Making my peace with ‘good enough’ writing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I drew this one 🙂

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!

‘Commaphobes’ and ‘Commaphiles’: grammar and meaning-making

The university I am affiliated to recently undertook a Grammarly trial, to see whether it would be worth investing in a campus license for all staff and students. I reluctantly agreed to take part. Reluctantly, because one of my job hats is a copyediting and proofreading hat, and I was pretty sure my grammar was just fine, thank you. But, I like to be helpful, and taking part and giving the educational technology division feedback was helpful.

This is not a punt for Grammarly – their web advertising has that covered. This post is a punt for being conscious of grammar, and its role in meaning-making in your writing. Specifically, this post is about the humble comma.

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When I was teaching academic writing courses a long time ago at a different university, one of my colleagues in a group making meeting made a comment about student writers and commas. She suggested that some students are ‘commaphobes’, writing long, verbose sentences with no commas at all, when there should definitely be some. On the other hand, there are ‘commaphiles’, who love commas, and insert them, everywhere, even when there should be no comma there, at all. I am not sure what a writer who falls in the middle would be called (suggestions welcome in the ‘comments’), but I thought I was middle-ground here, like the third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: just right.

Boy, was I wrong. Grammarly has gently, but firmly, pointed out to me over the last two months that on the comma-continuum, I am definitely leaning towards being a ‘commaphile’. It’s kind of amazing to be offered this insight into my writing – specifically grammatical – habits at this stage of my career. I had no idea that I over-used commas, and what they do to the coherence of my writing and the meanings I make.

What is the role of a comma in writing, and in meaning-making? A comma is a pause. According to this website, a comma performs one or more of 10 different functions in writing. The most common, perhaps, are separating an introductory word from the rest of the sentence (However, …); delineating separate but connected clauses (Most academic writing is challenging, but there are ways to develop your skills); and to create lists (Firstly, you can visit your campus writing centre, secondly, you can join a writing group with peers, …). When we see a comma as readers, we pause, and that pause helps us to make sense of what we are reading. Take the commas away from this blog post, or from a paper your are writing or reading at the moment, and see what effect that has on your sense-making.

There is a well-known book about the importance of correct punctuation in the English language. It takes its title after the often-cited example of the value of a well-placed comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. As in: A panda eats, shoots and leaves, or A Panda eats shoots and leaves. On one, you have a homicidal animal, and in the other, you have an animal eating her dinner. Here’s another one: Let’s eat Grandma, or Let’s eat, Grandma. There are many you could think of, I am sure. And some are quite funny. Probably, the over- or under-use of commas in academic or scholarly writing will cause fewer laughs, but their value is no less important for meaning making. Too many pauses breaks up the sentence you are writing, and can confuse the reader, especially, when they are put in the wrong, place. Too few and the effect is also confusion and probably re-reading because it may be the case that there is more than one clause in that sentence however even though you have no commas they may be able to work it out on their own.

Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

So, how do you see and hear commas in your own writing, and work to rationalise your use of them so you are ‘just right’ on the comma-continuum? Well, you could make use of free software, like Grammarly. Or you could go old school, and start reading your writing out loud to yourself, or to a critical friend. Reading aloud forces you to switch from being the writer in your own head to be the reader of your work. This can be a low-key, useful approach to hearing the pauses, and figuring out if they should be there, or not. (I could have deleted that last one and the sentence would work just fine, for example). You can also be really brave and set up a critical friendship pair or small group where you regularly reach out and share writing with peers at your university or college. Even just getting feedback on a few pages can help you to step back from your writing and see as well as hear it with fresh eyes and ears.

