My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:
Good, better best;
May you never rest
Until your good is better,
And your better best.
It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”
Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.
When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.
Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.
I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.
I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.
I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.
Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters. A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.
So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything. If you simply use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.