It's Not Finished, It's Just Done

There was a nice piece at Inside Higher Ed yesterday on the myth of more time:

A lack of confidence in one's abilities as a writer, researcher, speaker, etc. is at the root of the myth of more time. When a deadline looms, we become acutely aware of the imminent reception of our work by others. As graduate students, we often submit our work to advisors, etc. who are established scholars and who determine our progress towards a program milestone. Our awareness of this kind of appraisal, then, can be extremely pronounced as we work towards a deadline. As a result, we begin to doubt our abilities and look back on completed work with a now overly critical eye. Work that we had been proud of, or perhaps simply satisfied with, doesn't seem so polished any more, and we decide that all of the mistakes we recently have perceived can be fixed with more time. More time soon becomes not just a fleeting thought, but an imperative. We believe that the project simply cannot be a success without more time.

I know this feeling very well. The author of the piece, Amy Rubens, is a grad student, working on a dissertation, but I can report that this doesn't get any better as a fully credentialed professional.

I've done a Ph.D. thesis, a bunch of papers and grant proposals, several popular articles, and two popular books, and in every case, I was fiddling with the wording right up to the end.I even went past the end, in some cases-- when I was reviewing page proofs for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, I had to restrain myself from trying to "fix" tiny infelicities of phrasing. And when I did a reading at Boskone, reading from a finished copy of the final book, there were a couple of spots where I cringed internally-- "How could I say that thing that way?"

When I was writing the thesis, one of the post-docs in the group said something that I thought summed it up really well: Your thesis is never finished, but at some point it's just done. That is, you could fiddle with it forever, tweaking this and that, changing a word here and a word there. At some point, though, you just need to hand the thing in, tiny imperfections and all, and move on with your life.

The paper-writing process in my old group at NIST was sort of infamous along these lines. We referred to it as "paper torture," and it involved numerous meetings in which the first author would bring in a draft, and all the other authors would rip it to pieces, arguing over every word. A local joke was that you knew the paper was done when you had a paper torture meeting in which the only changes suggested were undoing changes suggested at the previous meeting.

Prior to going through that process, and then my own thesis, I always thought there was something deeply wrong with the well-known stories of authors who died with thousand-page novel manuscripts that they'd been working on for decades. After doing a bunch of writing myself, I still think it's weird, but it no longer seems like a deep character flaw, just a tiny nudge past a hard-to-discern line. If I didn't have deadlines from publishers and grant agencies, I could easily see myself falling into this sort of trap-- forever tweaking things, and never quite happy with the results.

Of course, this is not a new problem, but one with a venerable history. Dithering modern authors have an easier time of it, what with modern word-processing technology and all, but this problem is as old as literature, and puts them in very good company. Probably the oldest and most famous example is the Roman poet Virgil, who famously requested that his manuscript for the Aeneid (Latin text, English translation), one of the greatest works of Latin literature, be burned with him, presumably because there were something like a half-dozen lines where the meter was off. Happily, the emperor Augustus ordered Virgil's heirs to disregard this and publish it anyway.

So, if you're dithering about what seem to be glaring errors in whatever piece of writing you've been working on, take heart in the fact that you can compare yourself to Virgil. Then accept that while it may not be finished, it's done, and send it off.

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There is a similar sentiment from the world of arts: "A painting is never finished, it's simply abandoned."

By Charles Parsons (not verified) on 15 Mar 2012 #permalink

"Dithering modern authors have an easier time of it, what with modern word-processing technology and all" -- On the contrary, because making minor changes is so easy, word processing may exacerbate the cycle of prose tweaking. A lot of time goes into minor edits that are later undone.

There comes a time in the course of every project when you have to shoot the engineers and go into production.

And for the last 15 years, "shoot the engineer" has been a key milestone on all of my schedules. (I can get away with this because I'm the engineer in the crosshairs.)

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 15 Mar 2012 #permalink

My students used to tell me they needed "more time" on almost any test/quiz. They would act as if I had not been crafting quizzes for over 30 years and knew how much I needed to see to make sure they had understood what was going on. They particularly hated multiple choice questions.
I would tell them "If you knew what you were doing, you'd be done by now".
I felt I did not prepare them for the real world too well.

In many cases it the following dictum applies: "They don't give you a Ph.D., you take it from them."

Getting a Ph.D is an active pursuit....

Splendid piece. But I recall a story about Henry Kissinger that is probably not apocryphal. It seems that when he headed the National Security Council and then the State Department, he surrounded himself with the best and brightest young analysts. He would assign them papers to write, usually with an impossible next-day deadline. Honored to be working for such a great man, they would accept and then put in an all-nighter to do the job. The next morning they'd present the results. He'd glance through the draft and then casually ask if perhaps they couldn't do a better job if they had a little more time, like, say, the rest of the day. Of course, they'd say yes and then get cracking, putting in another all-nighter if necessary. Kissinger is said to have commented that this process substantially increased the value of the final product.

By Shannondale (not verified) on 16 Mar 2012 #permalink

The opening page of my PhD thesis quotes Borges:
"the concept of a definitive text corresponds only to religion or fatigue"

By Guillaume (not verified) on 16 Mar 2012 #permalink

The opening page of my PhD thesis quotes Borges:
"the concept of a definitive text corresponds only to religion or fatigue"...

By Guillaume (not verified) on 16 Mar 2012 #permalink