Where I write my ramblings into the void and you close the page.

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Perfect is the enemy of good

This is a really excellent aphorism, and that I am a lot more productive when I apply it. I first noticed this in a history class, so a lot of my thinking comes from my experiences there.

Of course, I’m opening myself up to the “now I understand why you write the way that you do” line. Admittedly, my writing is not stellar, but it used to be a lot worse – it improved massively after I let go of a desire for “perfection”.

I know lots (read: more than one) of people who spend hours procrastinating when they have to write something. Not just essays; it can be letters, emails, etc. Their process goes something1 like this

  • think really hard about a sentence to write
  • write a sentence
  • immediately dismiss the sentence as “not good enough”
  • delete the sentence

and the end result is that they have written precisely zero sentences (or maybe one), even though they have done a lot of work. I used to do this, and eventually I switched to a better process

  • work out what you want to say (perhaps jot down some bullet points)
  • write the first sentence
  • do not delete anything
  • continue writing until one has a few paragraphs
  • now edit your writing

At the very least at the end of this I will have written n>=1 sentences. The advantages go further though; it’s very hard to produce something perfect from scratch. It’s much easier to make something good, better incrementally2.

This makes sense to me at a very rough mathematical level (where we assume that the quality of each sentence is independent of all the others). Following process 1 means that you spend a lot of time editing sentence 1. Even if this gets you a perfect sentence 1, it means that all the other sentences are very imperfect (because they don’t exit). If you first write all the sentences, and edit them, they may not arouse the scintillating fascination that sentence 1 does in the counterfactual, but they will at least exist.

  1. This is a strawman/exaggeration, but it captures some of the idea. It’s the most extreme case, of course.) ↩︎
  2. Of course, if you’re able to write something incredible from scratch then I would advise that you close the page. Right now. ↩︎