Why you should satisfice your writing

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Here’s a new verb: to satisfice. And let me explain why you should satisfice your writing…

When my triplets were born in 1994, I knew I needed help.

That said, we didn’t want to hire a nanny. We had no space in our house for one. As well, my husband and I value our privacy. So, instead, we decided to go with an assortment of part-time helpers, some of whom remain our friends to this day.

But the hiring, oh, the hiring. It was horrible. As a mother looking for help with her three premature, doll-sized babies (the girls were just over 3 lbs. apiece, our son, just over 4), who each needed to be fed every two hours (do the math!) I wanted only the best. Someone who was mature. Loving. Unflappable. Smart.

But ads in the local newspaper led to dozens of calls from dozens of women, most of them looking for fulltime work. As I tried to interview them — while juggling three screaming infants — I started to become hysterical. How could I possibly do this? How could I ever find someone who cared as much as I did about looking after my kids?

Thank goodness I said those precise words to myself. They caused me to snap to attention and realize, of course, I couldn’t. Nor did I need to! I was being ridiculous. I promptly outsourced the hiring to a friend who had been clamoring to help. She kindly put her own phone number in the ad, prescreened the calls and gave me a shortlist with three names. From that, I found a couple of great candidates.

Our helpers weren’t perfect. They weren’t Mary Poppins. Or  Fred Penner.  They couldn’t change diapers in 9.5 seconds. One of them (who was Scottish) didn’t know any Canadian songs or nursery rhymes. But I could tell they were competent. They would get the job done. They were good enough.

In short, I had satisficed my childcare. Have you ever heard the word satisficed? I hadn’t until last week. But I was familiar with the idea. Developed by American political scientist and psychologist Herbert Simon (1916–2001) to satisfice means to search through available alternatives until you have an acceptable solution. Most of us do this all the time with a wide range of products.

For example, how much energy do you put into choosing which jam to buy? (No need to answer if you make your own!) What about breakfast cereal? I don’t eat the stuff but when I buy it for my kids I do a quick check to make sure the sugar level isn’t off in the stratosphere, then I throw it in my buggy. What about laundry soap? Beyond checking its environmental record and whether or not it cleans your clothes, have you ever done a thorough analysis of all the possible options in your local store? I thought not!

And what about really big decisions like buying or renting a house or apartment? Sure, most of us look at a number of options. But, depending on the housing market conditions (white hot in Vancouver, where I live) we might not even have the time to think hard about the location or getting a house inspection. We go with our gut and do the best we can. In other words, we all satisfice, all the time.

But do we ever satisfice when it comes to writing? I think not. Most of us have a wrathful inner-editor in the back of our brains scolding us with comments like:

  • this piece isn’t anywhere near good enough yet
  • your boss is going to hate this
  • your writing is soooo boring.

All of these things may well be true. And, while I never want to discourage anyone from editing — after all, this is the only thing that will improve our writing — I also want to suggest you pace yourself.

Not every piece of writing is equally important. Not everything you do needs to be perfect. If you set perfection as your goal, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. Writing will be fraught with terror and you’ll choke yourself on the I-need-to-make-this-better hairball.

Instead, before editing, ask yourself how important the piece of writing is. Could your career rise or fall on it? If the answer is yes, then lavish it with editing. If the answer is no, however, then be more mindful of your time. Cut yourself some slack.

Writing is not a 50-yard dash. It’s a marathon. Keep yourself in shape so you can continue running. Without pain. Without terror.

In other words, know when to satisfice your writing.

P.S. If you’re writing a book or thesis and want some accountability, consider my Get it done program. Applications for the January to March session close Jan. 2.
How do you satisfice your writing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by December 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the inspirational non-fiction book, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.
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