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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.

Published on Saturday, June 23, 2012

5 Responses to “Cure Your Writer’s Perfectionism and “Go With What You’ve Got!””

  1. June 27, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    Thanks for this article, Dave. I have been sitting in front of my computer working on the same blog post for 4 days. I am going to finish it up and just POST the damn thing! I’ll polish it up when I submit it somewhere else.

    Hope you’re having a BLAST in Luang Prabang. Have you tried the rice wine, yet??

    • June 27, 2012 at 3:40 PM

      Jules, if you plan to submit a story later, there’s another advantage to splashing out a quick, rough version for your blog, in addition to the productivity issue. Obviously, you want your blog to have good writing. But keep in mind that once you publish something on your blog, you cannot sell it to any publications that only accept first rights for a story. Publishing something on your own blog is considered using the story’s first rights. So if it’s a really good, sellable story, you don’t want to put that version on your blog.

      As I travel through Laos, I’ve been writing up some quick anecdotal tales for my blog, with the intent that I will write more polished versions to pitch to paying publications later. There’s no hard, fast rule on how much of a story you have to change before it’s considered a “new version” as far as first rights are concerned, but yeah… if something is driving you crazy at the moment, toss it onto your blog for now, let it ferment for a while, and then polish and revise it to publish elsewhere.

      Speaking of fermenting, yes, I have tried the “Lao Lao,” which I think is what you’re talking about. (Why do you ask me these silly questions, Jules? Like I wouldn’t have by now?!?!) :-)~ I’m inclined to say I am more of a fan of the Vietnamese version, but hey, it all serves basically the same purpose.

      My story about Beer Lao is coming soon!

      Thanks for saying hi!

      –Dave

  2. December 18, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    i am definitely an advocate of this mentality! i often feel like “going with what i’ve got” is an escape route but i appreciate this article’s validation that it is a necessary movement in order to continue on the path of writing. :)

    • December 18, 2012 at 1:20 PM

      Caitlin–

      Actually you bring up a good counter-point — and one I should address in an article sometime soon. There is a middle ground! Some people do seek an “escape route” as you call it — an easy out that lets them slap together something hurriedly and call it good, or whine that they’re “just not a good writer” when they’re not willing to put in the time to become one. But for those of us who suffer from self-destructive perfectionism and over-editing (I include myself in this category at times), we need to remember that at some point, it’s time to put a story to bed and move on. :-)

      One of the formulas I am starting to use is to ask myself — would my time be better spent continuing to improve a particular article, or would it be better spent jumping into something new?

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. January 15, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    I like that idea.. Too often my blog stays dead for ages because I never seem to find my post good enough! :)

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