Quality: When Enough Is Enough

You know, I thought about publishing a post about a game with Fark tags and headlines, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to post it. Why? Because of something I think about too often, as I’m sure has anyone who’s ever considered their blog to be more than simply a sounding board. I’m talking about the big Q:

Quality.

Recent events

I started examining that aspect of my work after a few recent events: a couple of recent posts in blogs and forums, and the cancellation of an appointment.

First, there was a post by my favorite mommy blogger, Melissa, who questioned whether she should keep blogging past this year (and the ensuing followup). There she said something most of us don’t really have the guts to say, to ourselves or out loud, though anyone who’s blogged consistently for more than a few months has come across:

I’m running out of things to say that I think really matter

As a blogger, that’s one of the most important things to keep in mind. What happens when you no longer believe that what you say really matters? (If you want to see where I stand on that, read the first post, then read my overtly verbose comment in that post.)

The second thing that got me thinking was a question asked by Scrivs in the 9Rules Members forum:

This is something that I think about at times and the question basically is would you take yourself out of 9rules because you know that your content is slipping? How many of you know that your content isn’t what it used to be, but convince yourselves that you will pick it back up eventually?

I suppose even Camelot has its errant knights.

Along with that question came this link which asks about original blogging, and why it’s so difficult. Fact is, if you’ve never run a blog you don’t know how challenging it can be to keep content coming on a steady basis. If you have or do run a blog, then I’m sure you can appreciate where I’m coming from. And through all this comes the question of quality.

Speaking of which, recently 9Rules celebrated the conclusion to Submission Round 6, which netted some excellent, phenomenal blogs like Novelr, Dumb Little Man, and Newly Ancient. I’ll be honest, the quality of these entrants made me wonder whether I should re-apply for my membership, in order to ensure that my quality really is to the level it should be. Unfortunately, this type of judgment isn’t one I can always makes subjectively. I am, after all, human, with and ego, with insecurities, with hopes, fears, dreams and doubts. So why didn’t I? Because I still believe I’m good enough. But to alleviate any fears, I started working on improving my quality, not just here, but in all areas of my life.

How much is too much?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a bit of a perfectionist. Mind you, not everything has to be perfect, but I’m always wondering about what I bring to the table in terms of quality. Not just in blogging (though it is supremely important to me), but in all I do. Whenever I write a script, I wonder about it. Whenever I’m working on a Visio diagram, it’s the foremost thing on my mind. Whenever I write a short story, or set up a computer system or do anything which will eventually affect anyone else — especially something to which my name will be attached — I think about quality.

But with all this wondering about whether or not something is of quality, I’m often left wondering “how much is too much?”

The simple answer, I believe, would go something like this: Use the law of diminishing returns as your guide. If you’re working harder and harder to attain increasingly smaller gains, then maybe you should call it quits. But then this raises another question: even if you’re getting diminishing returns, will that extra bit of quality make the difference? Conventional wisdom says “no”: if your work can’t stand without it then there’s a problem with the rest of the work, not with that bit. Unconventionally, one could argue that the extra bit of quality is what makes the difference between great and memorable, between that which is held in high esteem and that by which all others are judged. I suppose that’s why Hemingway was so picky about his sentences. (If you go according to popular folklore, Hemingway would spend days ensuring that a line was just right.)

Between two masters

For the past week, I’ve been working on a project for work, one on which a major contract depends. Due to its importance, I’ve treated everything for this is with utmost import, focusing on both the speed (due to an approaching headline) and, more importantly, the quality with which it is accomplished, to the point where it’s less important for me to go home on time than it is to get things done just right.

The funny thing about quality is that if you’re working hard on something, something else usually has to suffer. Because of this project, during the week I had to cancel an appointment. I hated doing it because it was so very last minute. I despise when people cancel on me last minute, and I despise even more when I have to do it to others, since what suffers there is often the quality of my word. But I couldn’t help thinking — after the fact, unfortunately — that I could have gotten away with doing a little less in the way of quality for the project in order to keep my appointment. On one hand, I had a project which needed to be finished. On the other, I had an appointment to keep. Had I hurried the project, I could have kept my appointment. The work would have been good, mind you. Not great, but good. Instead, I decided to go for the gold, so I sat there, reviewing what I had written and touching up the illustrations which had been made, in order to ensure that whatever work I turned in, whatever was associated with me, would also be associated with excellence. The price of this was, of course, a tarnish to someone’s idea of my accountability. Was it worth it?

