Monday, July 20, 2009

Good Enough Is Never Enough

I don’t believe in the words “it’s good enough” because I will tell you right now that if you ever say to your agent, your critique partner, or your editor that “it’s good enough,” it’s not. Nothing should ever go out on submission or be dropped into the hands of your editor until you deem it’s perfect or as perfect as you’re ever going to get it without her guidance. Of course, “with her guidance” means perfect because you should never expect that someone else is going to fix it for you simply because it’s good enough.

Lately I’ve heard these words and other similar shocking phrases come out of the mouths of authors and it’s made me wonder how seriously they really are about getting published. Many of you have the warped idea that you’re up against evil agents when seeking publication, and that’s as far from the truth as it can get. We are not your competition. Your competition is that gal sitting next to you in your critique group and that fellow who just commented on this post, both of whom are well past good enough, teetering on the precipice of perfect.

I will tell you right now that “it’s good enough” will never, ever cut it in this business, and it’s not just the writing that always needs to be better than good enough, it’s your attitude. If you’re not willing to work your fingers to the bone to make it really happen in the biggest way possible, it won’t. It just plain won’t. You won’t grow, you won’t learn, and you won’t get published.

Want to know the other phrase that’s killing me these days? It’s something along the lines of “I only really saw it as a rough draft anyway” after the proposal has been sent to editors and/or agents. Really!? My question to you is why would you want anyone to ever read what you deem as nothing but a rough draft? Wait, not just read it, but make decisions about your publishing career based on that rough draft. A rough draft or “good enough” can cancel a contract, kill a potential deal, or just plain stall any possibility of publication.

So let’s all remember that “good enough” is never enough. We’re all striving for perfect. I work daily to negotiate the most perfect deals and contracts on your behalf, I send revision letters seeking perfection and I think you should never expect less of yourself than perfect.



Anonymous said...

People who say they see their work as a rough draft do it as a way to protect themselves from rejection. I went through that stage and it was only until I got out of it that I succeeded in securing an agent. I kept pushing ahead (even though it was scary) until I knew I had done the best I could possibly do--without falling back on, "but you know, I could do better."

Shaun Hutchinson said...

This is an awesome, awesome post.

Mark Terry said...

My goal in fiction, in particular, has been to make it not only that an editor/agent won't need to make editorial comments, but be constructed so tightly, etc., that they CAN'T make editorial changes or the whole thing falls apart. Of course, that's impossible. But it's a goal I keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

I have to laugh at the irony (for me) in this post. I've been working very hard at overcoming my perfectionistic tendencies and convincing myself that "good enough" is indeed acceptable in many areas of my life with the goal being to make more time for writing.

It's a matter of priorities. "Good enough" is okay with the household chores. It's not okay with the writing I send out into the world. Got it. (Although I really could stand to vacuum more frequently!)

Seriously, an excellent reminder.


Anonymous said...

QUOTE: "... My question to you is why would you want anyone to ever read what you deem as nothing but a rough draft?..."

Because writers are often ripped apart by agents and editors telling them they have to change X, Y, Z, P, D, and Q, before an agent will send it out, or an editor will buy it. Because sometimes, "good enough" means I'm sick of trying to read this agent's/editor's mind and maybe I'll save my sanity by waiting for some feedback before I spend another threed months working on this X, Y, Z part -- since previous experience has taught me that they'll want it done THEIR way and ONLY their way.

I dunno, just a guess...

Aimlesswriter said...

As I start my fifth draft this is good to hear. Reminds me I'm not wasting my time and that I really do need to review it AGAIN.
But how do you ever really know when you're done?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I'm polishing my current WIP with the premise that only small changes could be suggested by an agent or editor, and those things would be nothing more than personal preferences. It feels so good to go over a chapter until there's nothing in it I'd change. That, Aimless Writer, is when you know you're done.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I'm not sure how to exactly answer your question, but I do think when you can sit back and look and say "wow. I'm done, this is good," you've reached that point where it's as perfect as you can get it. You're done. Anytime you sit back, sick and tired of the editing and revising (because that will happen) and in exasperation say, "ugh, it's good enough." it's not ready.

If need be, take a break from that book and start a second before sending it out. That might help give perspective.

Just whatever you do, don't rush it because you're sick of it, not proud of it.


S.D. said...

Great point, but all those perfectionists out there just had three months of therapy unraveled beneath them. :P

Dan Holloway said...

This is fascinating. Whilst I agree with the sentiment behind the post, I find the terms employed very dangerous. As a writer with a mental health disability that led me, at one stage, to have to put my doctoral research aside because of perfectionism caused by the disability, I sympathise with Chryssa 100%. If there is one lesson I have learned, it's that "good enough is good enough".

In fact, of course, I think we mean the same thing. I got through 25 drafts of my current novel before I considered it ready for submission. And as someone who literally scans the cadence of every sentence they write to ensure the syllabic structure of each word is as perfect as it can be, I consider that I could never make anything of mine "as near perfect as can be". So following this advice, I woukd never submit. And yet, from 6 submissions, 2 agents and Harper Collins have been happy to request the full.

What I'm saying is that - and as literary people this should be all the more true, surely - we should be very careful about the words we use. People who read them looking to experts for advice will take them to heart. So generalisations must always be tempered with sensitivity to the myriad human types out there (isn't that also the storysmith's task, to recognise humanity's many guises?).

Tell one person "good enough is good enough" and they will send off their first draft. Tell another "good enough is never enough" and they will submit nothing. Of course when we blog we do so from an angle and to get a point across. But...

Dan Holloway said...


