“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection.
Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
Michael J. Fox
I’m currently taking part in a course about teaching students how to write … which is interesting. Too early to say anything about the quality, but it reminded me of a lot of things I’ve read or experienced. Among others, when one teacher showed a very simplified model of the communication process. Essentially, it showed “I” (the author) and “you” (the reader), with boxes for the person, the situation, and the culture.
Thing is, there is no you. There is only them.
Unless you are writing a love letter (and do better than Verdi’s “Falstaff”), you have multiple readers. Meaning that there is not one person who reads your text, but anything from two (the two reviewers who grade your thesis) to a couple of hundred millions if you can pull of a Harry Potter. So there are countless other people — each with their own personal history, situation and culture who read your books.
And that’s brilliant!
Not only because the more readers, the more successful you likely feel, but also because this means that it is absolutely impossible to write a perfect text.
Think about it, to be perfect a text has to really speak to another person — in a way that leaves no room for improvement. Even if it were only for one person, this leaves very little room for anything. A couple of experiences more, and the other person might react differently and the text would no longer be perfect. After all, if you re-read a story, it’s likely that your impression of the story differs. And with more than two or three readers, there is no way to write anything that is perfect for all these readers.
That can take a huge load of expectations of perfections from your shoulders.
Don’t try to write a perfect text, if will only paralyze you or trap you in a revision loop. Write an excellent text. One that other people can understand, find access to.
It’s the best you can do and anyone can expect of you.
thank you a lot for this article. in the moment i write my master thesis, i am in the countdown: 6 weeks to go.
and my two professors are from two different chairs, so i thought, hmm, i have to find a language which fits to both persons. but now, after yesterday´s demotivated mood, and after I read this article, i just want to write this thesis down and later correct the sentences. I habe always to keep in mind: it´s just the master thesis, not a nobel price. so thank you a lot.
( i am from germany but i try to write you in english, so sorry if i made some mistakes)
i have some ideas for you to write about, maybe it could be very helpful for the students readers: do you have some tipps for people who are in their countdown to finish their thesis? (like me: i have to hand it in 6 weeks, but i still have SO MUCH TO DO)
do you have maybe also tipps how to FOCUS on the depth and specific areas and not to read more and more just to mention everything that could fit in? my problem is that i have too many unread books and artciels and i always try to mention this and write about this; but i have to FOCUS in the DEPTH.
maybe some tipps for academic-working-marathons? How to organize 10-12 hours work a day? maybe rotating the tasks and make a lot of breaks ( go for a jog etc)??
since i found your blog, i read it almost every day. as a student in the final countdown i am really happy for the tips and your book, which i read, too. but now i would be very glad, if you give some tipps for the last few weeks (especially how to enjoy christmas and new years eve, without crying at parents home, looking at the clock ..)
thank you a lot and greeting from germany!
Good advice. Often in my writing, I realize that I’ve jumped on a hobby horse of my own, that what I’m saying has little or nothing to do with why anyone might be reading my book. It’s just there for me. Sometimes I decide that what I’m saying may actually fit in elsewhere. Most of the time, I conclude that it needs to be cut out entirely. I should be writing for them and not me. If I want to talk to myself, I can go for a walk.
I’ve also found that I tend to write and rewrite until I’m happy with what I’m saying. I’ve reached my standard of excellence although certainly not perfection. The ideas flow smoothly and the wording is interesting and clear. That’s when I publish and move on to the next book.
Ah, but more recently the process hasn’t ended there. My unconscious is still working on that former book. Weeks later, some nagging thoughts begin to enter my mind. This part isn’t as clear as it ought to be. That illustration or scene could be better written. Rather than just feel bad, I begin to work on a second version, one that I’ll call a second printing ‘with corrections’ to keep the same ISBN. When I seem to content with that, I take advantage of the marvels of POD and digital publishing and slip that slightly better version out.
In the case of my hospital series, that meant major changes. When I published Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals almost exactly a year ago, I felt bad that I wasn’t including pictures. Pictures add a lot to a book, thousands of stock photos of hospitalized patients are available at reasonable prices, and digital publishing can include color pictures at no cost. I knew I needed to use them.
