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I’m a patchy perfectionist. This basically means that I don’t have the energy to be a perfectionist about everything (just ask Lovely Husband about all the random, tidy piles of clutter on surfaces that should be empty and pristine), but I have a lot of energy to be perfectionist about some things. Like writing. I really struggle to let go of my writing when I am not sure it’s exactly right or amazingly great. For me, my whole life, there has never really been such a thing as ‘good enough’ when it comes to academic work and ‘products’ like papers, dissertations, reports and presentations. It must be the Best Ever or it’s nothing.
This is, quite obviously now that I write it down, a recipe for immense frustration and quite a lot of stress. Especially when the career I have chosen requires me to write at least two papers every year that can be published, and requires me to carefully and supportively mentor other writers and thinkers through teaching and supervision. I would never place this much pressure on my students; in fact, my advice to them to is become more realistic and pragmatic in their plans and expectations of themselves, because the perfect, Moste Amazingly Goode Paper is a fiction. It does not exist.
What does exist are lots of decent papers, many good ones and a few really fabulous ones, and these measures are not really very objective. Case in point: I once submitted a co-authored paper to a journal based abroad. I was corresponding author, and after revisions had been made, I mistakenly uploaded the revised paper to the wrong part of the submission site (for new papers). I emailed the editor and we sorted it all out (or so we thought) and the paper was published (with minor revisions, which was lovely). But, two months after it appeared in print, we got two more reviews from two different reviewers, recommending rejection. Obviously, the paper had been published and that was a done deal, but what the experience showed me was that I could send any one of my published papers to different reviewers and readers and get quite different, and quite possibly less positive, feedback that I did from the original reviewers and readers.
So what, then, is ‘good’ or even ‘great’ in a published paper? How do you know when what you have written is good enough to send to a journal, a supervisor or a critical reader whose opinion matters to you? How do you tame the perfectionist who wants it all to be Best Ever, and let go of it? How do you trust the feedback you get and believe the positive comments? I have many thoughts on this, some of them contradictory depending on how loud the perfectionism is and what I am writing and who I am writing for. But I’ll focus on a couple here that seem to be pretty settled across all of these variables. They mainly have to do with my sense of my voice and my writerly self, and my groundedness in the field I am contributing to.
I have published a number of papers and book chapters and have just finished a book that is now in press. So, I have a fairly clear sense now of when my writing sounds and feels like ‘me’ and when it does not. I think of this as my authentic or real writerly voice, and this has been very much a work in progress over the last ten years. I have to mostly play by the rules in terms of layout, style, grammar and so on – I can’t just freeform or stream-of-consciousness my papers or they won’t make any sense – but within those rules I can assert my agency to make sure that I use words, terms, turns of phrase, examples and arguments that sound and feel like me, my scholarly self. This is a big thing for me. It’s really hard for me to be excited about telling people to read my paper if I feel like a fake on the page or if the voice sounds stilted or ‘off’. Sometimes, editors make suggestions that push the writing in that direction which even five years ago I might have just accepted without thinking about it too hard. But now, I really stop and think and try out the suggestion in my voice. If it fits, cool; if it feels like something I would not say or write or like someone else’s voice, I politely disagree and defend my original choice. I don’t always win, but I win often enough that I can (just about) let the losses go.
So, when I get to the stage where the paper or chapter looks and sounds and feels like me on the page, and it’s an argument and a piece of work I am proud of and excited about, that’s a point where I can believe it’s at least a decent paper or chapter. The more you write and send your work out and get feedback, and work with it to become conscious of what you are learning and the effect of that learning on your writing and thinking, the easier it becomes to believe you can written something decent, good even. Practice does not make perfect, but it does improve your feel for your voice and for what readers within the fields for which you are writing will respond positively to and what they will likely critique or challenge.
