Friday, July 23, 2010

Good Enough

Probably the single most important advance I've made as a writer and a scholar, over the past several years, is learning how to say "good enough."

That doesn't come naturally to me, and it probably doesn't come naturally to most people who were high-achieving youngsters or who have achieved any kind of success in reasonably competitive fields: you succeed by being THE BEST. Or at least, ONE OF THE BEST. As a poster that hung in one of my high school classrooms proclaimed, "Good enough, isn't."

But what I mean by "good enough" is closer to "good enough for now": the best version I can produce at the moment, without more thought or time or outside feedback. Good enough to move on to another part of the project; good enough to give to a friend for comments; good enough for the conference-paper version; good enough to submit to a journal and see what they say.

It's about having perspective, basically: remembering that every project has a lot of stages, that sometimes one is too close to see what's working and what's not, and--most importantly--that nothing, ever, will actually be perfect.

I'm not sure that one can make this process, this willingness to say "good enough," happen by force of will, though. When I was in grad school, I really didn't know what good enough was. I didn't know at what stage it was appropriate to show my drafts to my advisor--at what point the bones, the exciting part, would be evident to someone else. So I tried to make everything I showed her perfect. Sometimes it was, in the sense that she loved it and had no suggestions for changes. Sometimes it wasn't, and I'd wasted an awful lot of time writing a chapter that read beautifully from sentence to glorious sentence . . . only to have to scrap it all because the argument wasn't working.

Maybe it's that I'm more confident in my ideas now, so I'm more willing to put my work out there in a preliminary way without every sentence being perfect or every connection being made fully. Or maybe it's that, in the absence of a dissertation director and a ticking job market clock, I need something else to ensure forward momentum--and sending stuff out when it's good enough and soliciting some kind of engagement is a way of doing it.

All of this is to say that I'm finishing up the revisions to the fifth chapter of my book. It was the weakest chapter of my dissertation and it's still the weakest chapter of my book. But it now connects, clearly, to the rest of the project, and it moves smoothly and efficiently. Chapter 5 doesn't need to be perfect for me to send the manuscript out for review. It need only be good enough.


Susan said...

I learned "good enough" the hard way: my last week in the city where I did my diss research, I realized the only things I could work on were things that to follow properly would take another month or two. So I knew my dissertation would live without them.

As for the book manuscript, I always think people should send off what they know is the penultimate draft, so that when they get readers' reports, they don't feel they have to change something that was perfect!

scr said...

I have 2 thoughts on this-

For one, if you're capable of extremely high-quality work, and make your work perfect, the perfection is lost on 99.9% of the audience anyway, so to a certain extent you're wasting your time. Every last miniscule increase in the quality of your work is taking a huge amount of time, and reducing the quantity of what you can produce. Of course, quality is better than quantity, but only to a point. "Good enough" for someone who is capable of extremely high quality work, is better than "perfect" for 98% of the world.

My other thought is that it's a confidence thing. Having the confidence to know that your work is of a high enough quality that people won't think you're an idiot when it isn't perfect. When you're not confident, you're worried that even your best might not be good enough. When you are, you know that "good enough" truly is.

Flavia said...

Susan: I think your last point is important, and it can be the real pitfall of the perfectionist: not being sufficiently flexible or adaptable. I remember in college (and maybe in grad school?) feeling a little miffed when I got what were genuinely good suggestions for improvement--but to a paper I was pretty darn happy with! And whose lovely transitions I didn't want to have to change!

Bro: you're exactly right on both points--though I hadn't really though about the cost-benefit analysis in your first para, so thanks for that.

I've thought a lot about the second, and about the ways in which real self-confidence involves humility, too: on the one hand, yes, you have to believe that your work as a whole is better than any lingering minor flaws. But on the other hand, you have to accept that your work isn't the center of the universe: it matters to the people it matters to (in my case, a finite and rather small number), and it's never going to be the last word on the subject. If you don't see your work as part of an ongoing conversation, and as something that benefits from push and pull and getting beaten up now and then--if all you want to do is stay at home and craft the perfect, airtight sentence--well, you're never going to craft that sentence, first of all, and the importance, utility, and relevance of your work to other people will suffer.

(Which brings me back to my first point in this comment: adaptability!)

Renaissance Girl said...

Yes, yes. This is all very good, and very relevant and helpful to me, and you know I'm trying to get on board with the not-seeking-perfection-in-every-draft approach. A latecomer to that strategy, to my detriment. But one problem I have is that I sometimes locate the argument by doing these perfectionist moves: by drilling down, down into a single sentence, I often discover the point I've been working toward all along. That habit becomes a real limitation in intros (to chapters, to books), I fear, where the point is to just come out and say it.

Yay about getting your book in the mail. I celebrate your milestone!

Flavia said...

RG: Agreed. I still spend FOREVER on sentences that I know full well will get scrapped--an early version of an intro paragraph, say, or an important transition--since like you I think on the sentence, and through its construction. I feel that that thinking is time well spent, even if the actual thing eventually gets revised out of existence. (Personally, I find intros--to chapters or to books the hardest, since it's there that I'm really trying to lay out the Big Picture stuff.)

But learning to be okay with scrapping stuff I've worked hard on is part of the "good enough" process too, I think--sometimes the replacement isn't quite as beautifully phrased, but I know it's doing the right work, and I'm content to wait to polish it until later.

medieval woman said...

Just a quick chime in to say that I think this is a wonderful place to be and many congrats on finishing that last chapter. At a certain point, perfecting (esp. a book ms) becomes so much navel gazing and it's important to finally be able just to send it out. I started thinking about the reader as a fresh set of eyes. And I love Susan's point about the penultimate draft as well!

dhawhee said...

I call a piece "reader ready." This acknowledges the open-endedness of the publication process and removes any idea "finished" from the picture, especially in the initial submission. This terminology helps with my grad students who suffer from hyper-perfectionism.

Doctor Cleveland said...

"Poems are not finished. They are only abandoned."

And a draft chapter of your book can go out earlier than a poem can.

Of course, this is what I also tell myself, not what I always do. Great post!

Dr. Koshary said...

Having ground out my dissertation just a few months ago, I *clearly* remember coming to this realization that "good enough" is sometimes not only reasonable but necessary. With a little (or maybe a lot of) luck, I might also be applying it soon to a book manuscript for a publisher!

Meanwhile, congrats on your own book manuscript! Pretty awesome, that!