Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Good enough is good enough

I sometimes describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. I used to go to enormous lengths to ensure that every letter, report, or set of minutes was not just clear and promptly produced, but also well laid out without spelling or grammatical errors (or their increasingly-common near-equivalents, keyboard mistakes). In some circumstances this was the right approach: you don't want an advert for your new website to show the wrong url; but there is little doubt that I spent more time on these tasks than I would if I were content to tolerate minor faults.

There was a time when critical readers of reports would highlight such errors as if their presence cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence and interpretation presented. This was never, strictly speaking, fair (the process of converting handwritten manuscript into printed text involved many stages and multiple hands), and has become obsolete. These days readers are unlikely to complain about minor mistakes in web content, as long as the text is helpful and errors, once notified, are corrected. It is churlish to complain (as some do) about the low standards of academic rigour and syntax in blog entries, considering that the writers have spent their time and trouble to create them without hope of reward beyond the gratitude (if any) of their readers (if any).

The whole notion of living in perpetual beta, where you expose material you know to be incomplete or containing errors, is hard for many to accept. Hence you still find the die-hard emailers who insist on using the formatting and syntax which was appropriate to formal business correspondence 40 years ago. It is, alas, futile to object that their use of "your letter of even date", "submitted for your consideration", and "under separate cover" is as baffling to their recipients as breathless uncapitalised under-punctuated text-speak is to them.

Which is not to say that we should abandon all hope of precision. But often perfectionism is a tactic to conceal ignorance about hat is important and what is not. Like the actor who said that he didn't care what lies the newspapers told about him as long as they spelled his name right, we should spned more time ensuring that the conclusion and summary of a report are correct and clear, rather than proofreading the context catalogue.

[Incidentally, the prevalence of spellcheck and autocorrect functions is changing the sort of mistake that commonly escapes correction: because 'their' and 'there' are both plausible words that appear in the dictionary, they are becoming effectively interchangeable - in 20 years' time the grammatical niceties of their use will seem as quaint as rarified debates about split infinitives seem now.]

Focusing on the important stuff is a good thing in the office: it is vital on site. In a way, it is easy to dig a site properly: you start at the top with your trowel and toothbrush and keep digging down until you hit natural. But unless time and resources are unlimited, this approach will not work; instead, the topsoil will have been lovingly removed, each residual ploughzone find carefully recorded, and the henge or cemetery or villa will not have been reached.

The main reason that experienced excavators work faster than newcomers isn't because they can use the tools well, or because they are fit: it is that they know which tools to use, how fast to go. If you watch one at work you will see they continually switch from mattock to trowel to leaf to mattock as their confidence in the stratigraphy ebbs and flows. Equally, at a project level the specification will identify the key elements of the resource to be examined. Whatever the truth about The Digger's story of machine stripping of medieval stratigraphy, it is possible to acknowledge that in theory such an approach might be justified: I write as a member of the select club, along with Philip Barker, of those archaeologists who have dug a section through medieval town defences using a Hymac. Such actions can be defended if they provided the evidence required, regardless of their apparent brutality.

Such a defence is, of course, undermined if it turns out that the information you were so keen to retrieve is then left to moulder in obscurity for years. Prompt dissemination is fundamental to the development of archaeological thinking -- the perfectionist's definitive account is all too likely to emerge 30 years after the debate they wished to illuminate has been settled once and for all by others with lower standards and faster publication schedules.

So before getting out a red pen to edit a report, remind yourself: good enough is good enough.

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