The humble comma, like all punctuation, plays a significant role in meaning-making in writing. Far from being a technical feature of writing that you use because you know you have to have punctuation, you need to really think about the role it is playing and the meanings you are trying to make. Do you need the pause? Yes? Insert a comma. Can the sentence work without it? Yes? Then maybe take it out, read the sentence over, and see what you make of it. Using punctuation, like other features of writing, requires us to be conscious writers. To really think as we write about what we want and need to say, and how to get that across to our target audience. I have certainly been reminded of this recently, and find myself far more aware, as I write, of my position on the comma-continuum as I keep striving to get my writing ‘just right’.

Conscious writing

I have been writing parts of this post in my head for a while. This has been an issue I have been thinking about a lot in relation to my writing centre work with the tutors and also with students, as well as in relation to my own ongoing writing. I mentioned a post or two ago that my MA mini-thesis did very little to prepare me for PhD research and writing – not because it was mini, but rather because I was not very conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I didn’t get a great deal of guidance and formative feedback during that process. The PhD, therefore, was a BIG step up for me, and for the most part because I needed to fill so many gaps in my research capability and in my research writing. The biggest gap for me was the c0nsciousness gap.

What do I mean by this? Well, two things. The first is beginning to understand what you are actually doing in your research project and, incredibly importantly, why you are doing it. How to then go about achieving the what and why is also important, but as I had already learnt, trying to complete a research project focusing on how rather than more on what and why gets it done, but is not the most conscious or even satisfying process. Understanding what you are doing your research for and about, and also why you are taking the steps you are and where they fit into your overall study is so important because you need to be able to sustain a narrative, not just for your readers and supervisor over 80,000 or more words, but also for yourself. Most PhDs take over 3 years to complete, and are broken up until the last year or so into pieces that don’t start coming together, in the writing anyway, until you start putting your first full draft together. You have drafts of chapters and pieces of the whole and it’s so easy (and probably also par for the course) to get lost. But if you understand, in your own words, what you are doing and why, and how the pieces fit or could fit, then you can keep the narrative going and keep coming back to your path. This makes it more likely that you will finish within a decent timeframe, and also helps reduce the frustration and craziness that are part and parcel of doctoral study. Keeping a research journal and trying to write to and for yourself as often as you can really helps with developing this research narrative, and the consciousness about your own writing and research process.

The second thing is a meta-consciousness about the thinking and writing moves you make. It’s a more focused narrative than the bigger picture one where you are looking at your research project as a whole and its parts. This kind of consciousness is one I developed in a big way over the course of my PhD, and not without formative and challenging feedback from my supervisor. Here I am talking about the choices you make when you write – what words you use, or what terms, and how you actually write your research for your readers and supervisors. For example, rather than simply using modals (might, may, could, should etc) to temper statements because they seem like a useful feature of written English, really understand what the modal is doing to the meaning of your claim or argument. Hedging is a key feature of academic writing, but it needs to be done consciously rather than mechanically for the text to then be coherent and also pleasurable to read. If you use modals incorrectly you can sound too certain and strident when you need to be more cautious and curious, like in your introduction where you are posing rather than answering your questions. I had to work hard on this, and became far more conscious about the choices I was making around my writing. The move from how I was writing before my PhD to how I write now was a little like Neo’s journey in The Matrix – I went from not seeing that there was a whole world beneath the surface of my texts that I needed to understand, to seeing that it was there, to starting to write the code that could reshape and change that world and my writing in a variety of ways. Being so much more conscious of what I am writing and why has given me more control over how I write, and it’s a good feeling. It feels like a much more solid and tangible base to keep building one than the one I had before the PhD started.

Conscious writing involves being able to read your own text as an editor and a writer, asking yourself questions about the choices you have made in terms of words, terms and concepts used and well as structure, organisation and coherence. It means being able to explain not just what you have written about, but also being able to tell the story of why the choices were made and how things were included, excluded and shaped in relation to the overall aims and objectives of your research. It’s a crucial part of the PhD process, and one that, while incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work for a long time, yields such satisfying rewards during and also way beyond the PhD itself. Once you have been inside the Matrix and have learnt to write the code itself, you can’t go back. Why would you even want to?