At that stage, I really then turn my attention to the contribution, and look really carefully at the quality and clarity of the argument. I try to ask myself hard questions about how clear my claims are, how strong the evidence is, how useful the paper is or what kind of contribution it may be able to make. I have a less pressured sense of trying to say Something Really New and Huge with my papers than I used to when I started writing for publication, and try now to find angles that shed a different, new-ish light on topics that my peers and colleagues are talking about and interested in. This means I have a clear conversation to join, and I have something small but valuable to say. This doesn’t always mean a ‘yes’ from journals, but it does make it easier to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than Best Ever.
Writing is hard enough without all the added pressure of trying to make every paper or dissertation or report or presentation the Best Ever. There are literally thousands of papers published every year and thousands of M and D degrees awarded, by and to scholars who are smart, capable, doing interesting work. If you choose academia as a career you are most likely a small fish in a big pond, unless you are in a very niche field or area of study, perhaps. What this probably means, pragmatically and in defence of your mental and emotional wellbeing and work-life balance, is that your career will be full of writing that is decent and good enough with hopefully high points of great in the mix. This is a long marathon, and looking at your career as a whole rather than paper by paper can help to mitigate any over-stressed perfectionism.
Realising and accepting this was harder for me when I started publishing than it is now, with a few papers and some pretty mean peer reviews behind me. So, I realise that if you are still trying to publish your first paper or are earlier on in your career this can sound like it is easier than it may feel. It is not easy, and it does depend on how much is invested in the paper or project you are working on. Sometimes, with a paper we are less invested in, it is much easier to accept ‘good enough’ and let go of ‘great’ or ‘amazing’. Other times, this is much harder because so much more of our scholarly selves and time has been invested in the project. I guess it might also depend on the stakes – is a promotion or probation riding on getting a publication in a ‘top’ journal, meaning it probably has to be pretty good or even great? With each paper and project, you may need to work out the stakes involved and also figure out what you can live with and let go of and what you need to hold on to and fight for.
For me, learning to be okay with ‘good enough’ has been – is still – hard. That academic over-achiever is never really satisfied and she still rewrites bits and pieces of early papers that had too many long sentences and too many compromises in her head. I have learned, more or less, what I would regret and rewrite in my head if I let go of it too soon, and what I can live with. This has been a process (ongoing, of course) of being increasingly conscious of what feels and sounds and looks like me on the page and what does not, staying up to date with new research and writing in my field both in peer reviewed journals and the more popular presses, and focusing on what revisions, edits and changes made using feedback from critical friends and reviewers do to my voice and the clarity and impact of what I write.
The more conscious I am of the craft of scholarly writing, and of the mark I want to leave, the easier it is to be okay with the ‘good enough’ papers, because I have realised that they are actually much less awful that I think they are and that no one is harder on me than I am on myself. I need to take my own advice and focus on pacing myself for the longer race I am running, and learn to trust that sometimes ‘okay’ is more than okay and ‘good enough’ is actually pretty great. If I stay as true as I can to my own sense of scholarly self and to my own voice, it’s hard to regret anything I have written, even those long sentences!
Great article Sherran. So helpful & inspiring. Putting Good Enough in bold print on a sticky note on my PC! Thank you
Thank *you* for this comment – I love the idea of the sticky note! 🙂
As a perfectionist and procrastinator (they tend to go together), I like to console myself by being reminded of the concept of ‘satisficing’ postulated by Herbert Simon. As an engineer, my training has been in optimizing everything. To get through my PhD I had to learn to ‘satisfice’ to get to the end. It’s still a struggle, but it’s nice to know that there are a lot of strategic advantages in not seeking perfection.
Great blog BTW – Love the advice you give.
Brian, thank you. I love that idea of ‘satisfice’ – it’s so true. Sometimes you have to learn to let go of some notion of perfection or getting it ‘exactly right’ to get the paper or thesis (or book!) finished and shared with readers so that they can engage with the ideas and argument (and that’s really the point of all the writing we do). I appreciate the comment 🙂