May 19, 2020

I’ve been somewhat astounded by just how similar writing is to software development 1. This is probably a self fulfilling prophecy. I’ve been developing software for years, so of course I’d take the skills I learned there and apply it to my writing.

So perhaps I should rephrase: I’m amazed at how well my own personal principles of software development have translated into writing.

It seems to me that many of the issues so many writers have 2 could be mitigated by approaches developed for writing software. There’s a lot of “principles” or approaches I could cover, but I’d like to focus on one: iteration.

I never, ever expect the first words I write to be… well, good. I expect to rewrite them; I expect to rewrite them a lot — once, twice, five, even a dozen times. In other words, I expect to iterate my writing.

To me, this is perfectly normal. I would never write code and expect it to run flawlessly the first time. I’m never surprised when I get half way through writing some piece, only to realize I could have done it a better way; then I scrap what I’ve written and write it the better way.

Yet one of the main problems I hear advice for is: “the empty page”. Authors, sitting at their desk, staring into space, waiting for inspiration, while an empty page sits before them. It’s a dreaded thing, this blank sheet. It conjures images of boundless potential; it conjures feelings of a vast, empty space just waiting to swallow you whole.

“What if I get it wrong?”

“What if it’s bad?” (gasp!)

“What if people hate what I write?”

“What if…” — well, I bet you can fill in the blank.

But I barely notice the empty page. All of the advice about overcoming writers block always seemed over-wrought. It took me time to realize why: I expect to iterate.

If you expect to rewrite, it frees you to write in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether the words are good or not; it doesn’t matter if the story is good or not. You can make it better on the next pass. Perhaps more important: Every word you put down, whether good or bad, makes you just a little better.

You can always make the words you put down better, so long as you’ve written words down in the first place. So write.

I get a particular satisfaction in improving things. I like it. I like the satisfaction I feel when the second iteration is better than the first, when the third is better than the second.

Some would argue that it doesn’t need to be perfect, that by trying to be perfect, you run around in circles. And yes, if you’re on your thirtieth iteration, it might be time to move on. But that is not the problem most people have. I would argue that the process of improving, of perfecting, your writing is essential. It is, at least in my opinion, the best way to learn.

Read all the books you want; they’ll help. But the act of improving your own writing will embed those lessons in a way that no book can.

Coincidentally, this is generally called ‘editing’.

So yes, learn to edit your own books; learn to iterate. Not only will you become a better writer that much quicker, but publishers appreciate writers who don’t foist all the editing work onto them. And if you self-publish, readers will appreciate it all the more.

  1. My day job. 

  2. Issues I’ve gleaned from reading books on what (not) to do when writing, or by watching videos, or by listening to podcasts, etc. Since I don’t actually know many any writers personally, I can only guess at what issues they have from all the advice out there for writers. — Secondary text to test scrolling, which means i need a lot more text and i don’t really care about punctuation or anything like that; just the words on the screen and how they feel and look and many many words scrolling over and over and over again. I should have copied and pasted gibberish, really.