Writing words vs. writing software 25 Jul 2006
46 comments Latest by lisa
I was reading some quotes the other day about the importance of rewriting…
“First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.”
“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
“Books aren’t written - they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
…and it occurred to me how much these ideas apply to writing software too.
Grinding it out
Whether we’re authoring software or prose, rewriting is key. Rewriting is when you turn good into great. It’s true for books, blog posts, marketing copy, interfaces, code, etc. For all of them, we grind it out. We get something down, share it, get feedback, revise, and then do it over again. We get where we’re going via lots of wrong turns.
Sometimes we even throw everything away and start over from scratch. Yeah, that can be frustrating. But if you never throw anything away, you’re holding on to your worst ideas.
For a short blurb, we just bang it out and move on. But when we want to do it right (e.g. when writing Getting Real, the Job Board info page, or posts like this), we go through a cycle of tweaking and revising. Here’s how the process works:
- Write a version.
- Get feedback from rest of team. People offer suggestions, post related images, and tell you if something sucks. Sample comment: “Here’s another angle. not sure if it works or not, but I’ll freestyle it…”
- Rewrite. We’ll often bring ideas into Writeboard at this stage in order to collaborate on edits.
- Go back to step 3, if necessary.
- Get more feedback, this time from outside audience.
- Tweak again, if necessary.
It’s actually the same way we create software. There’s a lightbulb moment. Then sketches. An interface is built and passed around (seeing a real screen makes all the difference in the world). Feedback pours in. Revisions are made. (Sometimes entire ideas are scrapped and we go back to the drawing board.) Something gets built. People start using it and make comments. More tweaks. Launch. Listen to outside comments. Repeat the process.
One important part of all this: You can’t fall in love with your baby. You need to realize your work is going to get twisted up and turned inside out. It’s better to get that over with sooner than later. If not, you risk falling head-over-heels for your creation only to have your heart broken later. So share stuff early and often.
More words/software overlap
Rewriting isn’t the only similarity between how we author words and software…
“Of every hundred people who start a novel, only three finish.” (source)
A similar ratio probably applies to software entrepreneurs. Everyone and his cousin is working on a web app. But how many are actually finishing? That’s why we argue for biting off less. Write a short story/small app instead of a novel/massive app. Shrinking scope means you actually finish. And finishing is huge. When you finish something, you show up. And, like Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.” (source)
Writer’s block haunts writers of all stripes. Blank pages, whether on the web or on a piece of paper, are the enemy. Author Victory Crayne offers fiction writers advice that’s good for designers and programmers too: “Turn off the editor in your head and just bang some words. The best cure for writers block is to write. Anything.” We’re big fans of the brain dump. Get something down: words, sketches, whatever. Get the snowball rolling.
“Remember this: Don’t spend too much time visiting writing groups. You are not writing then. You are writing when you are WRITING.” (source)
Dig that last line. It’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub surrounding software instead of actually making it. You can spend all day reading guru blogs, listening to podcasts, going to networking events, etc. That’s not writing. Writing is writing. That’s where the alone time zone can come in handy. Sometimes you need to shut yourself off from the outside world and just get shit done.
“Editing is the most difficult phase of writing — and it is also the most crucial.” (source)
We’ve talked before about how we’re editors: “The editing process is what makes a great product. Editing the feature list, editing customer requests, editing the interface, editing the code, editing the marketing, editing the copywriting. It’s not about designing or writing or coding, it’s about trimming those weeds back before they ruin the lawn.”
For example, this post once had about twice as many words. Now it doesn’t.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” (source)
It’s a quote we mention early on in Getting Real because it’s so appropriate. Vigorous writing of words is the same as vigorous writing of software. Every word, every line of code, every interface element should tell.