perfection

Practice or Flawless?

I like Pat Thomson’s comments on academic writing. It’s rare to think of writing as a process you practice and fine-tune before getting the best results.

Instead, you sit down and your internal editor rushes you to be instantly perfect. Sometimes a flash of brilliance comes about straight away, but not often.

Thomson says, “We all assume that we ought to be able to just do whatever writing task comes before us”. However, she continues, “we would never assume this of music for instance”.

Anyone can play guitar... Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Anyone can play guitar… Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Writing a song may start with a few random chords or a stab at some lyrics. As you go along, you get more adventurous, add better chords, change words, and pick away until you’re satisfied. On the odd occasion, a song-writer may strike up a riff out of nowhere and get a song finished in minutes. And, like with writing, that’s rare.

With music, we’re aware that you need to practice. It’s important to practice how to play an instrument and it’s important to practice as you compose new material.

Yet with writing, perfect feels possible. No, wait, perfect feels NECESSARY.

Why?

I talked about 750words a while back. 750words is one way to let a stream of writing happen without getting bogged down with the finer detail. Just get on with writing and edit later.

Writing and editing are two different things.

Writing should be practice, all the time.

Okay, it’s more difficult in an exam. But even exams are best handled with plans. Before you write your answer, it’s handy to make a few notes for preparation and getting an order.

Outside the exam setting, the writing is the practice. The editing is the crafting. The re-writing is a combination of practice and crafting.

Telling you to ‘just do it’ is useful and misleading in equal doses. Useful because you’re getting words out and the practice has started. Misleading because writing isn’t just about random words on a page.

As you practice (i.e. as you write), you should still attempt to be clear. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll only confuse yourself later.

James Hayton of 3 Month Thesis says “you aren’t doing it wrong if you’re producing work you’re happy with! You are doing it wrong if you end up with a scrambled mess of half-baked chapters to sort out later”.

The take home point is this: Just getting the words on the page is not enough. It needs to be part of your bigger picture plan. Writing is practice, and so is editing. Everything is practice until you’ve finished.

Remember, ‘finished’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’. Simply writing words doesn’t help you improve. Making use of those words and achieving clarity as you move along does.

Just write, so long as you understand why you’re writing and what you’re trying to achieve. Your inner editor will wince and scream at you, while you tell it to calm down as you’ll deal with that at a more convenient moment. That moment isn’t in a month or two, when you’ve forgotten what you were doing. However, that moment is at a different point to the writing.

Hayton calls advice to ‘just get words on the page’ as “the worst thesis writing advice ever“. That might sound harsh, but he’s right. Without context, the advice stinks. Give it context and know *why* you’re writing like that.

NOTE: I wrote this post without editing. I wanted to get the words on the page.

But…I had an idea of what I wanted to write. There was context. It may not be an academic text, but the same should apply for many types of writing. So long as there’s context!

For this post, the idea originated from reading Pat Thomson’s piece that I mentioned at the start. I considered what I wanted to talk about for a minute or two. In the process, I remembered my 750words post and looked for James Hayton’s piece on writing advice, because I thought it would fit. Thankfully, it did.

Armed with this, I started writing. It didn’t matter what words came out, because I had a purpose and I’d found enough context. The only editing was on the fly, when there was an obvious change in my head, moments after I’d typed the initial words.

I’m sure this post could be re-written and better crafted. But it took very little time and it still makes sense. That’s what I wanted to get across.

I don’t always write in this way, but it’s another way to practice. There is no single way to write and there is no perfect sentence. With that in mind, you should cut yourself some slack and enjoy the writing process. A new sense of calm may well help your writing improve. Win-win!

How to Fail Brilliantly

None of us want to fail. If you could pass everything with flying colours, you would.

However, that requires work.

