Listening to the radio one day this week, I heard somebody describe golf as being “a series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle”. It struck me that maybe what I do every day is very similar. If, as a writer, you measured success as a ratio between the number of words you write and the number that actually get published, you’d probably decide that professional dog walker or wringer-out for a one-armed window cleaner was a far more rewarding employment prospect.
Not being a golfer myself (see “INAG”), I’d never heard that quote before. However it is, it seems, quite well known – I found it, and several similar ones, on various golf Web sites. Including a couple that made me think about how closely the challenges of golf seem to mirror those of my working life. For example, “Achieving a certain level of success in golf is only important if you can finally enjoy the level you’ve reached after you’ve reached it.” How do you know when you’ve reached it? Or can you actually do better next time? Or maybe you should just assume that you’re doing the best you can on every project? That seems like a recipe for indolence; surely you can always get better at what you do? But if you keep practicing more and more, will you just end up creating more unused output and reduce your written/published ratio?
Or how about “Golf is the only sport where your most feared opponent is you”? I find that writing tends to be a one-person activity, where I can concentrate without the distractions of the outside world penetrating the whirling vortex of half-formed thoughts and wild abstractions that are supposed to be elements of a carefully planned and managed process for distilling knowledge and information from the ether and converting it into binary data. I always assumed that professional developers tended to have the same issues, so I have no idea how they can do paired programming. Imagine two writers sat side by side arguing about which words to put where, and if that should be a semi-colon or a comma, while trying to write an article.
I’ve always maintained that the stuff I create should, by the time it actually pops up in the Inbox of my editor and reviewers, be complete, readable, as free of spelling errors and bad grammar as possible (unlike the subject of one of my previous posts), and – of course – technically accurate. OK, so you can’t always guarantee all of these factors, but making people read and review (and, more to the point, edit) stuff that is half-baked, full of spelling and grammar faults, and generally not in any kind of shape for its intended use just seems to be unprofessional. It also, I guess, tends to decrease the chance of publication and reduce your written/published ratio.
Ah, you say, but surely your approach isn’t agile? Better to throw it together and then gradually refactor the content, modify the unsuccessful sentences, and hone the individual phrases to perfection; whilst continually testing the content through regular reviews, and comparison with reality (unless, I suppose, you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel). Should “your most feared opponent” be the editor? I’m not sure. When it comes back from review with comments such as “This is rubbish – it doesn’t work like that at all” or “Nice try, but it would be better if it described what we’re actually building” you probably tend to sense a shift in most-feared-opponentness.
I suppose I should admit that I once tried writing fiction (on purpose), but every page turned out to be some vaguely familiar combination of the styles of my favorite authors. Even the plot was probably similar to something already published. Thankfully I gave up after one chapter, and abandoned any plans to write the next block-selling best-buster. And I couldn’t think of a decent title for it anyway. Written/published ratio zero, and a good reason to stick with my proper job of writing technical guidance for stuff that is real. Or as real as a disk file full of ones and zeros can be.
And while we’re talking about jobs, they have a great advert on one of our local radio stations at the moment. I’ve never figured out what they’re trying to sell, but it does offer the following useful advice: “If you work on the checkout in a hand-grenade shop, it’s probably best not to ask customers for their PIN”. However, in the end, I suspect that none of the quotes can beat Terry Pratchett’s definition of the strains of the authoring process: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds”.