I have a very simple rule of thumb for when to submit (I guess this is my generalisation, an attempt to temper my previous post). Keep rewriting whilst your rewrites make a qualitative difference to your manuscript. The moment the difference becomes quantitative is when you submit.

Of course, working out when that is takes a lot of practice, but I thin that's the tipping point to be aiming at, however you achieve it - because that's the point from which the voice is established, and an editor can really help.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

But isn't a part of the problem also that it's so hard to judge good/perfect/great/ready for the bin/needs more work...? There are days when I sit back, thinking just that - "wow, I'm done. This is good." Only to come back to it later, thinking I've must have been out of my mind thinking this was good! It sucks!

The "don't rush it" is great advice. A great teacher of mine said that it takes ten years of writing to deserve to get published. I still have four of those ten years to go and I'm cherishing every moment, working patiently (well, most of the time) to make my stories and my writing better.

But now and then I simply have to think "good enough" to dare send a short story out, or once that time comes, a query. I will never dare deem my own work "perfect". I just hope I'm working hard enough to get it there some day.

Angie Ledbetter said...

I wonder if the same people who submit "good enough" material hold the same standard in their personal relationships. (Maybe I just need more coffee.)

WV = sessions

Lorra said...

Good advice. As a musician, I can tell you that you are inviting disaster to step out on a stage unless you are over prepared. There are so many things that can go wrong in the heat of performance with an audience staring bug-eyed at you, actually expecting you to play the piece as the composer intended it to be played.

I'm sure many can also relate to over preparing for an exam. We've all groaned at the prospect of going through our notes once last tiem, questioned whether it was necessary. Yet when we took the lazy way out, the results were seldom stellar.

Rick Daley said...

Well stated indeed. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a brief moment and pretend I'm "that fellow who just commented on this post" before returning to my relentless pursuit of perfection. Please wish me luck in finding it someday, and I'll do the same for you.

Mira said...

Well, I agree with some of this post, and disagree with other parts.

I'm going to separate them: the part I agree with: yes! Do not send drafts to agents or editors. Sometimes people - especially the ones who don't read the blogs - think that showing someone that you have talent is enough. There's a fantasy that the agent/editor will nurture the writer because they see potential. Many writers want a mentor/guide/coach and agents can be misunderstood in that light.

Perhaps if the field wasn't so competitive, there might be more of that, but the reality is that sending a draft will just get you negative feedback and possibly negative impressions.

Mira said...

Okay, the part I don't agree with: I think there is a difference between thinking agents are 'evil' and having valid complaints about the system.

Also, the person sitting next to me is a support and a fellow artist, not a enemy. There is enough room for both of us. And yes, I know the industry likes to represent scarcity, but that has alot more to do with the artificial bottleneck it creates than the reality of the market.

I'm sure you didn't intend to do this, Jessica, but in-fighting......I really hope that agents will address and respect valid concerns about the industry and their profession in an upfront way.

Dan Holloway said...

Mira, I wholeheartedly agree about the person sitting next to me.

I blogged on this under the heading "Writing is not a zero-sum game"

One writer's success makes it more likely not less that the rest of us will succeed, because it increases the well-being of literature, and its perception in general.

And writers are good enough at turning on each other. If we work together, as more and more of us are doing through writers' collectives, just think what we can achieve.

Kim Lionetti said...

I probably shouldn't be commenting on a day that I'm still so tired from RWA and reading the blog comments just exhausts me even more, but I can't help myself.

Jessica never said that other authors are "THE ENEMY." Her point is that a lot of writers out there are working very hard at their craft to produce the best quality manuscript possible, so you should be too. That's called HEALTHY COMPETITION and GOOD MOTIVATION not "IN-FIGHTING."

And do we all really need to get hung up on the word "perfection"? We all know there's no such thing, right? The point is that you need to be as happy and satisfied as possible with your work before you send it out to publishing professionals and expect them to be happy and satisfied with it as well. Maybe this doesn't refer to anyone that reads this blog, but there are A LOT of lazy writers out there that just want to start sending their work around to agents and editors to "take their temperature" before thoroughly revising and editing their work. That's just not going to fly in this industry, especially in this economic climate.

The clear message of this blog post is just this: WRITE THE BEST DAMN BOOK YOU CAN BEFORE YOU SUBMIT.

Okay, I'm going back to my conference recovery mode now.

Kate Douglas said...

As one who's been on the receiving end of Jessica's revision letters, I can honestly say that she's not exaggerating when she says she's looking for perfect, but her revisions can take a story I already thought was perfect and make it better, so I'm not complaining.

On another note, I had dinner with my editor last Friday at the RWA National conference in DC, after she'd spent the day taking pitches from writers, and Audrey said more than once how impressed she was with the preparation and presentations. We both agreed it has to be due to what writers are learning through blogs like this one and through various writers' workshops where aspiring authors are learning about the business. It's all good, but in a business as competitive as this one, every edge helps.

Kate Douglas said...

I agree with Dan--that writer next to me is my competition, but it's a positive form of competition. If they're good, they force me to be better. We're all searching for the same elusive goal of publication, but their success can only enhance my chances. I'm a firm believer in paying it forward and supporting my fellow writers. When one of us succeeds, I truly believe it opens the gates to more success.

Hillsy said...

I don't normally disagree much with agents, generally because they know more than I about the working, stresses and decisions of a literary agent. They are one, I'm not, end of discussion.

But I think this phrase or use of 'perfection' as a term is a useless phrase that tells us nothing. Perfection is impossible except in objectivity. Anything Subjective cannot be perfect. Writing is subjective, therefore imperfect and asking people to chase perfection ends in a massive car crash of semantics. In short, all this says is "Write really really well."

