Monday, August 10, 2009

How Your Exacting Standards Can Do More Harm Than Good

We all have, to varying degrees, exacting standards. Sometimes they're uniform, so no matter what the situation calls for, the standard remains unchanged. Other times, they come in multiple shades. In other words, a given situation will in turn dictate what particular standard to use.

A majority of the time, the exacting standards that we hold, helps to get the job done, and done right. But what about those times when adherence to these cause nothing but grief, consternation and the wanting of taking yourself out to the woodshed. What do you do then? Do you continue to blindly reach for the standards, no matter what the consequences? Or do you bend a little?

Today's post will serve a dual purpose: One, it will show that sometimes holding yourself to these same exacting standards that you inflict on everyone else, is at the very least, counter productive, and the most, self destructive. Two: it will show you the positive outcome of holding yourself to those same standards.

Writing, like most things that are based in creativity, lends itself very badly to exacting standards. No matter what you write, be it a short story or a blog post, applying any kind of standard beyond the bare minimum is like playing Russian roulette with four bullets: You just can't win.

Let me give you few examples of how applying one's exacting standards on one's self can potentially set you back weeks in writing. In the span of about one week, I wrote then nuked, two blog posts, that either didn't meet my standards of excellence or my standard of taste.

The first one had a catchy title, to which I'll probably use again in the future, called "The Basement of My Adultery". Whereas the title immediately implied that the content of the post was about committing adultery in the basement of my house, the reality was much more mundane.

Books. The post was about my bookcase and the contents contained within. While the idea in principle was good (what I read), the execution was fatally flawed. It started out promising, but wavered at the middle and sunk like Peppermint Patty's ability to get above a D-. In essence, it did not meet the exacting standards that I have for my writing.

The second one was a little more difficult to nuke, and in hindsight, I shouldn't had done it. What I should of done was postpone the schedule date for another week or two, in order to think about it some more.

The blog post was about controversial and tasteless music, and while it met all of my key criteria (lively, witty, well researched and provocative), by the time I finished writing it, it crossed (at least in my eyes) over from being provocative to highly offensive.

I portrayed the post as a typical conversation that a father might have with his son, if he happened to see what his son was doing, was something he didn't particularly care for.

In the conversation, I managed to skillfully weave in the following references and songs (plus a great bunch of links to boot):

1} Elvis Costello/Radio, Radio
2} The Boomtown Rats/I Don't Like Mondays
3} Ram Jam/Black Betty
4} Ledbelly/Black Betty
5} The Dead Kennedys/I Fought The Law
6} The Sex Pistols with Ronnie Biggs/Belsen Was A Gas (along with a description of a truly tasteless album cover)

After I'd gotten it completed, I started thinking about the last part of the post (The Sex Pistols) and came to the conclusion that a lot of people would find that particular reference specifically and the post in general, highly offensive. So I nuked it.

I may bring it back eventually, in some kind of other form, but for now it will remain a classic example of something not quite meeting my particular expectations.

Writing short stories is another example of something where my standards can clash with the final product. Whenever I start a story, most of the time it would go off on a rambling tangent. And more often than not, I can recover by reining it in, narrowing the focus (or rearranging the focus), then relaunch it to a satisfactory conclusion.

A case in point would be a short story that I started about week after I wrote this piece of non-fiction. I had gotten about two pages written when I reluctantly gave up on it, simply because I wrote myself into a corner. About several months later (June), having the need of another story for a planned mini-story arc (more on that in a future post), I took it out, dusted it off and after about twenty minutes of staring at it, I was able to jump start my brain and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

By the same token, I've had stories in which they started promising, but quickly fizzled simply because I wrote myself into a corner with no hope of getting out (have five like that, but I may be able to salvage one of them for future use).

Now that I've given you quite a few examples of how your standards can inflict near mortal wounds, this entire blog post is the positive outcome of meeting my exacting standards.

How? Well, for one thing, It took me four days to write this out because I did it with pen and paper. As most of you know, writing by hand is my preferred method of doing things. When I can, I do. When I can't, I don't. For multiple others, it is long without boring the reader to tears (in other words, informative), witty, well researched, self deprecating, thought provoking and questioning.

And most importantly, it answers the question that this entire post was about: exacting standards can be detrimental to one's writing if one treats it like O.C.D.

If not, why not?


  1. It was said of Buddy Hackett that he just talked until he came to a punch line. I've taken that philosophy for my site.
    I'm not writing stories (well one, but that was written before the blog site) nor do I ever plan to take writing seriously, so standards are random.
    I do take my music seriously, but music is vague at best and I must at all cost avoid sounding like the "old standards" although I wouldn't have minded writing "Stardust"
    I'm not sure if I've come to a punch line yet, but I'm going to quit anyway.

  2. Lane: I look at it this way: for the most part, I've been such a perfectionist no matter what I chose to attach myself to, that it's very hard for me to lower my standards/expectations for myself.

