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!

Writing in a time of crisis

This COVID-19 or novel coronavirus pandemic has been kind of unbelievable on so many levels – the speed at which it has spread, the closing of borders, the cancellation of conferences, seminars, and the closure of schools and universities. I have seen many, many tweets about online teaching (and the many issues related to that of access, success, engagement and so on), and also about writing. The writing discussions are interesting, as they seem to be split-ish between encouraging massive bursts of productivity because we’re all home (and apparently the rest of our lives have vanished), and encouraging gentle, realistic bursts of what you can manage. Of course, there is a a fair bit of middle ground here, but what I am wondering is what that is, for me specifically but also for writers I need to start working with online in April. So, I am grappling with two related questions: 1, how do I keep writing in a time of crisis? and 2, how do I help others do the same?

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There are so many people I am connected with through Twitter are struggling to write and feel productive and focused and calm enough to think, not least because they are home with cats and dogs and kids and partners and noise (so much noise). But, even those without all of the noise and people and distractions are struggling, because being alone is not easy either. This begs the question, again, of what we need to make the work of writing possible? What makes us feel like we can be ‘productive’ in terms of creating finished pieces of writing, in whatever shape those take?

I have written many different kinds of posts over the last five or so years about affective and also intellectual or mental blocks to writing, and how to work through or past these. One of the posts I come back to often in my writing courses is on making time to write: about how we don’t find time to write, we have to make it. And we don’t just have to make physical time – hours and minutes in a day – but, more importantly, mental time – space in your head that can be focused just on writing and not on everything else. This is often hard to do, but perhaps no more so than when your head is full of quite unexpected and largely unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. We have no idea how long our schools and universities will have to be closed, or what kind of ‘normal’ we will return to when they re-open. How long will we be trying to work and teach online?

We have no idea when we will be allowed to travel again, for meetings, and teaching. Many of us work on a contract basis, and if we don’t work we don’t get paid. This is true for me. Am I going to be able to actually do the contract teaching I have budgeted for and signed on for, or will that fall away? I cannot do it all online. Am I going to be able to pay all my bills after June? This is a big part of the anxiety filling up my headspace right now, along with unplanned-for work in trying to plan to actually teach a face-to-face writing course, with feedback and peer engagement, online. And, in the midst of trying to keep my supervision feedback, journal administration, and materials development work going – thankfully all things I can do online – I also need to keep writing and being ‘productive’ around publishing.

But, I am listless, figuratively and literally. My kids are home all day. My husband is home all day. The dog is going mad because we are not allowed to take him for walks at the park and our garden is not very big. The cats are confused – why are we always here? We are at on school holidays now, but these end on Tuesday next week and then we have to add cajoling the boys into doing their schoolwork in the mornings every day to a long list of things we don’t usually have to do. It feels like holidays all the time, but it is not. The emotional toll of all of this should not be under-estimated. It has a significant effect on our ability to focus our minds on tasks that have a cognitive load, and that require concentration and cleverness.

I think, for me as a writer and as a facilitator of others’ writing, this is point 1 in answer to my second question: I need to acknowledge the extra-ordinary emotional strain that people are under. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst of it – how long is this all going to last, and what will the world (and my job) be like when this pandemic is past? We need to not just quietly acknowledge this, but perhaps make a small space in our online engagements with peers, colleagues and students, to voice some of the anxieties we feel. We are not at all alone in this, but we often feel we are, and what we feel is what creates both emotional and mental static* that can be hard to work around.

I need, also, to acknowledge my own stress and anxiety, and make that okay for myself for now. Following on from my last post, I need to seek a new balance for now at least between being kind to myself in the sense of allowing myself time to just be and work through the other stuff in my head right now, like how to shop for groceries during lockdown and how to keep my asthmatic son safe, and being kind to myself by creating a work routine and pushing myself to get things done every day, Monday to Friday so I don’t meander around aimlessly feeling like I’m not doing anything useful at all. I need to just see that this is all not business-as-usual-working-from-home, or even school-holidays-working-from-home, and let myself have a few more moments of listlessness and meh than I usually allow.

In my planning for teaching, I want to create a little more space than I usually do to talk about the affective dimensions of making time to write, to show students that it is completely normal – usually but especially perhaps at the moment – not to feel like writing, or thinking, and to even feel that all of that academic work is a bit silly or non-essential in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. We need to adjust our understanding of what it is to ‘be productive’, and offer ourselves and others kindness and understanding as they navigate these new anxieties and stresses in their day to day lives, whether they are constantly surrounded by people and noise or all alone (both of which can be very hard to live with day in and day out with little respite). We all need to be patient, with co-authors, with supervisors, with critical friends, with colleagues, as we work out a new normal that may last quite some time.

