In praise of ‘satisfactory’

About a decade ago I worked as a teacher. Back then, there were politicians pushing for ‘every student to be above-average’, and there was talk of rearranging lesson observation gradings so that ‘satisfactory’ was no longer good enough.

It was like dictionaries no longer mattered.

Ignoring the linguistic butchery, I understood the intentions. They wanted improvement. On the surface, I’ve got no argument with this. Education should be about improving oneself, in both formal settings (schools, colleges, and so on) and in other areas. Education never stops‌‌—‌life is a constant process of learning and (hopefully) improving.

I can see this in my own life. When I played guitar regularly, I’d practice in order to improve my technique, to play harder music, to get faster. When I use the bouldering wall, I work on different problems, improving my finger strength, body position, attitude and so on. And when I write, I aim to make every new story better than the one before. I read not only for enjoyment but also to inform my own writing. I listen to and read material on writing craft and story structure.

Learning can be hard, though. It’s not linear‌—‌there are times when things fall into place, and we make great leaps forward, but there are other times when we can’t wrap our heads around ideas. We struggle over something that feels inconsequential. Sometimes we need to revisit older ‘learning’, embedding it deeper or reminding ourselves about first principles. Sometimes we need to take it steady, or even take a break altogether.

And even with all this learning, perfection can only be an aspiration, never a destination. There’s always room for further improvement.

Which is why there’s no shame in being ‘good enough’. Sometimes (arguably most of the time), satisfactory is‌…‌well, satisfactory.

Let’s bring this back to reading and writing. I’ve read many satisfactory books. I can’t recall them now, but I enjoyed them at the time‌—‌because they did their job. They entertained me.

I was reminded of this recently as I read Scott Bartlett’s Mech Wars series. The books aren’t literary masterpieces‌‌—‌there were times when the writer side of me would pull me from the story, re-reading passages that were more tell than show, trying to work out ‘better’ alternatives.

But I read all four books. I wanted to know how the story ended, and what would happen to the characters. The series did its job in entertaining me. It was a perfectly satisfactory read.

I should note that this is my personal view. As I often do when finishing a book, I checked on-line reviews. Bartlett has a decent number, for both the series and the individual books, and the vast majority are positive. Readers enjoy the series. It’s military sci-fi‌—‌Bartlett doesn’t present it as literary. He’s telling an action-filled adventure, and that’s exactly what readers get.

The books don’t have the feel of first drafts, so Bartlett edited. I’m sure he made them the best he could, back when he wrote them (over five years ago). And then he reached a point where he felt they were good enough to put into the world.

Which reminds me of an interview I read with the band Massive Attack (after the release of their Mezzanine album). They talked about how they’d be constantly tinkering with the songs, passing files back and forth as they edited, but they eventually had to stop and release the album‌‌—‌but if they had time, they’d continue tinkering.

Works of art aren’t so much completed as abandoned. There’s always room for improvement. But there has to be a moment when the artist (musician, producer, writer, whatever) puts a stop to editing and decides it’s ‘good enough’, that it’s ‘satisfactory’‌—‌that is, it satisfies their own editorial standards, and (hopefully) will satisfy its audience.

And then it’s time to move on to the next project.

But why not continue to polish that first project? If each editing pass improves it, why not keep going?

Because where would it end? Some writers spend years on their first book in an attempt to make it ‘perfect’. But progressive edits yield diminishing returns, while taking up a great deal of time. If the writer wants to improve, they need to practice‌—‌and that means writing more. That means working on new stories and new projects.

A few years ago I re-read my first book, Dark Glass, in preparation for writing more books in the Dominions series. I wasn’t happy with the quality of that book, so I re-worked it‌—‌tightened up the story, added scenes, took away even more, and improved the writing itself. Dark Glass might’ve been the best book I could write back in 2016, but I’d moved on from there‌‌—‌and with the re-write, I was happy with it once more.

But the next couple of books were originally written at the same time (2016), and while I’d learnt from Dark Glass, they’re still not representative of my current writing. A part of me was tempted to rework both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I realised this could be a never-ending process‌‌—‌by the time I reached the end of the series I could very easily return to the start, making more improvements. And that would leave no time for writing anything new‌—‌no time to put in the practice and actively improve.

Stories need to be shared. If Bartlett had continued editing Mech Wars, he might not be finished yet‌‌—‌and that would have deprived thousands of readers of the enjoyment they derived from those books. If he’d waited until the series was ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t have had the time to write his other books, books that his readers continue to devour.

There are times we want ‘literature’, times we want to wallow in expertly-crafted prose and marvel at poetic word-play. But, for the majority of readers, and for most of the time, we want entertainment. As long as the writing is good enough to carry the story, we needn’t ask for anything more.

A story that satisfies is good enough.