Perfect and Good Enough

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.

Well.

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.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Perfect and Good Enough

  1. Perfect and good enough apply to a vast number of fields. In computer science there is a New Jersey style of writing software that is better known as Worse Is Better. It sounds kind of awful, but their point is too much emphasis on perfection results in poor timeliness and software that is unusable by users. Worse refers to providing less functionality and being a preferable option from a practical and usable standpoint.

    I discovered when I taught university classes the benefits of good enough. One could always spend more time finessing a lecture. Most of this would be time spent adding animations to slides or perfecting wording. Yet, this provided the least value to students. The content mattered. It needed to have enough soul to get the students interested.

    • Fritz, that’s very interesting. I’d never heard off this ‘Worse is Better,’ but–along with your teaching experiences–it echoes precisely what I’m saying. I visualise these situations as a bell curve of return on investment (of time and effort. In practice, calling the cutoff point is the trick, isn’t it? And I love your conclusion about a lecture needing to have ‘soul’–excellent.

  2. Love your thought-provoking post. Especially this: “…advance on all fronts.” I think sometimes we paralyze ourselves by trying to reach an ideal, which might not be ideal for our book. I know plenty of people who do revise their story into the ground. But it is heartwarming to think about advancing forward.

    And I don’t think a story has to be perfect to have that “it” factor which makes the story grow in the hearts of its readers. 🙂

    Thanks for the excellent post!

    • Thank YOU, Heather, and welcome. There are so many levels aren’t there? I think the most important is that “it” factor as you put it… resonance, perhaps. Craft improves with practice anyway, and becomes somewhat reflex. I could probably edit and tweak 99% of the books I read and enjoy. Would it radically improve them? I doubt it, or not much. We hit the point of diminishing returns. And I think that’s a huge problem in these times when many publishers and agents are running scared: they’ve lost sight of the wood and got lost in the trees.

      Wonderfully apt blog title you have there, BTW. Just having a look now 🙂

  3. Wonderful post!! I particularly liked: “I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing.” I need to remember that a tad more 😉

    • Thank you so much, Lynda–and welcome. 🙂 I’ve been there, and so have many others. I didn’t used to be able to leave a paragraph alone–ona first draft!–until I had the prose perfect. No wonder I ran out of steam a few pages into a story. And although the definition of ‘appropriate,’ ‘good enough,’ etc. is highly subjective… still, production is not an unimportant consideration in this day and age. Especially for those who are self- or indie publishing–we can’t *afford* to spend five years on a novel if we want to get any kind of following.

  4. Very thought-provoking post…
    I think it boils down to moderation and balance. You need a good story with characters your readers care about -absolutely- but you also have to write it in a way that keeps the reader engaged. That said, an occasional well-used adverb won’t hurt. (Heck. I break the rules all the time. LOL)

    As far as cliches and cookie-cutter stories go, we should avoid those. But we should also be mindful of the elements of genres and their plots that attracted the readers in the first place. That’s something worth repeating.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. It’s so cool to see my button in your sidebar! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, Melissa, as well as the “Captcha Free” button 🙂 I agree about moderation. I’m reacting in part to all the dogmatic blog posts I see on writing that seem to endlessly regurgitate the same general principles but present them as something Moses might have retrieved brought down from the mountain. As far as your further points, about avoiding cookie-cutter stories at the same time as being mindful of the elements of genre… a big ‘yes’ on both. One of the things that irks me at present, and which I’m also reacting to, is what I see as the hobbling of a genre I love, Science Fiction, by writers and editors who have (with good reason initially, but ain’t the Road to Hell paved with Good Intentions) allowed their pursuit of literary values–and “respectability”–to overtake and subsume story, to the point where a lot of SF reads like New Yorker fiction, and interests me about as much. Balance and moderation, yup! 🙂

  5. Two thoughts came to mind as I read this piece. The first, from my mother. “There’s an exception to every rule except this one.” I totally agree with the idea of knowing the rules and then breaking them. Knowing you are breaking them and why makes your writing more powerful.
    The second comes from a friend who teaches in the early grades. “Practice makes better.” As human beings, we are, by definition, imperfect. It’s part of the plan.

    • hart2sh, thanks for commenting. I like both of those sayings, and your mother’s is both funny and arresting. As far as perfection goes, I think Zeno’s paradox applies to any attempt to achieve it, and we quickly run into the law of diminishing returns as the target recedes. But we will hopefully reach a point where another favourite quotation applies, this one from Edwin Landseer, the great British painter of animals: “If people knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures.” 🙂

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