The other morning I was sitting in a coffee shop when my friend Sam walked in. He asked how my writing was going, and I told him that I was putting in the time without much to show for it. He replied that he’d just read a research article that suggested that writers who derive the most satisfaction from writing are not those who are most productive. After the obvious joke that I must, therefore, be extremely satisfied, we discussed what that really meant. I mentioned my distaste for deadlines. Sam is a professor at the same university that I retired from, and he pointed out that one of the perks of working at a mid-level university rather than a top-tier institution is that the constant pressure to pump out publications is not there. I concurred and said that I never felt rushed to submit an article and always had the luxury of working an article until it was as good as I could make it. Quality was always more important than quantity, which is not necessarily the case in a world of publish or perish.
I once wrote an article that came to two related, but distinct, conclusions. A well-intentioned colleague from a Tier One university pointed out that two conclusions should result in two separate articles. He was both a better and more prolific writer than I am, but after years at a research institution, bean counting was just part of this thinking. The intent of his comment was to help me in the world of academics, but the result was that it made me glad to be working at a place where, so long as I published one or two articles every year, I was never bothered by the people who measure productivity by the number of citations.
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There is a point in just about any writing where reworking an article or a book chapter makes it different, but not necessarily better. This is when a deadline might not be a bad thing. Good enough becomes good enough, and the manuscript gets submitted. Without any kind of deadline, a piece of writing can languish indefinitely. It is always much easier to see the flaws in a piece of writing than it is to correct them. With just about everything I have ever written, I’ve thought the manuscript would improve if I just stepped away from it for a week or two and then came back with a fresh perspective. And then another week or two, and then another…
Taiwanese philosopher Lin Yutang once wrote about ‘good enough.’ Lin was a Chinese philosopher who lived in Asia, Europe, and North America and often commented on the differences between East and West. He’d concluded that a Chinese person tends to make something 99% right, then goes on to something else. In contrast, a Westerner will spend half of his or her time making something 99% right, then spend the other half working on the last 1%. Having lived with a Taiwanese woman for the past quarter century, I don’t agree with Lin’s observation about this cultural distinction, but I often think of his comment when I won’t let a finished manuscript go. The small chance to make that one clunky paragraph better is hard to resist.