Lessons from Journalism: Done is Better than Perfect

Lessons From Journalism

 I have a confession to make. It’s not something about myself I’ve ever tried to change, though common knowledge and social media are insistent that mine is the wrong way. When others post about the trait they have that I do not, even if the post shrieks “woe is me!”, it’s also, or perhaps primarily, a humble brag. They’re actually kind of proud of this trait, even as they pretend to lament its shortcomings. 

And they should be proud—there’s plenty that comes easier, and better, and more accepted, if you’re a perfectionist.

Because I’m not.

Phew. I’ve said it. I’m not a perfectionist.

And thank all the stars in all the skies in all the realities for it.

Lesson No. 2: Done is better than perfect.

You know what it’s really hard to be if you’re a perfectionist? A writer. You know what it’s virtually impossible to be? A journalist. 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here: This lesson I bring to creative writing from the journalism field is not about misspelling words or refusing to learn how to use a comma. I’m not talking about precision here, and that’s an important distinction. In journalism, facts are vital, just as they are in literature (even if you can take liberties in the latter).
What I’m talking about is being OK with a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that gets the job done and is readable, but you know you can make it better. You can futz over finding a more playful word or a phrase with more poetry or a pleasing, surprising rhythm. But you know what? What you have? It’s fine. Move on.

When you get hung up on making something sound perfect in journalism, you miss a deadline, and your editor has to put something else in the space previously designated for your story. When you get hung up on making something sound perfect in novel writing, you never finish a first draft. It’s one of the reasons the number of folks who’ve started writing a book is so much larger than the number who’ve finished writing a book. My writing mantra—something I think I’ve said to every person I’ve workshopped with, edited, or generally discussed writing with—is simple: Done is better than perfect.

Because consider this: Creating something from nothing is hard. The empty page is a judgmental ass. Once a project is finished? Even if it’s terrible, which it should be—if you’re here, you read writing columns and books and have likely already read about the benefits and necessities of a crummy first draft—it exists. Let me repeat that: Even if a first draft is terrible, it exists. It’s something you can work with. A sculpture can’t sculpt without clay. A first draft is your hunk of clay. It’s not supposed to look like the Venus de Milo yet.

And what about the finished draft, you may ask. Is that a case of “done is better than perfect,” too? 

Of course it is. The No. 1 goal of a finished draft (note the word “draft”: It’s all just a work-in-progress, even when we’re “done” because, come on, writers are never done) is to convey a message or emotion. We want to do this beautifully, of course. We want to string together words that blow minds and make hearts jump rope. To paraphrase the poet Billy Collins, we write to make strangers fall in love with us, which is much easier to achieve when our words sing, whisper, and punch at all the right moments.

But it’s not the priority. As a poet, that hurts me to type. As a journalist, I know it’s true.

Here’s an in-real-time example: I went into this project, sharing tips I learned in journalism that cross nicely over into literature, with the goal of citing specific examples of my time in journalism. But the best example that achieved this in my previous column came from my time in marketing. Fine.

And the best example to prove this point? Hell if I can think of one. Because this lesson isn’t about making single choices; it’s instead a way of being, a way of operating. You go into a project understanding in your bloodstream that completion is more important than perfection.

So I could sit here and continue to wrack my brain for an example that probably exists, somewhere in the gray matter. I could marinate on it for days and turn this column in embarrassingly late. Or I could say … well, this conundrum is what I’m talking about, isn’t it? I’ve conveyed the message I intended. It’s not the way I wanted to convey it, but I’ve achieved my goal.

And that’s good enough.