  3. Battling with your "exacting standards" must be exhausting! I vicariously feel tired for you:) Considering the well crafted and entertaining style of your writing, I think your final written product shines because of your critical eye. Take a moment and revel in each written piece as a worthy accomplishment, especially before you put yourself through the "standards workout" for the next one:)

  4. Ooh. Everything I write starts out as pen to paper. Everything. Most of it doesn't see the light of day. It's only the truly inspired pieces that seem to make their way into daylight.

    I like the smell of ink on paper. It feels real, too.

  5. Septembermom: Thanks. I appreciate the fact that you can reach and take over feeling tired for me. :-o

    In all seriousness though, it's an ongoing battle with the stuff that I write, especially for the blog. I'm forever tweaking a post until it publishes. A good example would be of the ten posts I got scheduled to publish, I've tweaked each one at least a dozen times, adding fresh content or tidying up grammar and the like.

    Pheromone girl: I use pen and paper for everything, simply because I find that it helps me concentrate better and that it helps with the hand weakness that is currently creating havoc with my body.

    Pen and paper will always be my weapon of choice, simply because it meets my standards and yet is flexible enough to let me bend my standards a little as well.

  6. I'm just impressed that you write it out with pen and paper. I always find it interesting to hear what methods writers use.

  7. Yeah, I love writing by hand as well and I just don't do it anymore. It's so sad. I feel like hand writing gets my thoughts on paper a little more organized and detailed. However you seem like way more of a perfectionist than I am. That is such a good thing. I'll post almost anything and proof reading is my most unfavorite thing to do!!!

    So, yay for standards!!

  8. It's good to have standards, but it helps to keep them realistic. You don't want to wrestle with your creativity so much that you're left frustrated and upset. I always write what pleases me, first and foremost. When it's written that's when I determine if it's something I want to share with anyone else. Blogging, for me, is my play space. You've got to have an area that's comparable to being at home, sitting in your favorite chair, feet up, in your sweats, totally relaxed - lol!

  9. Lynn: Yeah, I've been doing it more often now, as I find it really forces me to organize my thoughts better.

    I just recently started doing my blog posts out on paper, then transcribing them to the computer. I figure this way it would be less time consuming than simply sitting in from of my computer trying to figure out what to write.

    That one girl: Hi stranger, hope you're doing well.

    Yeah, I am the ultimate perfectionist. That does have a tendency to get in the way more times than I care to admit.

    I will agree with you on getting thoughts organized. It seems that pen and paper really do work the best for me.

    Talon: Blogging is definitely my play space as well. This is the only place where I can really let loose with whatever happens to be on my mind.

    That is the one downside of having exacting standards: stifling your creativity. It's really hard to find that blended balance as it applies to writing. You want to write your best but you don't want to hamper yourself at the same time either.

  10. I have much more exacting standards for stuff that I'm trying to get published than for my blog. I think a certain amount of rambling on a blog is acceptable. Plus, I use the blog as a way to generate ideas that I later develop in more exacting detail. this is an intersting topic, though, and one I might want to pursue more.

  11. I agree with the point about a certain amount of rambling is acceptable on a blog. I think my problem has been that when I ramble, I really can't find my way out of it or back from it. Thus, I apply what I got just as much to the blog as to my writing.

    Using a blog to generate ideas for writing (or other things) is great. I'm somewhat of the reverse, in that I use the real world to generate ideas for the blog and explore in (hopefully) greater detail.

    Glad I was able to you an interesting topic to potentially explore in greater depth.

  12. Hey..I know I commented on this the other day. hmm

    Anyway. The heck with least that is how I have gotten along for the last year with my posts. Besides...unless someone is paying you for it..haha

  13. Bearman: well, you're part right about the heck with standards.

    With this blog there will always be that microscope that I put myself under.

    With the other, there are no standards except beyond that fine line of tastful/tasteless.

  14. I don't think I've ever nuked a blog post! I've written stuff in notepad that says, "don't post this" tho! I never just delete- or give up on half-done pieces, cause ya never know when the Ureeka! moment may strike-

    There is a "Draft" post option on Blogger, where you don't ever have to publish if you aren't ready- but it's there in case.

    I'm not strict with my posts n just go with what flows. Few are planned in advance. I'm not going for an essay, just an idea or relaying my life.
    Seems you do expect high quality from yourself all the time- very difficult to please, you are!

  15. Snaggle: Usually by the time I'm writing the actual post on the blog, it's at the publishing stage. As of late, I've taken to writing my posts out on paper before transcribing to the 'puter.

    Interestingly enough, those two post are the only non-story ones that I nuked on this blog. I've nuked thirty-five others that were related to a story that I'm in the process of writing.

    I am incredibly difficult to please, simply because I have the ability to shoot my mouth when I'm not. Minor character flaw for the most part.


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G. B. Miller

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