Better: Enemy of Good Enough

There are a number of little tidbits of advice I got when I was young that either didn’t make sense at the time, or I never realized I had been given until later. One that sticks out in my mind was a saying I heard an old, retired engineer relate a story about how the designers at the shipyard he worked at were always given a deadline by the Navy, after which they could no longer make improvements to the ship plans unless definite safety concerns were raised. Apparently this was necessary because the engineers were always tinkering with the plans, trying to squeeze out every drop of efficiency possible.

“Better is the enemy of Good Enough,” he said.

The saying stuck with me because it was so different from everything else I’d heard while growing up. They tell you to always try your best. That it is important to learn to do things right. Practice makes perfect—or rather perfect practice makes perfect! If you enter an undergraduate science program the need for accuracy and precision gets hammered in even harder. Experiencing all of that makes it easy to conclude that something that is simply “good enough” is unacceptable.

But the saying continued to stick in my head, and ultimately my experiences writing saved me I think. It feels strange to say that, because I doubt there will ever be a story I’ve worked on that I will feel was good enough (or even acceptable) when looking back on it. This holds true no matter how happy I was with the story when I finally set it aside. In fact, it seems the happier I was with something when I finished working on it the more I will find at fault later on.

Such is the way of things.

However, for all that I eventually learned there are different standards of “good enough” depending on what you are working on, or even what stage of work you are at. For the longest time I had trouble finishing any writing project longer than perhaps 10,000 words. I would come back, look at what was already down, and just begin to improve or fix or tweak things until I was satisfied before I could stand to write anything new. Often I would change the same parts over and over. By the time I started to make progress again I might only write a couple hundred words for the day.

Here’s the thing: while working on In Honor’s Shadow I eventually realized doing that was killing my motivation because I simply couldn’t make progress. I was stuck on the same parts for literal months because I wasn’t satisfied. That is frustrating.
Eventually I threw my hands in the air and just started writing and ignored the many problems I knew existed in my story. Just finishing was “good enough” for right then. After I could go through and find the biggest problems that needed fixing. I learned that often any effort put in after reaching the point of “good enough” is wasted, because you might not even know where the effort needs to go.

This became a lifesaver when I got serious about editing as well. At first I tried to fix everything at once, but that was driving me insane. My solution was to pick a few types of problems every pass and focus on them. That was good enough for that pass, and I would do another to fix other problems later. And then another for still other problems.

The main lesson is that “Good Enough” isn’t a rule to excuse half-assed effort. You still apply yourself fully, still do the best you can. Instead it is a rule about how to expend that effort.

You decide to tell a story, so you sit down and write the very best rough draft you can so the basic story is in place. Good enough. You decide the story needs better pacing and structure, so you buckle down and fix those to the best of your ability. Good enough. Time to dig in a bit more and make sure the language and flow of your sentences and paragraphs work to your advantage. Good enough. Each step brings you closer to the finish, but if you tried to tackle them all at once it would overwhelm you easily.