Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: David Bayles and Ted Orland on Perfection

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those of the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A," forty pounds a "B," and so on. Those being graded on "quality," however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an "A." Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. I've read it twice and now and have recommended it to every writer I know plus a couple of software engineers. I expect that I will read it regularly, as a kind of refresher course, in the future. If you want to practice any kind of craft and find that you are the biggest obstacle to your own work, this is the book for you.

I particularly love this passage. Perfectionism is my nemesis—I'm so afraid of failing, as if writing something badly would cost me anything more than the time spent. I need frequent reminders that the only way to get better at writing it to write, that even failing is a step forward.

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