However, I was thinking about sticking to that point until Jessica reworded it to, what I think, is what she meant in the first place. Say it's finished because you are proud of it, not because you're sick of it. That's better advice, not the first iteration and all that trite perfection talk.

This, I think, applies to a lot of advice. Take "Ensure every sentence insures increasing tension in a scene." You can't do that. It's impossible. If someone picks up a phone and says 'hello', how is that building tension? You only need one tiny little phrase and the rule is nullfied.

To make these generalizations is, in itself, lazy and 'good enough'. Because to make a sweeping statement, one must imagine all possible answers and satisfy them. Can you? No. Because its subjective. Therefore the advice isn't perfect.

Word verification - Forks: Italian swear words

Sally MacKenzie said...

Anonymous 9:04, I get your frustration, but maybe you need to change agents. (Changing editors is obviously a harder issue.) I need to follow my own inner compass on a story. Having an agent who insisted on changing my stuff to just to suit her would make it impossible for me to write anything.

I don't work with critique partners partly because I have to do the story MY way. When I send the manuscript off to Jessica, it's as good as I can make it--at that point. (Aimless, I know it's ready to go when I start making changes and then changing them back or when I'm obsessing over nits, word choices and punctuation (!) that really don't affect the story. Or the deadline is upon me, LOL.) Jessica will let me know if she thinks something doesn't work. I won't usually take her fix if she bothers to give me one, but I take her comment as a way to see something that does need fixing and then I do it my way.

I do tend to fall into the perfectionist camp. I could revise and fiddle until my editor rips the manuscript out of my hands. I console my self with the knowledge that I'll get another chance at copy edits--and then I'll have the benefit of a few months away from the project.

I do try to turn off perfectionism mode at page proofs when changes cost money.

Shannon Morgan said...

Thanks for this. I think folks who say their work is "good enough" have little respect or regard for their eventual readers.

Anonymous said...

It's hard not to think of agents as the enemy when they reject query letters because the authors weren't psychic enough to realize theirs was the thirtieth one received with stories involving Nazis that week. Or overhearing an agent ridiculing an aspiring author for having a funny-sounding last name.

On the other hand, the writer sitting next to me is critting my writing while I crit hers, providing mutual help and encouragement.

What is baffling is when I encounter a published author who turns in 'good enough,' regardless of advice, and then wonders, bitterly, why she's not getting new contracts.

Dan Holloway said...

I also blogged under the titke "Networking is about what you can do FOR people not waht you can get FROM them", Kate (part of my "10 commandments for aspiring writers in 2009" series. Pay it forward 100%. And at the risk of sounding like a motivational coach, perform your acts of kindness in private, and your acts of contrition in public - paying it forward openly is an even uglier form of self-serving than shouting "look at me."

A tip, largely aimed (no pun intended) at Aimless Writer to help with getting to the stage where your flaws are ironed out. Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he started bodybuilding, looked in the mirror, saw his weakest bodypart was his calves, and cut the bottoms off all his trousers so people could see his weakness. It made him train extra hard.

What works for me (partly because I generate ideas best by bouncing them around, and partly because I've been writing long enough to avoid falling into editing by consensus) is to make myself post my first drafts publicly. I'm writing my current novel The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes on Facebook (there are technical benefits to this as well, like learning how to cut out unnecessary back story, learning how to create hooks and so on). About 200 people read each chapter in its uncut form. And form time to time, I will run a rewriting workshop on a chapter, taking readers through the editing process. For me, having the flimsy, flaw-ridden first draft exposed makes me write quicker and edit harder, because it's not just me I have to convince. I know that wouldn't work for everyone, but if you have a thick skin, there's a lot to be said for exposing your weaknesses as much as possible.

L.L. Muir said...

What a coincidence! I just posted a blog on what tidbits I expect to come out of the RWA Conference, and here is the first to prove me correct.
And thanks, Jessica, for the hint on what it feels like to be ready to send off--that feeling of "this is wonderful" as opposed to "this can be wonderful".

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Just twittered this at Kim, but I think there are a majority of writers who just don't know where "Good Enough" is. The REAL Good Enough. They're too close to their own work, too insecure. It's a bit like someone judging their own kid in a beautiful baby contest. I know my kid's not the most beautiful in the world, but they are to ME.

Maybe they don't trust their crit group or don't feel that its response is an accurate measure or a legitimate measure.

I thinks it's possible to do up to 4000 revisions on a manuscript and have it still not good enough. :)

TrixieLox said...

Great post Jessica, especially for those of us in the throes of perfecting our manuscripts with our agents before subbing to publishers.

(Who'd've funked that people could take issue with an agent saying being 'good enough is not good enough'? Perfection should always be the goal. How can it NOT be?!)

Vivi Anna said...

I think that phrase "good enough" is mostly frustration showing for some writers.

But I do feel for those who are perfectionists...where they will never reach good enough.

I know someone who's been working and tinkering and rewriting the same book for 4 years, because she doesn't think its good enough. And in her mind it never will be.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, we get your point but there's no such thing as perfect.
Besides, the word perfect can stall many perfectionists who revise over and over but never really improve their mss. As an editor, I see typos and mistakes in published books a lot and it really bugs me. I don't know whose fault it is--the lazy writer or the careless editors?

Why do we need to hold ourselves to such high standards when editors and publishers let such obvious errors make it into print and onto bookshelves? Perhaps agents, editors and publishers need to accept some of the blame.
We all need to do our best in these tough times. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

Spy Scribbler said...

I don't even see my stuff as a rough draft while I'm writing it, LOL. But my stuff is never good enough. Still, when it gets to the point where I'm reading through and I only change a word here or there, maybe once or twice per chapter, it's done.

Dara said...

