Is Perfect Better than Good?

I’ve often heard the aphorism that “the best is the enemy of the good.” It’s most often attributed to Voltaire, but being dubious of quotes where there’s no video evidence, I wonder. Shakespeare (“Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”) and Confucius ( “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”) also get in the act, so I suppose as wisdom goes, this bit is more flawed diamond than pure pebble.

Simply stated, its advocates are telling us to accept that there is no such thing as attainable perfection, that allowing yourself mistakes is how you achieve growth. More specifically, Will Shakespeare is telling us not to muck things up. Editing is good. Over-editing, as often as not, removes what was good in a piece on a fruitless quest to perfect it.

I was guilty of this at times early in my writing career. Now, however, after numerous times re-reading work I’ve “improved” only to see the original was better, I am far more apt to trust my internal process. Rather than “does this meet the high literary standard that existed for this piece in my head?” I ask, “Does it say what I wanted it to say?” If it does, then I am done. I care how I use language. Every writer should. However, I don’t obsess over it. In each case, there will be parts I thought I should have stated better and others wherein I am amazed that some fairy swept in and cleaned up my stumbling prose. It all balances out.

My fifteenth book, entitled Year 5601, has truly hammered that point home. I wrote the book as a time-filler last November, while my wife was due to be in the UK for three weeks. I spent 5 days plotting and researching, including 2 while she was here, and then all of 17 days writing the first draft. I finished it the day before she returned. The novel is 75,000 words, plunked out in 2 1/2 weeks, and it is easily my favorite work to date.

It’s not the most literary–that would be The Stubborn Life of Jesse Ed McKinney–and since even my Prime Reader has yet to see it, perhaps no one but me will agree it’s passed good and is on the way towards great. What I do know, however, is that pounding out 4,400 words per day doesn’t give one the chance to reach for perfection. When the draft was finished, I set it aside, and until last night, made no attempt to edit it.

So, to my readers next, and then we shall see what happens. Unless they come at me with pitchforks and torches, I shall resist the urge to tweak the language to make it sing. I shall let my narrator, Mya Landric, use the words she used to tell the story she told. That is the lesson that has taken me 10 years to learn.

Editors note: My Prime Reader finally sat down and read the book, and at its end, burst into tears, though not due to sadness. I passed the test.

The safest way to avoid over-editing a piece is to leave out all the words you meant not to write. My gem isn’t perfect, but I’ll wear this one proudly, I think.


3 thoughts on “Is Perfect Better than Good?

  1. Maria a.k.a. Bess/Ishaiya says:

    The line between a good and over-worked is fine indeed. It usually rests on a singular decision to either change or add an element that didn’t necessarily need changing. In the case of painting, adding a strike of colour in that moment’s decision can either ruin the work or make it great. Thank goodness for cameras! With the written word, it is a harder decision because it is so much more complex than a painting, but the same applies: You have to know when to stop and leave the work to speak for itself.

    1. Bill Jones, Jr. says:

      That’s true, and in my case, it really came down to ignoring comments and returning to my instincts. The first time I read something, I usually know if it’s working or not. Editing for wording (and not typos or plot holes) after that usually changes the piece without improving it. Different is just different.

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