Does something have to be finished to publish? Doesn’t publishing something that is “good enough” but “not quite finished” suggest that you are lowering your standards? What about “excellence”?
Back in 2009, I attended a production of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Belle Moral. The author’s note in the program caught my attention, especially the part of which reads
Belle Moral: A Natural History has its origins in an earlier play of mine called The Arab’s Mouth … After The Arab’s Mouth premiered [in 1990], I knew that it was not quite finished and, in keeping with my experience as a playwright and collaborator, I fully expected to return to it.
Good Enough to Publish
MacDonald had her “not quite finished” play, The Arab’s Mouth, produced. And published. I haven’t seen The Arab’s Mouth. But I have no reason to believe it is not an excellent play in its own right. The complete author’s note makes it clear that Belle Moral, despite having its origins in that earlier work, is a very different play. Also excellent.
The evolution from The Arab’s Mouth to Belle Moral passed through an excellent novel, Fall On Your Knees. I have read the novel. It addresses very different themes from Belle Moral. The novel and the later play may have their origins in the same original work, but they are very different, and equally excellent products.
And yet, from the author’s perspective the earlier play and, presumably, the novel felt “not quite finished”. I am very glad that she produced/published them anyway.
The world would not be a better place had she kept them in a folder until the “finished” piece was ready.
Research does not “finish” with publication
The question of “not quite finished” work is not one of the excellence or otherwise of the product (be it a play, a novel, an article, or a research monograph). It is a question of process.
You have a program of research. A big research question or direction that you will pursue over several years. The research does not end with a publication. Publication is part of the process.
You will pursue specific questions or paths within that larger program. You will develop particular ideas. You will investigate a particular source. Interview particular people. Interpret particular texts. And at every stage of the process you have things to contribute to the conversation. Publication is how academics contribute to academic debate.
Your work continues. You keep working on those ideas. You develop them. Your work advances.
Others pick up your ideas, from your publications, and take them in other directions. They bring them to their own texts, interview subjects, archives. They develop them in new directions. And publish their contributions to the conversation.
Your work is never “finished”
The questions you are pursuing are too big for that. Each step of the process raises new questions. Suggests new directions. Your vision of the result you are aiming for (the “full expression of the pose” as my yoga teacher says) is refined.
Publishing is about making a contribution to the advancement of knowledge. Entering into the conversation. Engaging in debate.
The standard of entry into academic debate is high. If you have been awarded a PhD, you have been judged capable of meeting that standard. You are “good enough” to participate.
The debates to which you want to contribute will be better for your participation in them. Frequently. At all stages of the process.
When faced with the product on your desk the question isn’t, “Is it finished?” The question is, “Is it good enough?”.
This post was originally published March 5, 2009 and has been edited, most recently on November 19, 2015.