Coming as close to perfection is the goal, since "perfect" is in the eye of the beholder--or in this case the agent and editors :wink:--and no one can achieve perfection in its exact definition (at least when it comes to art).

But it better be pretty close.

As a reader and member of a critique group, I can tell when an author writes something "good enough" and when it's as close to perfection as it'll get.

As for me, I'm no where even near the "good enough" stage on anything I've written recently :P

Mira said...

Dan Holloway 10:01 - hear, hear!

Kim, now I'm taking issue with you. I think there are many reasons writers submit incomplete manuscripts - being lazy is probably the lowest reason on the list. I frankly do not like that an industry professional who gets paid for her work is chiding authors who do this on their own time as being lazy.

I also think it's very clear how Jessica's post can be read. I sincerely hope she didn't mean it that way.

As much as I like and respect both you and Jessica, I am going to call a spade a spade.

Mira said...

I also want to say that I'm angry. I'm angry that I have to worry about being honest and upfront because I might get 'blacklisted.'

Forget it. You want to talk about evil? Blacklisting someone for being honest and speaking their mind. That is the worst abuse of power.

Forget it. I"m a writer. I write the truth. I am NOT going to be silenced.

Christina said...

In regard to the perfectionists out there, I don't think Jessica meant it has to be literally perfect - we are all human after all. But what I think she was saying was not to compromise! If you think your manuscript was crap or has flaws in it, and yet you still submit it simply because you were sick of dealing with it....then you are compromising the integrity of not only your writing but also your own future as a published writer.

keli scrapchansky said...

I, for one, found this post heartening. If there are so many writers putting out substandard material, then my chances are better the harder I work on perfecting my MS. It's not just a game of chance.

Anonymous said...

Good enough is by definition "good enough." Good enough to win a Hugo, good enough to beat Rowling or Brown. Who wouldn't want to be that good enough?

It's what it is "good enough" for that is the key.

KidOfGod said...

I used to feel that it was good enough, until I had family and friends read my works. Boy, was I ever wrong on this. It is not up to par and needed more work than what I had originally put into it. Now, I go over it so many times that memorization comes into play. Thanks for this and for reminding us writers that more insight and harder work is needed to be involved in such projects that require our utmost attention to details.


Wait. A. Second.

Agents are NOT my competition? But, but ... they're all such meanies with these picky rules about only taking on great writing that works for them and that they think will sell. And they want us to write, rewrite, edit, edit, edit (gah!), instead of just submitting our crapola rough drafts/outlines for them to write for us.

Sigh ...

*Stalks off to throw out my agent voodoo dolls*

p.s. Fantastic post. You rock. :)

Kim Lionetti said...

Mira --

If we were silencing our critics or "blacklisting" anyone, then we would just delete any comments that disagreed with us. I'm not discouraging you from stating your opinion, but I, myself, am not going to be silent when I disagree with a comment. That's the whole point of these industry blogs: creating a dialogue.

I take issue with the notion that we're encouraging hostility among writers by saying that since other writers are working hard, you should too. It's not an image of BookEnds that I would want to be spread, so I'm not going to be silent on it.

I apologize if I created hard feelings. Maybe I expressed myself too crankily in my post-conference hangover, but I don't regret stating my opinion, and didn't meant to imply that you should either.

Mira said...

Kim -

Thanks for your response. Sorry I got so angry before.

I am absolutely clear that agents are not the enemy either. But the system makes me crazy sometimes.

And I was under the impression that writers who were too outspoken could get black-listed from publication. Is that wrong? Goodness knows, I hope so. I feverently hope so. I'm already picking out pseudonyms to query under and self publishing options.

Of course then I remember I haven't written anything and calm right down.

I honestly doubt that Jessica meant it the way I read it. But it was disturbing enough that I felt I had to mention it.

And I do think the point about healthy competition is a good one.

Buffy Andrews said...

Well said. I always tell my reporters, if you want to do mediocre work, work for someone else. I'm only interested in working with editors, reporters, copy editors and designers who strive each and every day to do the best work of their lives. And I will not apologize for this. I expect and demand excellence from myself as well.

Dan Holloway said...

Christina, don't worry, I would NEVER submit something because I was sick of it. It's because I care about my ms so much that I will never think it's ready. Most of all, though - and this is something I'm always talking about, it's because I care about my readers - that's somethig I never hear enough on any writing -related sites. I want to give them the very best I can.

Like I said at the start, I think Jessica and I mean the same thnig, but say it differently.

Competition - I know exactly what you mean, I just think I'd use the phrase "spur each other on."

Anonymous said...

Three years on a manuscript equaling ‘good enough’, is different than six months on a manuscript being ‘good enough’. A perfectionist saying ‘good enough’ verses someone being lazy saying ‘good enough’ is totally different.

Is this post going to change someone who is lazy? no.

Is it going to change a perfectionist? yes.

For the better? definitely not.

Are the lazy writers reading this? no.

No matter how many times you try to change the fact you’re getting crappy manuscripts in general, it is not going to happen. When one of us figures it out, there will always be someone else to take our place. Rather than stepping on toes, maybe it’s just better to let them learn by trial and error, and accept the fact you have to dig through dirt to find the perfect gem.

I do enjoy your posts. I just wish agents actually realized how brutal the writing process is, and how brutal most of us are on ourselves. I think maybe that’s why you get such angry responses sometimes.

BTW I have seen someone threaten to blacklist an author before.

Spy Scribbler said...

I agree 100% with Kate. It's a positive competition, and when we see another writer that kicks our ass, we, um, get our ass kicked. And it inspires us to not only be better, but it shows us it's possible.

