On the Australian television show, The Block, there is a sign in host Scott Cam’s HQ that says, “Good enough is not good enough.” It’s a fair enough sentiment when you consider what it is they’re doing: repurposing old buildings through significant structural change, often office buildings, hotels and blocks of teeny, tiny shoebox units and turning them into high quality, luxury and spacious apartments.
There are a lot of industries where “good enough” isn’t good enough. Building is one of them. Pharmaceuticals would be another. Medicine. Science. Engineering. We can’t have bridges falling down. We can’t have drugs that don’t work and doctors who work on a pass rate. We can’t have experiments that fail as often as they succeed.
Except when I think about it, “good enough” is often judged as good enough. Drugs are released into the market with an understanding that they may only work on a percentage of people – usually a high percentage, but almost never one hundred percent. And then there are the side effects. The drugs are accompanied by a statement telling the consumer that while they might effectively treat the condition they are prescribed for, they might also effectively kill you or make your life a living hell. There are drugs being prescribed for people with depression where potential side effects include suicidal thoughts. So people considering taking their own lives might just be taking a drug that pushes them over the edge instead of drawing them back from the brink. What the hell?
Technology is the same. For every anticipated new hardware and software release, there are thousands of after-release updates to fix the errors that were only noticed after someone with minimal experience bought the technology and tried to use it. You’d think technology companies spent all their time designing and hardly any using what it is they’re designing.
In some ways, being a writer and editor is a luxury when it comes to perfectionism. It’s valued. And yet nobody dies when I get it wrong, as I sometimes do, because striving for perfection doesn’t mean I attain it. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me. (It’s taken me years to admit that. Not to realise it – because all perfectionists realise they aren’t perfect; that’s why we work so hard to be perfect – but just to admit it to myself and to others.)
The truth is that I’m not completely reformed. I’m still a perfectionist when it comes to the English language, when it comes to spelling and punctuation and grammar. The awful truth is that I sometimes suppress it, repress it. Part of my gradual disillusionment with many of the jobs I’ve had can be traced to this. Bosses and colleagues look favourably on work that doesn’t have to be reviewed and redone. But they still allow it from others – they allow a standard of work that then has to be reviewed and redone, usually by me. I was too valuable to be promoted because they needed me to stay where I was and clean up the messes of people unable to do the jobs they were hired for.
Okay, whinge over. And since this is ostensibly a writing blog, I’ll return to the main topic. This is my advice for writers who are wondering at what point their work is good enough, as what point they stop reviewing and rewriting and editing and actually put their writing out there into the world.
When you think your piece is a three out of five, that’s when you ask your beta readers for their opinions. And then you rework it.
When you think your piece is a four out of five, that’s when you pay a professional manuscript assessor for their opinion. And then you rework it.
And when you think your piece is a five out of five, that’s when you pay a professional editor to find and fix your errors. And then it’s ready to be sent to publishers. If you’re lucky enough to attract any interest, despite you thinking it’s a five, the publisher will still think it’s only a four and want to guide you as you rework it yet again. And maybe again after that.
Your writing will never be perfect. When you read it again in ten years, something you think is perfect now you will want to rewrite with a vengeance. Matthew Reilly is a great example of this. His self-published debut novel is almost impossible to find because after he was signed by Pan Macmillan, they republished it with a significant rewrite and Matthew set about buying up all the copies of the original he could find to remove them from the market. He didn’t want anyone comparing the two versions and seeing how raw his work had initially been.
Ultimately, my confession is this: I will never be perfect. You will never be perfect. Your work will never be perfect. But that isn’t a reason not to strive for perfection. Don’t reach for a point that is good enough. Reach for a point that is close enough to perfection. And then ask for help. Because while you will never reach perfection, you will certainly get closer to it with the help of others than you ever will by yourself.