It is a given that in academia you don’t have enough time to make everything you do as good as it possibly could be. How should you deal with that? You should know when “good enough” is good enough, stop, and move on to the next thing. You should…
- know when you’ve read enough secondary material to start writing.
- know when your argument contains enough for an article-length piece.
- know when you have sufficient material for a thesis chapter.
- know when you’ve re-drafted adequately for your article to read well and clearly.
Knowing when your work is good enough to submit is often a case of mistrusting the inner voice that incessantly whispers “just”: I “just” need to read one more book; I “just” need to make one more point; I “just” need to give my article one more read-through. An extra hour’s work probably would improve your piece, but only marginally, and it would be an hour you can’t spend on another project that risks never seeing the light of day because of your addiction to pushing for that extra 0.5% increase in quality.
Many (most?) academics are perfectionists, and if you have that streak you will likely recoil in horror at the very thought of submitting something that is not 100% as you would want it. But here’s the hard truth: if you listen to that siren voice of perfectionism you won’t publish enough to get noticed in the first place, and you will risk over-engineering your writing, losing its sense of vigour and subjecting it to death by a thousand cuts. It’s not worth it.
Try reverse engineering your decision-making. Would you sacrifice article C or postpone it for a year in order to make articles A and B a bit better? If you would, then — great — go ahead and sink further time into those two articles. Oftentimes, however, the answer will be “no way, I’d rather have three”.
So, as a general rule, let your “good enough” be good enough. As with all general rules, however, this one comes with caveats. Here they are:
- “Good enough” doesn’t mean bad, shoddy or second-rate. It means that if, after 30 hours’ work, the article is 95% as good as it would be after 100 hours’ work, then that 95% is plenty.
- “Good enough” is also a minimum. And when it comes to academic writing, good enough is a pretty high standard. If it’s not clear, rigorous, relevant, well-argued and almost or entirely free of grammatical mistakes and typos then it’s not good enough. Go back and keep working on it.
- Occasionally, a piece of work will come across your desk that merits going the extra mile, spending the 100 hours rather than 30 for the slight increase in quality, pulling out all the stops and squandering more time than you would usually spend. Perhaps it’s a key article that you are submitting to a top journal or a piece of writing that will serve as your signature contribution to your chosen field. Perhaps it’s the introduction to your thesis, the five pages that will make the first impression on your doctoral examiners. When that piece of work lands in your inbox, recognize it and blow your budget on it. But don’t spend all your savings on every single piece of writing.
Your time is precious. Guard it by refusing to sink endless hours into marginal gains that will be invisible to your readers and won’t serve any purpose apart from indulging your own sense of perfectionist satisfaction. Stop and think: will reading that extra book, adding that extra paragraph or making those extra cosmetic edits be a better way of spending time than working on something else? If the answer is “no”, then stop.
How do you decide when more time spent on a project begins to yield insignificant gains?
CC Image courtesy of Zachary Esni on Flickr.