Competition is not a dirty word. Just like in school, sometimes in gym, I'd be on a different team than my friends. We could still be friends, still support and help each other, and still show good sportsmanship.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jessica, and fascinating comments. I agree with Kate that competition can be healthy and motivate us to achieve even more.

Happy writing, everyone!


Josie said...

I know I'm not sending in a rough draft--my ms has been rewritten 30 times, been read by lots of beta readers, revised based on their suggestions, and so on.

Despite all that, I know my ms isn't perfect. I don't think a writer can achieve perfection with a critique group alone. It's the collaboration with skilled editors, whether they are agents or editors, that really brings out the magic in a ms. I know that from experience.

Evidently some writers are able to achieve this perfection on their own. What I'd like to know is how they are doing this.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with the wording of your post. Of course everyone should strive to do their very best. I'm sure that is what you mean by your post, but words matter.

This idea of trying to be perfect just kills writing. Your book will never ever be PERFECT. Sometimes writers get so stuck in this trap of trying to make it perfect that it is impossible to even write. How can you ever send it out? It will never be completely perfect. A writer should not send out work that they think is a rough draft. They should only send out their best. But for some writers, it WILL be a matter of simply stopping and saying it is good enough, or they will still be fixing it 5 years later.

Anonymous said...

When did Good Enough become a bad job? If it is Not Good Enough, is that now a good thing...since it is not a bad job? You hear all the phrase Not Good Enough to be published all the time. Yet, saying it is good enough is somehow come to be a symbol of laziness. Interesting. Maybe those authors really meant that the writing was good enough for publication.

green_knight said...

I agree with the sentiment - only send out something you're 100% certain of and that's as good as you can make it - but I disagree with calling it 'perfect' and saying 'good enough is never enough.'

Others have mentioned perfectionism being the enemy of good, so I won't go into further details on that. But writers who strongly believe that they've written something wonderful often are simply writers whose critical skills are lacking - we've all known people who very strongly believe in the perfection of their, ahem, rather mediocre prose.

And last but not least, agents *are* looking for 'good enough.' They look for something they can sell. And they don't read all queries to pick the best, they request the books they think will sell - regardless of what else the day/week/year might bring.

Also, many bestselling books have weaknesses. But they also do things right - and they do the right things right and in the right place, and many people are happy to read them. Nobody rejects Nora Roberts for headhopping - she does so many things right for her audience that it really does not matter, but strictly speaking, her books are 'not perfect'. Just 'good enough' for many thousands of readers.

Becke Davis said...

This post really connected with me, but I'm also pulling out my hair. I read that Garrison Keillor was constantly making notes in his copies of Lake Wobegon Days, tweaking things to make them better. Oh, I could so relate to that.

I'm a tweaker. Give me a sentence -- any sentence -- and I'll find twenty different ways to say it. The problem for me is deciding which version is the most concise but still gets the point across. My critique partners run screaming when I say, wait, don't look at that version -- I just thought of a way to make it work better.

The problem is, I could do this indefinitely. The trick is figuring out when to say, "Enough, already. Trust yourself." So I submit, and the second I hit "send" I start worrying if I could have done it better. At some point I find that I've polished the voice right out of it, in my search for perfection.

I understand what Jessica is saying, but does any writer ever have the confidence to say what they've written is perfect? There are days I'm not even sure I know how to write my own name.

Becke Davis said...

Aahh. Okay, I'm just back from National, and a little brain dead. To clarify: Garrison Keillor was making those changes long after Lake Wobegon Days was published.

This is clearly one of those can't-write-my-own name days.

Margaret M. Fisk said...

This is a great post. It's what a lot of people need to hear. My thing is that "it's as good as I can make it."

I've sent things out that years later I can see the problems with, but at the time, they were not good enough, but as good as they could be in my hands.

I've also seen too many people sit back and say that they know it could be done better so it's not worth doing. And when they do that, they don't get the experience so they never get better enough to do it right.

Michelle Sagara said...

I understand and agree with some part of the sentiment expressed here -- but there are writers for whom the work is never finished, and never, ever, good enough.

If I, for instance, only submitted work that I was satisfied with, and that I looked at and thought "this is good", I would never, ever have been published. I can't even open chapters of my published novels now without starting to move sentences around or changing words.

For my process, I know that the book is ready to get sent out the door when I cannot stand to look at another word of it. There is literally, at that point, nothing that I can do. I do rely on editorial input at that point, because at that point, I could throw the entire book off the Don Valley bridge.

Up until that point? Yes. I push. I work. I rewrite. I throw out, in some cases, whole books and start over. But... the best I can accomplish at the end of this process is no clear certainty that anything is wrong.

Joshua McCune said...

Michelle, I hear ya -- I'm in the same boat -- nothing ever feels good enough anymore -- and it's maddening as hell.

Julie said...

I've only been reading these agent blogs for a few weeks now, but it seems pretty obvious that they're on the same side that writers should be on--that of good, awesome, great, amazing writing. Isn't it usually pretty clear that the word "perfect" is nuanced and subjective? Whatever happened to reading in between the lines? reading with an understanding of the context? Good writers need to be good readers, no? If you're not a lazy writer, then the sentiment behind the post doesn't apply to you.

Ken said...

Jessica --

Thank you for this post, it's awesome.

Being in the trenches of a big revision on my next novel for my agent, this was a nice kick in the butt (or a nice change of pace from having HIM kick my butt), and it got me pumped.

To create a saleable novel -- not to mention one that will be successful once it's published -- isn't easy, and that's what too many writers miss, I think.

It takes hard work & sacrifice, no way around it.


Anonymous said...

This post brought out all the weirdos!

At some point you have to be "done," or you're not really a writer, you're an obsessive compulsive typist.

