Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Wednesday, 28 November 2001

I got some writing done this evening. The hospital story is at an even 1000 words. I'm thinking it'll come in at around 3000, so it's about one-third done.

One of the more useless bits of advice is "Always do your best."

To begin with, for any non-trivial task it is always possible to do better if you spend more time on it. For a task without a deadline, then, this advice amounts to, "Never finish anything."

Even for tasks with deadlines, though, it is necessary to allocate time among a great number of activities, including the task in question, other tasks, and life activities like sleeping, eating, and bathing. Most people who say "Do your best" don't mean "Stop bathing until this task is done."

But my main problem with "Do your best" is that it implicitly rejects the notion that, for some tasks, "good enough" is good enough. Now, I'll grant that too many people say "good enough" when what they've done is closer to "slipshod." And I think it's great to encourage people to do work they can be proud of, even if lower-quality work would get the job done. But I object to the the way that "Do your best" ignores even the idea that there might be some tasks where there is no reason to do the job better than "good enough."

Here's an example: building a fire. If you arrange the logs so that they catch fire on the first try and don't set anything else on fire, I say that you've done good enough. Let's say that someone has taught you how to build a fire that will burn down to a nice bed of coals, suitable for cooking. Blindly following the advice to "do your best" would require that you take the time to build such a fire even if you have no plans to cook on it. I think that's foolish.

There are plenty of tasks where it doesn't even make any sense to talk about doing your best. Washing dishes, for example. If you get them clean, so that there's no food matter left behind for bacteria to grow in, you've done good enough and if you haven't then you haven't.

Mind you, I'm not trying to discourage anyone from doing their best when it gives them pleasure to do so. If taking the time to get a nice bright shine when polishing shoes, or a really sharp edge when sharpening knives gives you satisfaction, by all means, do your best.

Advocates of always doing your best argue that I'm being extreme. That they don't mean for the advice to lead people to do ludicrous things or engage in useless betterment where it would be meaningless. But my point is: if you don't mean that, then the advice is useless. If what they're really trying to say is, "Don't use 'It's good enough' as an excuse for slipshod work when there's value in doing a better job," why can't they just say that?

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing in particular.

In one sense, I always do my best when I write stories: If I can think of anything to fix, I fix it before I send the story out. But I never really do the best I could, because eventually I can't think of anything to fix and I send it out, whereas I could wait six months or a year or ten years to become a better writer who could do a better job.


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