Monday, December 31, 2012

Perfectionism: Is the Best the Enemy?

Ideally, every genealogical article would cite every assertion of fact (that is not common knowledge) to an original source or to a proof argument resting on original-source clues. And as our perspective on genealogy broadens into family history and microhistory, the number of possible facts to add in and enrich the story grows exponentially. If you're a perfectionist, those two things alone may keep you from ever finishing any piece of writing, let alone publishing it.

Obviously a top-ranked genealogy periodical should insist on this, and several do. But most genealogy publications are not in the top 1%. And not all genealogy articles need to hold to this standard.

It's not easy to say this without appearing to give license to those who sneer at standards in the first place. I do not believe that genealogists should just publish anything they feel like because they feel like it. We should all try to do the best we can -- but not to the point of doing nothing at all (which is where perfectionism is headed).

My notion of how to resolve this paradox is to insist on transparency. Know the standards; know when and where you're short of them; and let your readers know that you know. Cite the sources you have and explain their shortcomings and where better ones might be found. Don't publish unsourced stuff without some kind of explanation, for instance: "This is a systematic account of what Grandma said about the family, for future reference; I do not claim she was right about everything and my readers should not either." (My own grandma was a saint but she was also way wrong about certain genealogical facts.)

It would of course be nice to do the article that thoroughly tests Grandma's assertions (actually I'm working on one of those right now). But getting those assertions out there, properly qualified, for future evaluation, would also be one step toward that desirable end point. And of course good editors play an important role in promoting standards (when possible) and transparency (in all cases).

Harold Henderson, "Perfectionism: Is the Best the Enemy?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 31 December 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Connie Sheets said...

Excellent post, Harold. I'm enjoying your series of posts and articles on writing. In looking at my files, I've realized I did a better job, in some ways, of writing and "publishing" my findings back in the early days when I didn't know as much as I do now about what I "should" be doing. In my case, perfectionism (which tends to go hand in hand with procrastination) is definitely "the enemy of the good."