The sentiment of the post is a little dangerous for unpublished writers who will basically throw themselves in front of a bus trying to be "perfect," beacause it is possible to go off the deep end in the opposite extreme, where the writer is never done. [Also, consider the fact that "perfect" occurs on many levels--you can line edit for 100 years and if the storytelling is goofy, it ain't gonna matter. You can change the story for ten decades but if it needs all kinds of line edits which you consider beneath yourself to do, then it'll be hard to read]. So the key is to methodically pass through the ms. on multiple levels, each of which takes care of a different aspect of the story's commercial viability. Doesn't matter how much time passes or how long or "hard" you've worked on it, but how smart you've worked on it.

The way I go about it is, when I've written a ms. that conforms to my outline and it does what I set out to do(this is usually after 3 drafts or so), I set it aside for a few months while I outline new concepts and then come back to it for one more pass. Then, I tell the editor/publisher, "Here it is. It's done as far as I'm concerned, barring any editorial direction." And of course I'll make any changes requested of me. In fact, I enjoy making changes. If someone else can tell me how this puppy should go AND pay me for it, so much the better. usually, though, it's all up to me.

Genre ficiton is not art, people, it's a product. Get over yourselves!

Mira said...

Ah jeez. Now, as per usual, I need to apologize for handling something badly.

I truly hope I wasn't hurtful with anything I said. And I'm not talking here about blacklisting, etc. I just hope I wasn't hurtful.

I'm sorry if I was. I have the awful habit of forgetting any human connection when I get into pushing an idea, espeically if I'm bothered by something.

I'm sorry if I was hurtful. I hope I wasn't, but please know that is never my intent.

Robena Grant said...

I'm on your side. "Good enough" isn't. It's like taking a cake out of the oven sticking a straw in the middle and seeing batter on it and thinking "it's done" because we're in a hurry. Later we wonder why it sank in the middle and we had to fill in the cavity with icing.
As a writer it's hard to know when we're finished. We understand there will be many more rounds with both agent and editor before it's shiny enough for the bookstores, but how do we know when it's done from our point of view? We don't have a straw we can stick in it.
I think, as others have suggested, it's done when we know we've done the best possible work we can do and then we have to trust and just let it go.

Janet said...

I don't even understand why people send a first draft to a critique group or a beta reader. My first drafts are my dirty little secret.

While I totally get what you're saying here, the perfectionists among us have to learn to let go. When you're down to rearranging commas, it's time to send that baby into the world. But that's really an entirely different set of writers.

NoName said...

Thank you for posting this. It's the push I needed to get back to work tonight.

Elana Johnson said...

This is absolutely true. Another one that I've been seeing is "I'm not a professional." Well, if you don't see yourself as a professional writer, maybe "good enough" is as good as it's gonna get. Which isn't anywhere near good enough.

Great post.

Becke Davis said...

"Genre ficiton is not art, people, it's a product."

While this may be true, it's a product I enjoy reading and writing. I probably get a lot more pleasure from it than from a lot of fine art.

Just sayin'.

Dan Holloway said...

Anonymous 12.19 I was talking with mywife about this last night (she's another clinical perfectionist) who said exactly this. The fact the phrase is somewhat meaningless (like the worst phrase ever invented by sports people "110%") means of course that we shouldn't take it at face value, so I owe Jessica an apology for being cranky.


Anonymous 2.32 you are spot on. The writers who read every agent blog they can find are already the ones who beat themselves up over every misplaced comma. So what we really need is not general motivational talk. We need specifics - we know we have to get that script up to par. What we need is guidance on how to tell when that is. There was a very interesting set of interviews with Harper Collins editors here:
I asked: "Which of these would you be prepared to work with an author to get right, and which do you consider a prerequisite: structure, characterisation, pace, voice?" The answers I got (from 5 different editors) were extremely illuminating, and really tried to help authors get to the "when to submit" stage. That's what I was trying to do with my post yesterday about the tipping point between qualittative and quantitative changes in one's redrafting.

On a personal note, when I'd finished my last novel's first draft, I said to myslef, and my critting group, "I think this will be ready in about 20 rewrites." In the end it took 24 rewrites before I subbed it, so I wasn't far wrong. I also said to myself when I first outlined the story in my head "This is a 70,000 word book", so when it came in at 90k I knew something needed doing. Once I'd stripped it out, added, rejigged, pruned, it sat at 67,600. The moral of which is, if you look deep enough inside, and have a bit of experience, you've got more self-awareness of what needs doing than you think

ViolaMaths said...

Surely the definition of "good enough" is something that is of sufficient quality to be published (i.e. it IS good enough)? If it is not "good enough", then it gets rejected. I've read published books that STILL have spelling mistakes and typos - they were obviously "good enough". These are things created by human beings, FOR human beings - and I, for one, happily forgive a few mistakes if a book is engaging and readable.

Totally agree with those who cite different types of readers. I spent many years as a schoolteacher and encountered kids who were afraid to hand in homework that was exceptional because it wasn't (in their eyes) "good enough" and others who would hand in work that they declared "perfect" but which was very poor and clearly rushed. I suspect writers fall into these two groups too (I am NOT a writer).

I suspect that a significant proportion of the people who say that "it was only a rough draft anyway" are trying to console themselves - exactly as I do when I don't get tickets to a great event - I tell myself that it would have been rubbish anyway. This is a classic psychological ploy that humans use to cope with the pain of rejection or loss.

And yes, I'm a perfectionist too. So much so that I have already proof-read this comment 6 times before posting it and am still shaking with nerves as I click the "Publish" button. I would NEVER become a writer - my entire life would be spent paralyzed with fear! Those of you who do write are exceptionally brave.

