The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I think this is a great line for those of us obsessed with trying to control our creative products  as we steer our way through life. The perfect is the enemy of the good. How could trying for perfection end up creating imperfection? I think the line is really a warning against going to extremes. Obviously, perfection is pretty extreme. I mean, it’s perfection! Some would say perfection is so extreme as to be unobtainable. I’m not talking about formatting issues or typos in your epub doc (although surely one might strive for perfection in that case?) but I get it. Trying to make things perfect can keep you from moving on and doing other things as important or even more important.

It’s easy to see this principle in play when I’m in the process of obsessively tweaking or twiddling with a paragraph in a book I’m writing. If I believe that book sales lie not in social media prowess (as I do) but rather in having available a fat inventory of awesome books, then making  any paragraph “perfect” is a barrier to what I say I want: mega book sales. Because I don’t write literary PD-James-type fiction, a belabored but beautifully descriptive paragraph of a country lane that brings tears to your eyes is not going to get me where I want to go—writing my kind of books, women’s lit and thrillers, quickly. But I’m a writer so I can get sidetracked into the aforementioned paragraph tweaking until my afternoon is gone and the day’s word count not even touched.

Okay, so I believe that less is more in the writing  department but I definitely believe that more available books are more in the book sales department. By that I mean it makes more sense for me as a genre writer to knock out a great fast-paced book and move on to the next one than it does to try to get any book I’m writing “perfect,” which I don’t believe I can do anyway. Once you accept that basic tenet, it’s just a quick step to applying it to our trickiest project of all which is knowing when your book marketing efforts are taking up too much of your time because trust me that is one endeavor you will never get perfect no matter how many books you read about it or how many hours in your day you dedicate to it. As with writing, you need to know when to step away from the keyboard and let it go for the day.

Like anything in life, I think it comes down to asking yourself the question: what do I want out of all this? Do I want to write literature or tell a good story? Do I want to sell lots of books to average-Joe readers or do I want a write-up in the New York Review of Books that I can frame? Do I want 10,000 Twitter pals or ten emails from people who have read my book?

Personally, I don’t have to be JK Rowling famous. I just need enough readers who like my kind of books to allow me to make a living doing what I love.

Now that doesn’t seem too extreme, does it?

14 thoughts on “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

  1. I’ve lately become more aware of the need to make compromises with perfect and “good enough.” The flow of sentence is very important to me, but i can tweak a story forever, trying to get rid of that last, just slightly off, expression. And there’s also the pressure to confound the naysayers about self-published work. That leads down the glass-strewn path to obsessiveness with perfection. As if most readers even care, to that extent, which they don’t.

    • I know. I keep thinking of how Amanda Hocking admitted most of her stories were riddled with grammatical errors, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter to her readers because the stories she told rocked.

      • Thank goodness, I’m not writing for her kind of audience. I couldn’t live with myself. Whether she didn’t know about the errors or knew and didn’t care, she’s an example of what so many of us are trying to avoid. The rationalization that she’s a best seller just doesn’t wash with anyone who cares about quality, and not just about money and entertainment.

  2. the “Perfect is the enemy of the good” quote, is not there to say you should do shoddy work. No, we all should do GOOD work. The problem comes in when we set such a high standard for our selves that we end up not doing any work at all, stories and sentences never get written because, we are afraid our work is not perfect. so a wonderful story never gets done, that best seller never gets written, or spends the rest of it’s life stuffed in a box with all of your other not quite perfect projects. So write good stuff, wonderful stuff, inspiring stuff, hart felt stuff, maybe even a few well told stories and be proud of your work. You can spend all your waking hours between now and the end of time and still never write so much as a perfect paragraph. Because perfect ain’t human and stories are there to touch humans.

  3. Catana, maybe it’s the difference between a symphony and rock & roll, it could be argued that neither is perfect, yet each reaches for perfection in different worlds, Mahala Jackson was never perfect, but the lady could touch both the heart and heaven with a song, you can’t listen to Mahala without realizing there are things far more important than the kind of perfection a proof reader brings the table.

  4. I just don’t know when to stop editing. I think a book is finished and then I go back to it months later and start editing from scratch again, finding things to fix or make better.

  5. Great post – I absolutely agree, especially that last line. Me too. I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head when it comes to the balance between ‘literary perfection’ and ‘good writing’. It’s certainly possible to construct a book according to the academic requirements that define ‘literature’; but it would take rather a lot of effort and I doubt anybody much would want to read it. Personally I tend to veer in the other direction, for reasons of accessibility. I even recall one reviewer describing a book I wrote as being styled in ‘workmanlike’ fashion. I did that deliberately, given the topic and target audience – though I am not sure whether the critic was perceptive enough to realise so. I guess in a general sense, anyhow, so much is subjective about the reading experience that what an author regards as merely adequate may, to somebody else, be brilliant writing, and vice versa.

    Matthew Wright

  6. I think this is a very interesting concept and so very true. We should celebrate the imperfections and look for the ideas rather than the syntax – that’s the editor’s job!

  7. let’s talk, I’m an artist, in the old days I’d have been called an illustrator, won more than a few awards, also on the advertising side of things, was on the team that introduced Micro-Soft WORD to the world and Took Sambo’s restaurants from 324 stores to 1400 stores in four years, got my CLIO nomination in a box somewhere in the basement, and I also have a problem. My problem is trying to live up to my reputation, guess you could call it “Perfection” every job I try to do better than the last, I’ve got a job on the drawing board now that’s a month late, what’s been done so far is good solid work and well sell product like crazy, but I can’t let go of it because it needs to be better, even though it might be as good as anything I’ve ever done, maybe even better. still I’m having trouble finishing it up and delivering it, tell you what the problem is. the problem is that perfect is the enemy of the good, in this case it’s the enemy of the pretty darn good, and yet it’s not the best I’ve ever done. even though my client loves it and I’m stuck, I just can’t let go of it until it’s the best I can do. found out a long time ago that you can’t be better than you. the only solution is to embrace the good in life and let the best come from that.

  8. ‘What do I want out of this?’ is a good touchstone to have.
    So is ‘Is this what I really want/need?’ It’s so easy to get sidetracked and end up miles from where you want to be. Been there, done that and spent a year of my life chasing something I’d never really wanted in the first place. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake others’ goals and objectives as one’s own.
    At least I’m getting practiced at replacing ‘perfect’ with ‘good enough’.

  9. Pingback: The Importance of Being Edited « Tasmanian Travels

  10. Finally got a chance to read this one. Something that’s been on my mind just in the past few weeks, is that question of ‘what is it I’m pursuing, and is it what makes me truly content?’ I think that having this question, as well as the great ones presented here, give us pause to consider the path we are about to take, to breathe for a moment, and then to choose based upon the conclusions we come to from our internal questioning.
    Thanks again for a great read.

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