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Perfect Is the Enemy of Good

Years ago I had a boss who was very fond of the saying “Perfect is the enemy of good.” At twenty-two and unaccustomed to corporate-speak, my immediate reaction to that phrase was along the lines of “What the hell does that mean?” I finally figured out what it meant, but I failed to see how it applied to my professional life. Shouldn’t I want everything I work on to be perfect? Why should I settle for shoddy work-product? And why should my boss be willing to accept it from me?

(But hey, if you’re gonna, that’s awesome. Maybe I can get ahead by not trying to do everything amazingly. But wait, then I wouldn’t be me. And I’d feel guilty. And despite not being a member of a religion, or a family, that prides itself on guilt as a motivator, I find myself immobilized when I feel guilty about something. Except for that time I made a comment about that girl I knew being…um…free with her love and yet judgmental of others who behaved similarly. I still don’t feel guilty about it. And she was… I digress.)

Now, several years later – no, I’m not going to mention how many years it’s been – I have found I have transitioned into using this phrase as more of a life motto. Now, lest you think I approach my editing work with an “Eh, close enough” attitude, allow me to explain.

There are certain grammar absolutes: A complete sentence has to have a subject and a verb. You always need a comma before a term of direct address. “Drug” is not the past tense of “drag.” (Really, it’s not. Stop using it. The end.) But there are other grammar rules that are more flexible. Case in point: I before E except after C. Except in words like “weird” and “foreign” and “seize” and, yeah, lots of other words, making this “rule” for me to be more situational than unconditional.

And that’s the thing about writing and editing fiction. Yes, one needs to know and understand all the grammar rules first in order to know which ones are breakable. How there are times when you don’t need a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses. And maybe a semicolon in dialogue is the only punctuation that actually makes any sense. That it’s OK to occasionally end a sentence in a preposition. That sometimes, but only sometimes, splitting an infinitive will not result in a Grammar Police raid on your house.

READ IT. When you’re writing (or editing), read the words out loud. Do you pause in the middle of that sentence? Maybe you need an unsanctioned comma. Does it really make sense for your character to never use contractions? A “can’t” probably won’t kill them – or you. Is the only way to make that sentence flow from the previous one to start it with “And”? Take a stand, let it happen, and watch the world burn.

When you’re writing creatively, your work usually isn’t being graded by a professor for inclusion into a compendium of grammatically-pristine works. It’s being read. By real people. Who don’t always speak in complete sentences. And who may not know the truth about the past tense of “drag.” You want to make your beloved tale flow in a manner that is accessible to your readers. Not dumbed down. Not deliberately wrong. But readable. You want them to understand your plot and your characters and your meaning and your words. You want to make your story good. And to do that, it may be best not to make it “perfect.”

(Any thoughts on this topic? Hit me up in the comments. And next week’s post is going to be a HUGE surprise. Mainly to me, since I haven’t written it yet. Hmmm…a topic…I’mma need one of those…)



Originally published March 10, 2014

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