early onset satisfaction – a bad thing for writing and writers

(health warning – this post is a tiny rant)

early onset satisfaction – this is a notion that I once heard Mem Fox talking about. She put EOS as the enemy of all writers. Feeling too happy with a piece of writing meant that you didn’t rewrite and rewrite as often and as hard as you ought to.

I had cause to think about early onset satisfaction again last week as I was reviewing an article which had clearly been sent in to the journal far too soon.

It was one of those articles about a single aspect of a very small study about something not very important… and I confess I wondered if the paper was so slight because the writer was trying to get more than one paper out of it. There was probably one passable paper in the whole study I suspected, but certainly not enough in the one I had to review.

I doubted very much if the author had given the paper to anyone else to read. And if they had, I’d have taken bets that they hadn’t asked anyone to ask them the hard questions – like – So what, and Why should I care?

When I remembered Mem’s phrase, I wondered whether perhaps that was what had happened. The writer had been struck down with EOS. They were so pleased to have written the thing, so darn satisfied, that they’d just sent it off. (No, my referee comments weren’t cruel. Yes, I didn’t feel nice, but I was as nice as I could manage.)

Now Mem is not the only one to suggest that it is dangerous for writers to be satisfied too soon with their work. I recently noticed that Rose Tremain had expressed a similar sentiment in her 10 rules for writers. She offers Never be satisfied with a first draft. In fact, never be satisfied with your own stuff at all, until you’re certain it’s as good as your finite powers can enable it to be.

Will Self says You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Zadie Smith says Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Roddy Doyle advises Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­– until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.

We get the picture. Real writers don’t get too satisfied too soon. They don’t suffer from EOS.

These same writer’s maxims are also true for academic writing. Even though academics are in a publication churn, it is still really helpful not to rush papers off as soon as the printer ink is dry. It’s good to let a paper sit and percolate on its own for a while, after you’ve had the first couple of goes at it. Have a break, come back to it later and see how it stacks up.

It’s also really useful to pass a paper around among some trusted friends to get some feedback. Ask the readers not to be nice, but to be helpful. You don’t have to take their advice, and they might just come up with things that are really important. Tell them to ask you the So what question.

No matter how tempting it is to just send the paper off, it’s MUCH better to take that extra time because it may well be the difference between rejections and small revisions. Premature publication is risky and bad for the mental health. Let “cant get no satisfaction” be the mantra.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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4 Responses to early onset satisfaction – a bad thing for writing and writers

  1. Pingback: Early onset satisfaction – a bad thing f...

  2. Pingback: Early onset satisfaction – a bad thing for writing and writers | Creative Writer PhD

  3. Surely DOS (delayed onset satisfaction) is equally problematic… the cause of many a paralysed publishing career, perhaps especially among ECRs? The key in academic publishing must be to work hard enough on a piece until it is both an original contribution and as good as it can be in a reasonable amount of time having sought the right kind of feedback and made the right kind of revisions… Since nothing will ever be perfect, part of the process is surely admitting that to self/others, polishing what you have so that it acurately reflects your thoughts at this point in time, and being open to revising, renewing, revisiting those thoughts again later on? There comes a time in the life of any paper when the law of diminishing returns takes effect, and more polishing becomes, in effect, so much wasted effort. What we’re looking for here is not necessarily satisfaction, perhaps, but true readiness


  4. Pingback: good academic writing – it’s about revision not editing | patter

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