are building momentum and reducing the pressure. This is how I build momentum:
  • Start with housekeeping tasks such as adding the client and project to my spreadsheet and time tracking software. These routine tasks are soothing, make me feel I’m making progress, and build confidence by reminding me of my past successes.
  • Start a project notes document with any special instructions from the client. This is a way to break the project down into tasks and gives me confidence that I won’t forget a crucial requirement.
  • Do easy tasks in the manuscript, such as removing extra spaces and paragraph breaks, setting the correct styles, and formatting the body text and headings. Again, these are easy tasks that make progress. Not only does it make sense to do them first, but they also give me a sense of familiarity with the manuscript.
To reduce the pressure, I often do the following:
  • Tell myself that I’ll return to the first chapter to check my work and make sure it is consistent with the editing in the rest of the manuscript.
  • Write down tasks to do later and questions to answer later on a to-do list in the project notes file. This keeps me from getting bogged down with too many decisions, and writing a note frees me to forget about it for now. I find that many decisions are easier to make once I’ve seen more of the manuscript, so putting off some style decisions seems to be more efficient in the long run.
  • If I feel I’m working very slowly on a particular task or section of the manuscript, I turn off my work timer to remove the pressure to work “fast enough.” Once I finish the task, I can judge how much time I think it should have taken and log that.

Delivering the work

At the end of the project, it can be hard to let go. At this point, being systematic about making sure I’ve met all of the job requirements builds my confidence that I’m delivering good work. I use notes and to-do lists to keep things from falling through the cracks.
  • I check my project notes file or the client’s original email to make sure I’ve done everything they asked for and to check for special instructions about delivery (and invoicing).
  • Most importantly, I go through my to-do list in the project notes file to make sure all tasks are completed. At a minimum, my to-do list generally has reminders to check the table of contents, reread all of the track changes comments, and do a final spell check. Ticking off the items gives me confidence that the work is finished.
  • Other checklists: the client may have a house checklist, especially for proofreading. I also have a standard checklist for proofreading that I go through.

Different editors will have their own strategies, but for me, these habits help get me moving on intimidating projects, manage decision fatigue while I’m working, and reduce delivery anxiety at the end. You can’t be perfect, but supporting yourself so you can do your best work will improve the quality of your work and your satisfaction in doing it.

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