Editing your own work: what is ‘good enough?’

How do we set standards for the quality of our writing? And how do we apply them so they work for us, not against us? A few recent conversations have made me think again about standards. I’m convinced that for some people, the standards they set actually get in the way of real improvements. I’ve talked to other people who are very critical of their own writing style (say, on their blog). I’ve had a look, and seen a lot of value there: all of us can improve, but their writing is more than good enough for what they want to achieve.

Geniuses write; the rest of us edit. British writer GK Chesterton dictated entire novels, fully formed. That’s not most people’s experience of writing, and it’s certainly not mine. This post took three drafts to write, and I guarantee you that if I came back to it in three months, I’d see things I wanted to tweak. But I had other priorities to work on too, so I got it to a point where I was happy with it, then it was finished.

The downside to being a perfectionist

Ideally, our writing would be perfect. But perfectionism can be paralysing. These are some of the underlying attitudes I’ve seen in perfectionists:

“To get this paragraph to 100%, I have to spend 20 hours revising it”

“I know it’s not perfect, so I’ll just publish it as it is. I don’t even want to look at it.”

“I don’t think I’m a good writer, so I won’t even start.”

All of these attitudes are self-defeating. The perfectionist will either spend too much time editing (which distracts them from other work) or miss opportunities to write a really effective piece.

A more pragmatic approach…

There is another way: deciding what’s ‘good enough.’ Find the right standards for your writing, then work out what you need to do to meet them. If you exceed the standards, that’s brilliant. You may want to lift the bar over time to drive ongoing improvements. But for right now, if you get over the line, then you’ve succeeded.

I’m basing this approach on the concept of ‘satisficing’ (think ‘satisfy’) explored by psychologist and academic Barry Schwartz. He compares satisfiers (people who aim for, and accept a satisfactory outcome) with maximisers (people who expect to achieve the absolute best outcome). His research found that, on average, satisficers were better equipped to make pragmatic decisions when faced with constraints, including time, money – or too many choices. Satisficers also felt better about the decisions they made. Being able to accept ‘good enough’ seems to be a useful survival strategy.

Just to be clear: accepting what’s ‘good enough’ does not mean being lazy. When we edit, ‘good enough’ means working to a contextual standard – deciding the requirements of the situation at hand  – rather than an absolute standard. We do this every day without realising it. Our informal emails to colleagues are rarely as carefully crafted as, say, a business proposal. The occasional typo in an email can be overlooked, but typos in business proposals undermine credibility. And we’ve all seen published writing – say convoluted text on a Government website – that needs some work to even meet the ‘good enough’ test.

Step 1: choose a set of standards

There are no blanket standards. When I work with clients, I’ll consider audience’s expectations, reputation risks, and other factors to find the right standards for them. But as a bare minimum, your standards should include:

1) Positive standards:  things your writing must do, such as ‘give useful information’ and ‘have a clear key message’. This will encourage you to think about the purpose of your writing.

2) Negative standards:  things to not do, such as ‘not give inaccurate information’ or ‘not contain grammatical errors.’ This will focus you on reputation risks, and how to manage them.

Step 2: decide what ‘good enough’ is

For each standard, set a score out of 10. For example, for your blog, you may decide that it has to score 7/10 on ‘not contain grammatical errors’ but 9/10 on ‘give useful information.’  This doesn’t need to be a rigorous mathematical exercise; numbers are useful to anchor our sense of ‘extremely good’ versus ‘good’ versus ‘pass.’

Step 3: work out what resources you need to meet these standards

 How much time is required? Do you have the necessary skills in-house? The score you gave each standard will guide you here. If your score is 6/10 on, say, readability, a colleague may be able to check what you’ve written. If your score was 8 or higher, it would be worth talking to a writing specialist.

We can continue wanting to reach 100%. But we’re far more likely to make progress if we set practical standards and work towards achieving them, getting a bit better every time.

Read on…

The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz. Discusses the psychology of decision-making. Also a good source of practical wisdom.

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