The hitch was that, given the sad state of digital publishing standards, pictures introduce ugly page breaks. Then it came to me that, if I forced a page break at the start of a chapter, I could insert an appropriate picture just after the chapter title and have no clumsy page break. So that’s what I did with my second hospital book, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer. Each chapter opens with a picture that fits that chapter. The kids I am writing about now have faces.
I liked the result so much, I created a new version of Hospital Gowns, adding 33 pictures, one for each chapter. I was delighted with the result. No book is perfect, but a book that’s talking about my experience caring for hospitalized children and teens ought to include pictures to make them as alive to my readers as they are to me.
I’m quite happy with this new ‘publish twice’ policy, even if it did mean I had to rattle the iBookstore’s staff to allow that second edition of Hospital Gowns through. I publish when a book seems done–meaning I can’t see any more changes that need to be made. That gets it out, earning income and lets me move on. But then over a space of several months, as I see changes that need to made, I create a project for that. Eventually, I’m again happy and I release a second version.
So far, I’ve not seen any reason for a third release. The second seems to leave me content.
–Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books
it’s probably a bit late, but do you have a main supervisor? There’s an old saying that you can’t serve two masters at once, and in this case, they give you your grades, so there should be at least some agreement of the overall style. Something that is good to have in writing (eMail communication is just brilliant).
Regarding the focus issue — problem is, it’s all highly individualistic and it depends on your style. Personally, I would take stock — make a list of things to do (taking perhaps 10 min max) and then set priorities and focus on the “must be done”. Plan it with enough “buffer time” and use xmas and new years eve for breaks (no need that it has to look this way (although this comic strip was about independence day). Although if you really need the day, it’s only this year. These things also make ‘interesting’ memories — if (and that’s a big if) you can pull off working and not procrastinating during these two days. I would also include at least 3 to 7 days for the final formatting, printing, etc. I would also religiously make backups — external backups — each and every day (or after each major step). USB sticks, Dropbox, smartphone, whatever. Spread it. This is not the time for a technical glitch.
Difficult as I don’t know the topic, nor do I have any idea how much literature you already have. Perhaps asking the supervisor whether the structure/content is okay is a good idea (depending on the quality of the relationship and the level of desired interaction). You can also visit the library or whether prior master theses are stored to get an idea of the desired level of complexity. While reading, scan it and focus on issues that fit your topic. Not everything is equally relevant or relevant at all.
Personally, I wrote my diploma thesis and my dissertation by first creating a detailed outline which included all the information I wanted to use in writing. When writing the text I selected what I needed. Worked for me but has the risk that it takes a while until you have any text.
Last thing — yup, take breaks. You need time to do something else, for ideas to incubate. During my diploma thesis, I loved jogging somewhere in the evening, after a day working on the diploma thesis. Great to clear the mind, although I usually ended up with ideas how to continue. But don’t force it, don’t expect any ideas (“I must have ideas is a surefire way not to have any.”). Even if it’s only an hour or two doing something else it’s helpful enough. Furthermore, careful with caffeine (can make you a zombi) and eat healthy. Taking the time to prepare the food yourself (takes about an hour incl. eating) is also a good way to clear the mind. But have something to jot down notes nearby and when you have ideas.
And seriously, give yourself permission to enjoy xmas and new years eve. You need time to recharge. The worst thing you can do it to get lost in blind activism. Get a realistic estimation of the standards, work towards meeting/surpassing them, and take care not to burn out.
All the best (and enjoy it — also seriously — it’s a stressful, gut-wrenching, ‘if I could have started all over again I would have made it completely different’ (= I have learned a lot during that time), ridiculously stimulating time)
You jumped on the quotation of Michael J. Fox which contrasted ‘excellence’ and ‘perfection’. I wonder what ‘excellence’ is, then. You said an excellent text is “One that other people can understand, find access to” — but can you clarify?
I think you should do what you can in the time that you have to create a text that is well-written. I’d refer to Alley here (see e.g., this posting). A common problem — in my experience — is people wanting to write the perfect text, which is simply impossible (due to the stated reasons). This is no justification for an half-assed job, but an encouragement to improve ones writing skills.