For myself, I am making a list, highlighting tasks I really need to push myself on, like bits of my own writing (all co-authoring currently), and feedback to students on their writing. Other tasks, like ongoing admin and planning and reading I’m fitting in when I have focus and energy, and I’m taking it easy on keeping that stuff ticking over. I’m building a massive puzzle of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I’m mending some curtains I have been meaning to mend since Christmas — 2018. I’m tidying bits of the house that have been ignored for too long, and sorting clutter (Lovely Husband is super happy about this one, and the curtains). I’m trying not to snap too much at my poor kids, who miss their friends and their routine, too. In short, I am doing what I can do to be ‘productive’ and to be well, in a time when both of those things seem tenuous. I think this is all we can all do, and we need to encourage and support one another as we work this out. Hopefully that solidarity and kindness will be what we carry forward into the future that we create out of this present. Take care, everyone. Stay home and stay safe.

*This is Kate Chanock’s term.

Book writing: The thin line between love and hate

The bitter truth about scholarly writing is that it is really hard work, and that no matter how much better or more confident or more experienced you become as a writer, it never stops being hard work. Every new paper or chapter or book makes a new argument, and that argument needs to be built, refined, revised, unpacked and unpicked, and reworked more than once before it is ready to be shared with readers. For me, this creates a love-hate relationship with my writing, and right now, with my book writing specifically. A key question I am grappling with right now is ‘how do I get excited about this book, and stay excited, when I kind of hate this book even though I also really want to write it’?

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

I feel like I have been trying to write this book for a really long time. I first had the idea and wrote a fledgling proposal in 2015, and then it got pushed onto the backburner and it resurfaced in 2016 again, and the pattern kind of repeated itself until the proposal finally got finished and polished and reviewed and approved. Each time it resurfaced, I was really excited about the idea and the argument and what I thought I could do and say with the book. I still am. But my research focus has started to shift as my practice work has shifted in the last two years, and I’m a little conflicted about this project now, to be honest.

I have started thinking, blogging and scribbling about a new project I am really excited about, but cannot in any way properly start until the book is complete. This is part of the conflict I am experiencing: wanting to stay here and also wanting to move on. I’m trying not to shame myself for feeling like this, or talk myself out of it because I don’t think that’s likely to make me feel any better. I feel a bit like I am betraying the book by wanting to spend time and energy on the new research, but I also feel more than a little resentful that the book is demanding all my headspace when there’s other things I’d like to be getting on with. I wonder if other writers and researchers feel like this: I felt a bit like this about my PhD. It demanded so much time, but there were other projects and papers that were also worthy and interesting, and it was hard to devote equal time to them all, plus everyone and everything else in my life, without feeling like butter spread over too much bread (to paraphrase Tolkien).

Another part of the conflict is that I go in and out of feeling confident that I’m saying something with this book that really needs to be said. I believe in this project: I would never have created and proposed it if I did not. But, I’ve been immersed in thinking and writing about this work for so long that I feel a bit like it’s all been said, and I’m just going to be rehashing old ground. If I stop myself going too far down this particular path, I can actually hear the peer reviewers’ words saying that this is useful work, and potentially quite powerful for lecturers and academic developers in a range of different contexts. Parts of this argument have been made, sure, but not in the complete form of this book, written in my voice, with my scholarly perspective and data and theorisation. But it’s not easy to hold onto the confidence all the time.

At the moment, three and a half months away from submission to the publisher, the writing of this book feels a bit like wandering through a valley like the one above. It’s hilly, but there are flat bits and foresty bits and winding bits and steep bits. Some days the writing just goes, and it’s great, and other days it goes but some of the words seem superfluous and wrong and I know there’ll be loads of editing, and other days it’s just a sisyphean task I cannot get my head around. It’s the steep days when I hate the book and wish I hadn’t tried to write it at all – I just want to move on to something new. On the flat, pretty days it is easy to love the book and love the writing and feel like I’m doing something grand. It’s the middle bit, the days where I can write but it doesn’t all make sense, or sound right, or feel right, that is really hard.

Not writing is actually easy, apart from the guilt. Writing on the good days is super easy and feels amazing. But writing through the middle bits is hard work, and creates conflict within writers that has to just be felt, and worked through, hour by hour. Trying to tell yourself you shouldn’t feel conflicted because you chose to do a book or paper or PhD or Masters, and no one made you, is not the best idea. Trying to shame yourself into writing when you are stuck in a very hard day is also not a great idea. Shame just creates paralysis. My advice would be to feel your writing feelings, and if you cannot actually write the Thing, write in your research journal or reading journal, talk to a friend or peer over coffee, talk to yourself. Explain your feelings, work out where they come from, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way through the middle bit a little less isolated and frustrated.

Writing is hard work, even on the easy days, and it asks a lot of us. This book is going to be great, and I am going to finish it, but I’m not going to completely love every minute of writing it, and I might not even love every word I read when it’s finished. And that’s okay. Perfection is an unattainable, and probably undesirable, writing goal. I’m trying to remember, stuck as I am between loving and hating my book writing, that I’m learning so much about myself, writing, and my field. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it? More learning, better questions, new ways to join the conversation and say something that helps and makes a dent.