“A bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.” This is an idea I have long used as a quotation from the letters of Laurence Sterne, the 18th century English author. It is, I find, a mis-quote of a letter Sterne wrote on August 3, 1760, which includes the following lines:
“thinking that a bad letter in season— to be better than a good one, out of it — this scrawl is the consequence, which, if you will burn the moment you get it—I promise to send you a fine set essay.”
The principle is one that I have used so many times, that I am quite surprised that I have only used it in one previous blog post, and never as the subject of one itself.
I was thinking of this quotation today for a couple of reasons, but then trying to find a subject for a blog post added another: I didn’t have a clear subject to discuss that I felt capable of discussing in a relatively constrained format. I’m thinking a lot about the intersection of knowledge and politics, but there are a lot of separate threads that I’m having trouble untangling to put into any form that suits for a short piece.
I was thinking about the quotation with respect to a client who is sure he can’t write. My response is that the only way to resolve that is to practice writing—to be willing to produce something—anything—that can be critiqued. Good writers practice. I don’t think there’s any way around practicing. I was also thinking how being willing to write bad drafts allows the practice that is crucial for generating good drafts. The more you practice, the better your writing gets. Ironically, the willingness to be wrong allows the practice that allows growth, learning and the development of improved writing skills.
I was also thinking about it in terms of another client who has a number of different places to submit material, and I think a bad letter in season is better. If you have something to show to other people, they have an opportunity to appreciate it and learn from it, and/or to give you feedback so that you learn from the process. Sharing something bad creates the possibility of working with other people. By contrast, insisting on writing a good letter means missing opportunities—especially if your standard for a good letter is so high that you struggle to reach it.
In one episode of the Great British Baking Show, one of the participants ends up throwing his cake into the trash. As a result, he was sent home from the show. Unlike the others, he had nothing to show, and that was the deciding factor. Had he even shown any cake, he might well have survived for another week. For him, a bad cake in season would definitely have been superior.