In feudal Japan, if a samurai had two masters, and he received conflicting orders from each, he would instead choose death, so that he would not disgrace either, nor disgrace his name or family. I didn’t have two masters, but I can’t say I didn’t feel the convergence of two conflicting orders forcing me to sacrifice a part of myself. Had I a sword I wouldn’t have used it for seppuku or anything, but maybe I would have poked myself with it.

The next day, I returned to find a complement from the project leader on the work I’d done the day before, specifically referencing something I could only have accomplished by staying late. While the complement was good and all, I can’t help wondering whether it really made a difference, and whether the price paid for that was too high.

A search, a hindrance

Often times, when I don’t post for a while, it’s not because I’m not writing. It’s because I’m writing and I’m completely dissatisfied with the product. I write stories, short ideas, little funny quips… none of which satisfy. At those points I can’t help but wonder whether I’m simply writing a lot of crap or whether I’m being too hard on myself. (You know, like when you’re at a forum and want to reply in a thread, but don’t feel you have anything interesting to say, so you write a reply out anyway and then decide not to press “Submit” because you don’t think it’s any good. Wait, does that happen to anyone else?) I’ve seen that happen lately. A lot. And it’s getting annoying. But what can I do?

When does the search for quality become a hindrance? When it brings you to a grinding halt? Could be. Then again, maybe “searching for quality” is an excuse to be lazy.

As for that Fark post, maybe I’ll just post it in a forum somewhere, and if it isn’t any good, then it isn’t.

8 thoughts on “Quality: When Enough Is Enough

  1. I’ve felt the quality ‘crunch’ a lot, and it’s the main reason why I don’t write more over at http://phark.typepad.com/ which is my resurrected personal blog. I hate, hate, HATE writing a blog entry unless I feel that what I have to say is interesting, clever, or of value to other people. I never write just because I feel like I need to write, because that’s how blogs go down the tubes. I’d rather publish once a month or once every couple months rather than every week and have it be garbage. I’ll post over at my TypePad blog again once I figure out something going on in my life that I feel is interesting enough to write about. My friends and family have requested I blog more often over there but I can’t bring myself to do it.

    The quality in the blogs that submitted to Round 6 was seriously awe-inspiring for me and the ones we picked to include in 9rules are unbelievable. Straight-up unbelievable. Their conviction for their topics is so refreshing that it really makes me think about what I write now… at 3by9 or anywhere.

  2. Thanks for your kind words! I’m really excited to be joining 9rules.

    This is certainly a question I struggle with often about the quality of my work. Oftentimes, I’ll write a post and read it, then decide it isn’t worthy of my blog and leave it as a draft. Last I checked I have like 300 draft posts stored up… maybe I should start a blog of the stuff which wasn’t quite good enough.

    In the end, I think it comes down to: will I be proud of saying this work is mine? If not, I won’t publish it. (Or hand it over to a client) If it is, it’s ready to go.

  3. I’ve had the same problem recently with Frozen Toothpaste. When I started I thought I had so many interesting things to share with the world, and increasingly it doesn’t quite feel that way.

    I think in part this is because I’ve gotten much better at finding things of quality; things that are saying what I would only better, sooner, and more prominently.

    It’s a tough problem for any writer and I’m not sure there’s any solution. Sometimes you’ll have genuinely interesting things to say and sometimes you won’t.

    For a long time I kept to a publishing schedule even when I felt what I was saying wasn’t that great. There’s no test for an idea better than introducing it to the world and seeing if it has legs. This can be incredibly disheartening when you see that you were right, but truly incredible when what you thought was garbage is judged differently in others eyes.

    I hate leaving long comments, especially one’s I’m not sure will lead anywhere, but in this case I think I’ll just do it.

    Best of luck on the never-ending quest.

  4. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

    If its going to be a pain to write those posts. Don’t whatever you do write it.

    The thing with blogging is that for most of us, it is a job. It’s a hobby that we started out to begin with. It’s something we do in our spare time and it’s something we would love doing.

    If it’s beginning to look nothing like that, then whatever that comes out is going to lack meaning both for us and perhaps for a lot of people.

    What makes us good. What gives us the quality is the desire to say “I have something on my mind that I really want to say” and then saying it. It doesn’t mean it can’t be refined. It doesn’t mean that the eloquence of the words can’t improve with time. It just means that whatever you say, you mean it at the time it was written.

    I don’t believe that there can never be too much perfection and for the most part. I am one of those people who will work a lot for that small bit of detail that people often miss (simplest example would be my blog theme where I started from zero knowledge to building what you see now where the times in between were spent doing on so much trial and errors for little bits of code). The difference is though. I love it. I love what came out of it. And if the question of perfection means wading through hell and back for some minuscule attempt to be better than you already are. Because I love what I do. I see nothing wrong in that.