Ali Cooper said...

Having agreed that 'good enough' is a subjective term and also that what is deemed near to perfect will vary according to the genre/style of the work and the personal preferences of the reader, here's what I think is the real problem.
We write something which we think is good enough or near to perfect and send it to agents and publishers. But it's only with the hindsight of having written something better that we realise that earlier piece wasn't really good enough at all.

Anonymous said...

I read this post and it bothered me as well. I guess because it seemed a little cranky and condescending and I'm not used to that on this blog. This blog has always seemed so respectful to writers.

There are plenty of agents blogs out there who act like writers are dirt under their fingernails. As a multi-published author, I would never query them if I wanted to make a change. I genuinely hope this will now become another writer-bashing blog. Truth is most of us work so very hard.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I've only recently started reading agent blogs--I'm a consumer of fiction, not a writer, and a couple of agents I met gave me the most incredible "you must read this author/these books" so I mostly look for books to read.


This post reminds me so very very much of the responses I get from undergraduate students in college English classes regarding the papers they've turned in for a grade:

1. You just don't understand my style.

2. Well, really, it was my first draft so I'm OK with a C-. Can I revise for a new grade?

3. Your class/paper wasn't my top priority, so I figured it was good enough.

Do you guys get "My dog Barney ate my manuscript" as well?

Anonymous said...

I would never send a submission to you.

You represent everything that's wrong with literary agents:

You're arrogant and condescending (and I'm perfectly willing to give that right back to you) - and my guess is, based on this blog of yours, that you're a type-A personality who must succeed simply for the sake of succeeding.

My guess is that you became a literary agent, not because you felt that it was your purpose in life, but rather because you were given the chance, and so you took it.

You don't seem to get it.

I'm a novelist, not because I want to be that, but because I have to be that.

Get this through that thick head of yours: I don't have an option to do anything else. I'm not a normal person - I'm a novelist. I never chose this. I can't do anything else, and you either understand that or you don't. Therefore I have no choice but to give one-hundred-percent to this one endeavor in the hope that somehow, if I do go down, it will have made my life worthwhile.

Do you have any idea what it's like being on the other side of the fence? - no, I don't think that you do.

I don't think that you're the type of person who would ever have chosen to have pursued a career that might very well have never payed off - at all, in any way, shape, or form.

Living like this means that I can't get married or even have a girlfriend, that I can't have a home or a car, or that I can't even take a vacation. I'm poor - dirt poor - because I spend my almost every waking moment either writing, reading, or thinking about fiction. That's what I do. That's all I do.

I don't think that you have the first clue as to what it means to have been in an apprenticeship for twenty years and to have lived well, well below the poverty line, all the while living without much hope of ever getting published - or even being read.

I say this to people all the time: that if most literary agents weren't literary agents, then they would excel at being real-estate agents instead. And what do those two things have to do with one another?

Why don't you just go sell homes or something.

Or I've got a better idea - why don't you just reach over and hit the delete button? Because that's exactly what you agents are apt to do.

You people are power-mad, and some of us are just plain sick and tired of it.

Michael Younger

Helen DeWitt said...

My Norwegian editor once told me about a conversation with A S Byatt about Possession. It had seemed to the editor that there was a tension in the book between the desire created in the reader to find out what happened and the way the texture of the prose forced the reader to slow down. A S B confirmed that this was the way the reader was meant to experience the book.

It sometimes happens, I think, that a book has virtues that are in conflict with each other; it is not possible for the book to be the best it can be in one particular respect without making sacrifices in some other respect. So it's not possible to feel that there is a perfect compromise. (A historical novel set in the 15th century, say, could be perfectly authentic in its use of English, but would probably be very hard going for most modern readers.)

In that sense, one might reach a point where one thought it was good enough. If the book was under contract to a publisher as the second in a two-book deal, with a delivery date, missing the deadline to look for a better compromise might not be the best choice.

Unknown said...

Fantastic post. Good enough never is. When I look at what I wrote five years ago (which was so good), I cringe. I'm sure the same will happen five years from now.

Perhaps 'perfect' isn't ultimately obtainable in any objective sense of the word, but we can come very close when we persist. Your post puts me in mind of one by Lou Anders when he guest blogged on Colleen Lindsay's website last year. Entitled "Don't Be Good; Be Brilliant," the post gets at the heart of "good enough" and that putrefying sense of entitlement.

Kim Lionetti said...

Dear Michael --

Are you kidding me?

Explain to me how building a completely commission-based business from nothing could ever be considered a sure thing. Jacky and Jessica DID pursue "a career that might very well have never payed off." They built client lists based almost entirely on their slush piles to get BookEnds off the ground.

If you don't like what Jessica has to say on the blog then by all means air your complaints about the matter at hand or stop reading, but don't be disrespectful of people you clearly know nothing about.

Melissa Alexander said...

Michael Younger, you're an ass -- and you might want to get counseling. It might shock you, but there are plenty of people out there who actually make a living and have happy, healthy relationships, even while they pursue writing... and it doesn't make them undedicated or untalented to do so. (In fact -- shock of shocks -- some successful, published writers manage to do those things too!)

You have chosen your deprived, sad life. It is no one else's responsibility to validate it. Choosing not to recognize your genius and publish you is not a power trip. It's a completely neutral business decision based upon the comparison of your query, idea, and sample pages against others.

Maybe you just don't measure up.

Jessica, you rock. Thanks for the awesome blog!

Anonymous said...

