I wanted to write this post months ago. But when I sat down to write it, I worried that I was sending the wrong message. I still worry that the takeaway will be, "lower your standards! Let's all be mediocre!" Which is not my intention. Especially because academic writing relies on rigour, and I would never encourage sloppiness.
But there's a difference between being rigourous and being focused on perfection. Focusing on perfection stops you in your tracks. It can prevent you from starting in the first place. One of my friends explains the problem this way*:
And here's his solution:
"I had an epiphany that I could do more work at 80% (instead of straining for 100%). That might sound like being lazy, but it was a huge relief. Instead of trying to do something perfectly, I could just do it. Do it, learn from it, and apply what I'd learned to the next time. My goal since then has been to focus less on the 'work' and instead on 'working'."
In other words:
Done is better than perfect.
Aim for progress, not perfection.
Focus on working, not the work.
Here's why this matters to me: some of the academic writers I work with are are frustrated and stuck. They're letting their drive for perfection override the need to get it done.
Which, by the way, is totally normal. You wouldn't be where you are without high standards.
But I'd like you to consider this: it will never be perfect. NEVER. No matter how much time you spend tinkering with your writing, you'll always find something to improve. You'll cringe when you return to something you published months or years ago. Everyone does.
Fear drives perfectionism. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, "Perfectionism is fear dressed up in good shoes and a nice coat." Calling yourself a perfectionist is basically admitting that you're afraid of what other people think.
We all want to protect ourselves from criticism. The problem is that our focus is not on the quality of the work, but how the work will be perceived by others.
This can be a real conundrum in academia, because criticism is part of the deal. That's what you DO, whether you're defending your dissertation or sending in an article for peer review: you're presenting your work to be judged. And the quality of the work is precisely what's being criticized. You need to get past the gatekeepers.
So how do you hold both of those ideas at once? How do you let go of perfection AND write knowing that your work must be judged?
Here are some ideas:
1. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Do your best, but don't stall your work because it doesn't meet the standards of the imaginary panel of critics living in your brain. If trying to do something at 100% is preventing you from even starting, aim for 80% instead. (Okay, 85%.) Focus on rigour, not perfection.
2. Don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle or peak.
Everyone's writing reflects their current abilities. You're producing the best work you're capable of in this moment. This one is especially important for PhD students: you're at the beginning of your academic career. Don't compare your work (or yourself) to those who've been doing it for much longer. And remember that a PhD is a rite of passage, not your magnum opus.
3. Ask for feedback from people you trust.
If you're lucky, you have access to a trusted mentor, supervisor, or colleague who can help you gain some perspective on your work. Show them what you've done so far, ask for advice, and be discerning about incorporating their feedback. Approach several people for feedback if you can. In a later post we'll talk about what to do when you don't have anyone to turn to for advice you can trust.
4. Think of your work as a conversation, not a declaration.
I've written about this before. This is one of the best pieces of academic writing advice I've ever received: scientific literature is a conversation. What we're trying to do with our research is to contribute to that conversation. A meaningful contribution is simply, "here's some new evidence about this topic," or "here's a new way to look at this problem." It doesn't need to be the final pronouncement. The goal is to keep the conversation flowing like you would at a cocktail party: be curious and offer your (evidence-based) perspective.
Your turn: how does the desire for perfection hold you back? How might you use some of these suggestions to move forward? Let me know in the comments!
*my friend Adrian McKerracher is a man of many talents: an illustrator, writer, and Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University. You can learn more about him and all his projects by clicking here.