0649 – beware scope creep

I was writing a blogpost for work earlier today – and during my research phase I found myself effectively plotting the outline for something that could’ve been 10,000 words or more. This amused me. I’ve been writing blogposts for work for 4 years now, and yet I haven’t figured out a simple, sticky system for making sure that a blogpost is properly designed for reader consumption. This strikes me as a glaring flaw in my skillset that ought to be fixed.

When I think about this I realize that this is a symptom of a much bigger problem I’ve had all my life – my inability to make good projections about things. Lots of people post on Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit about how they have similar problems, but that doesn’t mean that everybody has the same problem – there’s a selection bias there. [1]

Anyway, the point is that I really ought to fix this problem in order to live a better life. A lot of the stress in my life comes from bad planning, from saying yes to things that I cannot handle, from drawing up projects and scopes in my head that are far bigger than necessary – often perhaps because it’s never clear to me what “enough” is. I’m recalling know a funny-sad conversation I had with my wife about work, when she asked me “how do you know when you’re done? what does done mean?” and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose in the absence of an answer, the real always was “I’m done when I’m utterly exhausted, when I’ve overshot the deadline and I’ve disappointed myself and everybody who was foolish enough to give me any semblance of responsibility.”

This is not a way to live. Life is too short to be spent agonizing internally about things that the world doesn’t actually care about. [2] [3]

So (and I’m certain I’ve said this before in a much earlier vomit, but it bears repeating) I need to get in the habit of delivering on what was initially promised. A problem here is that initial promises are often vague. So I need to take into account the amount of time and resources I have to get any particular thing done. A decent blogpost on any given topic shouldn’t have to be more than 1,000 words. It shouldn’t have to quote more than 10 people. Once you get into that territory you’re working on something more substantial. Which is fine, but you need to be clear with yourself that that’s what you’re doing.

I find myself thinking now about Carl Zimmer’s point, about how writing is like building a ship in a bottle. You do a ton of research and reading, and you have all that information in your head about everything there is to know about a topic – but then you try to start writing and you’re stuck in all sorts of contortions, because it’s simply impossible to convey that much information one word at a time in a series of a few thousand words. All the research really lets you do is figure out the story that you want to tell. And that story is necessarily going to be a mere shadow of what’s inside your head. You have to be okay with that, really early on. And you have to be prepared to discard and start over.

I believe there’s a school of thought in programming or some form of project management that you should plan to throw your first iteration away, since you’re probably going to end up having to do it anyway. This reduces the stress and anxiety you’ll have when trying to figure out precisely when you should start over. Da Vinci said that all art is merely abandoned, never finished. But this process of abandonment shouldn’t have to be so agonizing. As creatives we should know how to be ruthless without breaking our hearts at every single instance of iteration.

I haven’t been writing as many word vomits as I’d like, as frequently as I’d like. I still haven’t quite figured out how I’m supposed to feel about it. A part of me feels that I should obviously be shipping at least one vomit a day, however bad it gets. That’s the professional thing to do, and I want to be professional. So I’m not going to make excuses for that. I’m just going to describe how it feels to do it, so that I can understand my situation better and subsequently (I hope) perform better as well. The reason I’m slow with publishing vomits is because I’m not clear about the scope of what I should be writing in a given vomit. Sometimes it feels like I’m almost always writing inside my head, even when I’m not writing in a text editor or on pen and paper. That “writing” happens in a very subconscious way – just ideas moving around inside my head, shuffling back and forth, almost imperceptibly. I don’t actually know what is going on. But if I sit down with the word processor, I feel stuck.

(Is this true? Is this really true? How often do I really sit down with the intention of writing? I think I might be making excuses for myself here. I think if I really sit down – if I tell myself that I need to write something in half an hour’s time or else – then I’ll have something lined up inside my head. What I do know is that this process makes demands of the subconscious.)

So I do need to sit down and write every day. At least going through the process of a thousand words a day I think gives me a sense of what can be achieved in a few minutes in a given space. Anyway, tonight I’m hoping to crank a few out. It’s now 840pm. Let’s go.


[1] People with our specific problem seem to have a propensity to talk about the problem that we have. And we dominate online conversational spaces, so we’re definitely overrepresented. You don’t hear from the people who are quietly going about their lives, getting shit done. All conversational space is dominated by edge cases – you never see “dog bites man” as a headline, only “man bites dog”. And so it’s easy to infer, erroneously, that there are all sorts of epidemics of dog-biting men.

[2] And the world cares about some really silly things, too. But you get the idea.

[3] I’ve enjoyed the past couple of uses of footnotes. My mind has a habit of thinking divergently and exploring those offshoots of thought. This sometimes leads to something better than what I had originally set out to do. But it more often than not leads to a lot of frustration and anxiety.


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