Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

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4 thoughts on “Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

  1. The phrase good enough is so often used to mean “not good enough but I’m quitting now anyway.”

    What do we say when we mean, literally, good enough? I don’t care what other people hear; they don’t get to judge how I feel about my writing. What do I say to myself to distinguish that which is, literally, good enough (because perfect is impossible) and that which falls short?

    This may be the biggest struggle I face as a writer (and perhaps as a human being.)

    The words we use when we talk to ourselves are a huge portion of Resistance. The ambiguity of the artistic quality continuum creates a challenge. I can say with certainty that a light is on or off. I can say with certainty that my car will start or it will not.

    I know that I could have spent the rest of my life writing and rewriting my first novel, and it would have been better every time. Every week I learn something that would make it a better book. And it would have been found, posthumously, among the relics, and critics would have said that was almost good enough.

    Another thing that complicates ‘good enough’ is that there used to be a standard for writing: the publisher or magazine accepted it, or didn’t. ‘Good enough’ meant ‘good enough to publish’. Nowadays, we all get to decide for ourselves.

    Maybe there’s an author collective where others who care about writing and know whereof they speak can advise authors intent on selfpublishing whether their work is, indeed, literally, good enough.

  2. Joel, writers I know (and the one I know that lives in my head) can be skittish, paranoid creatures who are wounded before anyone shoots at them, and only in their most Zen-like states can seem to be truly astute judges of their own work. I have double-trouble with my own writing, because as an editor I’m paid to find flaws in works, so I can go at my own with too fine of tools.

    That old adage “a work is never finished, only abandoned” makes sense to me, and cruel abandonment is often a less painful course than working and working something over again and again with diminishing returns. That’s why I only spent seven years writing the earthquake book; man, I could have relaxed and taken my time and maybe I could get it out there on my 80th birthday. Really though, I feel I’ve gone as far as I can go with that one, but if I were to start writing it from new today, it would be a wholly different book. And maybe pretty good.

    For longer works, those with which you’ve done some serious fussing, the time investment is one of those Resistance burdens: “How can I release this to the world without making it just right, since I’ve spent so much time on it?” Sheer weariness sometimes forces the answer, rather than “Final sentence. Good work. Done.”

    I think Rick and I will probably do some more trimming on our collaborative piece if we are going to self-pub it, but now I’m looking for my future work. As I envision it right now, it’s not just pretty good, it’s perfect. (All unborn sentences are beautiful.)

  3. In th songwriting business, good enough is not enough to get a song through. My professionally produced demos need to sound a potential 10 before an A&R person will listen past one minute, before passing it on to Faith Hill, Luke Brian or Lady Gaga. None so far. I have my tricks though. I take off the vocals, and a few instrumental track beds have make it through to libraries, where short cues are culled by Music supervisors, to place on a few cable tv shows. I also found a 20 something collaborator who can change up my 80’s lyrics and style to current. I’m trying to learn how to phrase like he does! He co wrote Don’t Want To Runaway on one of my best tracks. It’s getting some buzz.

  4. Barbara, the music industry sounds tough, especially now with streaming. But you sound pretty resourceful—it makes sense to move forward on the “tricks” you are working on, testing out possibilities, keeping moving. Momentum and small victories are real victories, so keep after it.

    My small successes (and failures) aside, I have to remind myself that I get to be a writer, stumblings and all, and that’s a fine thing.

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