When you put the effort in, not everything is perfect. You have to get used to it. You’re going to fail once in a while.

original by action datsun
original by action datsun

So why not fail brilliantly? Here’s some help on how to use failure to your advantage:

  • Separate aspects of failure out of your control from those you can deal with – Control freaks don’t appreciate matters that are out of their control. Nevertheless, they exist. Anything you can deal with, concentrate on that. As for the stuff you don’t have a handle of, be aware of it as a random force.
  • Spend more time on rectifying, not blaming – Now you’ve worked out what’s outside your control, work out how best to move on. Don’t attribute blame to others in the process. Spend time more fruitfully: work with others to reach a more favourable conclusion; choose other variables/individuals with better potential; bypass the problem areas completely, if possible. Time spent solving problems is more effective than wasting time accusing others.
  • Analyse why the failure occurred – If you don’t know why events unfolded the way they did, how can you learn from the failure? Take stock of what happened before you try again. For any elements that don’t make sense, try finding out more in that area before moving on.
  • Accept – Sometimes we make the same mistakes again and again due to denial. It *has* to work this way.
    But does it really? Okay, certain situations may succeed eventually with a bit of patience and better circumstances. But most situations will fail until you do something different. Don’t be stubborn if other opportunities arise. Be open to change. You can’t be right all the time!
  • Understand which aspects of the situation *were* successful – The end result may not be perfect, but failure doesn’t mean you must start from scratch. What you do isn’t usually characterised by a succeed/fail mentality. There’s a lot of movement in between. Use the mini successes within a bigger picture fail until you have a bunch of mini-successes from start to finish.
  • Use failure as part of a process, or as a tool – You don’t pick up a tool and use it without learning a bit about it first. Even if it’s only the basics. Before mastering a process or tool, you spend time learning, developing and experiencing. Failure is one step closer to success because, without failure, success can’t happen either.
  • Be responsible – A lot of failure can be turned around by taking a bit more responsibility. Imagine working your butt off for an essay and only getting a bare pass. Then imagine all that hard work was condensed into 48 hours before the essay was due in. You knew it wouldn’t be best to leave the assignment until the last minute, but for many, that’s exactly what happens. It’s what I call a ‘covert failure’. By taking responsibility from the outset, you can manage the situation more clearly and work your butt off without breaking into a sweat. From covert failure to double win.

Now you can fail better, you may still not like failing. Don’t worry, I’ve got tips on how to pick yourself up after a fall too.

Now get out there and start failing, you awesome person, you!

Woody Allen and the art of letting go

Woody Allen has got his head screwed on.  He knows how to let go.

photo by Gilberto Viciedo

photo by Gilberto Viciedo

Allen told the New York Times that he never rewatches his films after they are made:

“I’ve never once in my life seen any film of mine after I put it out. Ever. I haven’t seen ‘Take the Money and Run’ since 1968. I haven’t seen ‘Annie Hall’ or ‘Manhattan’ or any film I’ve made afterward. If I’m on the treadmill and I’m scooting through the channels, and I come across one of them, I go right past it instantly, because I feel it could only depress me. I would only feel, ‘Oh God, this is so awful, if I could only do that again.'” [Source]

He doesn’t want to feel that itch to improve the past.  There’s no point in being embarrassed now.  That type of worry is redundant.

I also admire Allen’s drive to start working on a new project as soon as he finishes the last.  Always moving ahead, never looking at what’s passed.

I’m sure he still learns from mistakes and takes from experiences.  But he won’t dwell.  Neither will he panic about the future.

Compare this with Jenny Diski’s comment in this fortnight’s London Review of Books:

“It’s absolutely true that writing a book doesn’t make you happy (it’s never good enough while you’re writing it or after you’ve finished it, and anyway what about the next one).”

I can’t say how happy Woody Allen is when he’s writing screenplays, but he does manage the situation well:

  • It may never be good enough, but he cracks on with that understanding.
  • He lets go once the project is finished.
  • The next project is a challenge worth starting right away.

How do you use this as a student?

Whatever you do, be ready to let go:

  • Let go of research.  You’ll never know everything.  The aim is to have *enough*.
  • Perfection is not attainable.  Letting go before it’s perfect is necessary, not shameful.
  • When you hand work in, let go of that burden.  Stop thinking of ways to improve on writing style (at least until it’s handed back).
  • When you let go of one project, grab hold of the next as soon as possible.

What do you need to stop dwelling on?  What is your next project going to be?