    I guess that’s what passion is about.

  5. @mike: “I never write just because I feel like I need to write, because that’s how blogs go down the tubes.”

    I think I’ll rephrase that for myself that “I never post because I feel like I need to post.” The fact is that every single time I’ve written a post — EVERY ONE — I’ve intended to publish, I’ve felt that there was something I wanted to say or share. Often, during the writing, the ideas either don’t come, or I end up stepping back after writing it and thinking “you know, this seemed like a better idea in my head.” In those cases, I don’t post. I merely leave the post in the backend, in the hopes that one day I’ll take a look at it again and say “here’s what I need to fix this…” I make it a point to write in order to improve, but just like an author doesn’t sell every short story he creates, this writer doesn’t release every post he writes. (I have at times and the results are less-than-stellar.)

    @Arthus: I’ve said it before, congrats. You definitely produce quality stuff. And regarding your idea about starting a blog where you put your second tier posts is a good one. Maybe I’ll take that and run with it.

    @David: There’s something to be said about keeping a posting schedule. Every time I’ve tried it, it’s always involved a fair amount of planning, and definite dedication. But when you do that long enough, you find that your stuff naturally begins to improve. Like you mention, there are times when you feel everything you have to say is great and others when you feel nothing you say is worth posting. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to post anyway, not just to post, but because maybe you really are being too hard on yourself. Of course, in cases like that, I’ll usually sit on a post for a few days, then read it with fresh eyes. Sometimes I’ll be able to tell what’s wrong with it, fix it, and get it ready to go. Sometimes I’ll just shelve it again. Often, as a result of these shelved posts I end up writing something like this, and getting a much better response than I could have expected.

    @Edrei: “If its going to be a pain to write those posts. Don’t whatever you do write it.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this one. It’s easy to write when things come easily. It’s not easy to publish when things come hard. But it’s at those times, when one has to fight and struggle with every word, that one actually grows in the art. it’s that whole “write whether you feel like it or not” perspective. Whether you publish or not is another matter, and but the principle’s the same. There’s something to be said about writing when it’s hard. Strangely, I find these to be some of my more satisfying posts, and usually it’s these that demand the highest quality I can deliver. Then again, it also depends on the short view versus the long view. In the short view you’re looking at the quality of the post. In the long view you’re looking at the quality of what you can produce. There’s a world of difference between one and the other.

    “If it’s beginning to look nothing like that, then whatever that comes out is going to lack meaning both for us and perhaps for a lot of people.”

    Here I agree. If it becomes a constant struggle, where your heart is no longer in it, at all, then it’s time to hang up the keyboard.

    “[I]f the question of perfection means wading through hell and back for some minuscule attempt to be better than you already are. Because I love what I do. I see nothing wrong in that. I guess that’s what passion is about.”

    I’m going to print this up and hang it on my wall. If I had a gold star, I’d give it to you.

  6. Mmmm…starrrrr.

    I guess the way we look at it is natural development and forced development. The way I see it, having the words come naturally doesn’t always mean it’s the easy way out and you’ll never get better at it. I guess it means bringing out who you are, what you can do and realizing your full potential. I’ve tried forcing myself to write something but at the end of it, it feels hollow and meaningless.

    I don’t know if you fit this technique into “things that come hard” but what I’ve done is be inspired from the people whom I believe have that quality. Learn to write the way they write. Pick up on their mannerisms and context and fit it in the way I write. Eventually, I find a balance between the way they write and who I write as. Over the years, I’ve changed my writing habits somewhat but the end result is, I write better now than I did before and I will keep trying to do just that.

  7. I am — and this is proven and pointed out in the most painful ways over again — one of the most insecure people you could run into. You might not get this impression when you see me, though, and confuse it for arrogance, disinterestedness, laziness… or anything you like.

    It will come as no surprise then, that I’ve not understood how and why I got into 9rules from Day 1, and that I’ve doubted myself and the “quality” of my output ever since. And boy do I understand the doubt that lingers and magnifies itself when the discussions you mention come up.

    But in the end, I’ll keep on doing what I’ve done all my life, which is write and tell stories and try and entertain others. And I’m damn proud still of that 9rules flag waving off my blogging fortress and will be as long as the Triad keeps adding such great sites to the list. These newcomers are honored to have got in, I’m honored they want to be in a club that has me as a member.

  8. Nonsense, Gnorb. I’ve been a firm subscriber of your blog ever since my.9r and I … well I owe loads to you. All blogs go through cycles, whether real or imagine. It’ll pass. That you do quality (or dystopian scifi, come to think of it) is a given.

    =)

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