Zadie Smith received a deal/got an agent with only a chapter written, Mark Danielewski's unfinished manuscript made the rounds prior to completion, a friend of mine got an agent even though he literally had no ending - not in his head, nowhere. I don't enter this to be contrary, just to say that, as with everything, there are always exceptions. We shouldn't go in thinking everyone is the exception but the 'rules' are not quite written in stone.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Agents and writers are both 'people too.' There's that.

There are lazy writers and lazy agents. There's that.

There is quite a bit of anger expressed here, from both sides, as well as anger 'out there' in the industry. Lest anyone thinks things just happen with no reason at all, there is a cause for this anger. Laziness is part of the reason but it's also probably activated on some levels as well. On an individual level, if you're jumping to anger right away when someone says something, you probably have some bitterness for some reason. And you should wonder if you have some part in creating that bitterness.

It's one thing to be bombarded with the lazy and the ignorant and so on and feeling underappreciated and have a bad day once in a while because of it. It's another to constantly feel harangued, day in and out. Particularly speaking when it comes to the blog before us here.

Are you adding to the anger? You might feel a little better if you could somehow change, stop adding to the negative energy if you can, little by little. Writers and agents both.

How about taking a little extra time to think about what was written here before firing off a strongly worded, caps message? While blowing off steam is all well and good, you know you're just going to end up apologizing later anyway, because you're good people. Why not take a second and analyze first? We are all here for the same thing, aren't we?

We love the books.

Ms. H. said...

Dan - I too suffer the disease of perfectionism gone insane and had to drop out of research/post-grad to survive the darkness I fell into. To me, "good enough" has been a beacon I have put all my energy into upholding, simply to steer myself away from the insanity of trying to perfect every aspect of my personal and professional life.

While I understand what Jessica means in terms of manuscripts and the agent query process, I can't ever again step into the realm of "perfection must be". Perhaps this means I will never be a published author, but at this point I am actually prepared to live with that, because it means I can live at all.

On the other hand, for people like us, who strive for perfection in absurdum, "good enough" might actually be another man's "perfection"... Because these are all subjective notions when you talk about writing. What Jessica is really saying is "don't TELL me it's 'good enough'". That I can do. =)

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Michael Younger - Can you say VICTIM??? Or how about BITTER???

Boo-hoo yourself into oblivion and blame everyone else for your sad situation. Give me a break. Being an agent is about as far from a "sure thing" as being a successful writer. I'm an artist as well - songwriter and fiction writer. As much as I adore these things, I'd give them up in a heartbeat if my passionate obsessions were ruining my life. Grow up. We've all got choices to make.

Becke Davis said...

Here's the deal, writing is hard, and there are no guarantees any of us will ever get a) published or b) rich. Two words for Michael: day job.

I have kids, and even though my husband and I share expenses, there have been plenty of times I had to juggle three jobs. I've sold books and lots of articles as a non-fiction writer, and no matter how much I want to be writing fiction, the non-fiction is still paying my bills.

All of us have to write, but don't blame your need to write for your lack of a life. Plenty of us manage to write AND have one.

Life is hard, and the economy is tough. J.K. Rowling managed to work a day job and still find time to write, she did okay.

Agree or disagree with a post, that's your privilege. Agents aren't power mad -- they're selective. They have to be. Channel invectives like your post into a novel; it would be a much better use of your word power.

Unknown said...

I agree with the concept of not being lazy and not submitting rough drafts. Writing, publishing, etc. is a serious business and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to present yourself that way at all times.

However, I think the issue is, which some of us are struggling with in this post, is that I do not believe that perfection in writing is possible for the vast majority of us trying to write novels. And, based on the vast majority of the modern fiction I have read, perfection is not required for publishing books.

There are many, many novels published and gaining a signficant readership that do not meet my standard of perfection (i.e., I would not buy another novel by those authors). It gives me hope that my writing is at least on a par with what else is available in the marketplace and obviously considered publishable. [I fully understand that having written what may be deemed a "publishable" novel does not necessarily correlate that your novel will be published. And certainly, it seems that there is very little chance of ever making any money from novel writing, so thank goodness for my day job, other than the part that I have to write in the dark of night.]

I agree that it is important to polish your novel and I would never submit a rough draft, but I think the reality is that it is better to write a poor draft of something than to not write anything, caught up in trying for perfection.

I had written very little for years due to the difficulty of not being able to write perfectly the first time I put words on a page. Maturity and time and constant practice at writing (day job = lawyer) have provided me with the freedom to just let the words flow, let the story find its way out of my head and onto the page and then I revise, revise and revise to add the nuance, the undertone, the "read between the lines" parts that are critical to my understanding of these characters and this story. It has been amazing and the characters are coming to life and telling their own story, without much direction from me, btw. It has been fascinating to sit down to write and have the scene twist and turn and develop in new and fascinating ways that I had never anticipated prior to putting my fingers on the keyboard and watching them type out words. It is as if I am discovering this novel rather than writing it.

But I am writing so much more by not demanding perfection in my rough draft (1,250 words last night - and they were pretty close to perfect, if you ask me:).

That said, I will not submit until it is as polished as I can get it. The proof though is that every re-read of my rough draft has me at the end wanting to be able to read more of the story, only to be disappointed that I haven't written it yet!

Uninvoked said...

I am relieved to hear these words come out of the mouth of another person. I spent the better part of a year editing my noveling blog, Uninvoked before I started the actual blog. Then I started posting it up. The more I went over each section, the more I realized I could make it better. The writing itself was as perfect as I could get it, but the concepts could be more clear, the ideas sharpened.

The readers who view my blog have been the most helpful in taking my writing to the next level. While I will never be able to publish Uninvoked officially (loss of first printing rights and all that) I've gained so much knowledge from posting it up that I believe it has been worth while.

"Good enough" is fine for rough drafts, not for finished products.