Cure Your Writer’s Perfectionism and “Go With What You’ve Got!”
Sometimes, “Good Enough” Really is Good Enough
By Dave Fox
Vang Vieng, Laos
When I was studying journalism in college, I took a course in foreign reporting and editing from a professor named Raymond Anderson. Anderson had worked as the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times during part of the Cold War. One of the most simple, most helpful pieces of writing advice he ever gave me, five words I still have to remind myself of no matter what genre I’m working in, was, “Go with what you’ve got.”
In the context of newspaper reporting, Anderson was referring to the fact that sometimes, you don’t have all the information you need for the story you’re chasing, yet you’re at your deadline. So “go with what you’ve got.” Write the story you do have, and if you know there’s a deeper story you don’t have time to confirm before going to press, then save it for later. But at deadline time, write what you have.
The advice carries well into other sorts of writing – and into online media that didn’t exist when I was in college. If you’ve got an editor waiting for a magazine article, a book manuscript, a collection of haikus, there comes a moment at which you have to turn it in, even if you haven’t polished it as much as you would like to. Such deadlines prevent raving perfectionists, such as myself, from over-editing, tweaking and re-tweaking, stressing over every em-dash versus semi-colon, until our brains have melted.
In the digital age – particularly for those of us who manage our own websites or blogs – that advice becomes more critical. When we don’t have editors giving us deadlines, some of us have a habit of laboring over our work for far too long. At some point, we need to put a story to bed even if it isn’t perfect so we can get on to other writing.
But this is a conundrum. Serious professional writers know it’s rare that we just slam out a well-written article in one draft. Good writing requires revising.
In an age when many people are attempting to monetize their blogs, some follow the “blast it out quickly” school of thought on a daily basis. They’re chasing SEO – Search Engine Optimization – going for lots of content in order to climb the Google rankings and bring in more ad revenue. From a business perspective, this might make good sense, but in my opinion, it cheapens the quality of writing.
Yeah… I can hear some bloggers sneering right now as they read this.
Nevertheless, I am still of the possibly naïve mindset that consistently good quality writing is more likely to attract repeat visitors, dedicated followers, and notoriety through other channels that make a website competitive in the SEO game.
I sometimes find myself unenthralled, however, with a story I’ve toiled with for many hours. At that point, I must ask myself:
Is this a topic worth toiling with a little longer?
Does my story suck so badly that I should just scrap it?
Is it “good enough?” Can I put it online now, even if it’s not my best work?
The answer varies from story to story. But what I’ve been discovering lately is: even when I go live with articles for my website before I feel they’re as polished as they could be, feedback is generally positive nonetheless. I remind myself that even if I’m not giving my readers my best writing, moving on means I can give them more writing – a good thing if they’re enjoying or learning from it.
So “Go with what you’ve got” is a motto I still try to roll with – imposing my own deadlines when I feel like a particular article is gobbling up more time than is warranted. Being at peace with publishing “good enough” writing is hard for some of us. But if we learn to do so, we become more productive writers.