Publish: The New First Step

Hitting “publish” is the modern version of seeing an article hit the newsstands, or the advertiser’s tradition of the “big reveal,” where anticipation is built up and then BLAMMO there it is read it or save it for later but please oh god please just LOVE IT. Just accept it.

We publish because we want to be seen. And there’s a fear in that. For isntance, my routine is pretty standard: I write a blog post or an article, I hit “publish,” and I run for cover. I release my thoughts and, within seconds, wonder what I’ve left out of place. We all do this, I suspect. If you’re a writer and you don’t have these moments of doom, I don’t trust you. You’re obviously a robot.

We’re afraid we might be wrong – that we’ve forgotten something, or that we’ve completely missed the point. Writing is fear, and that’s what fuels the rush of hitting “publish”.

But, what if?

What if that dread was gone, if we wrote like we build, one step at a time, publishing our final drafts and then adapting those final drafts as new . What if the “final draft” was no longer a THING, and we only worked with “deployment.” What if the fear of getting things wrong was diluted by the understanding that, yes, we can change this thing we just wrote and, yes, that is completely okay with the world?

Mandy Brown writes in her most recent Contents follow-up, “Deploy”:

“How many times have you written something, published it, and then realized in retrospect that what you thought you said was not in fact what came through? (Even if you’ve never done this yourself, you’ve certainly witnessed it in others.) What if you could revise a work after publishing it, and release it again, making clear the relationship between the first version and the new one. What if you could publish iteratively, bit by bit, at each step gathering feedback from your readers and refining the text. Would our writing be better?”

This is the second time this week I’ve read about our insistance in a final draft – in the great reveal – and how it’s being overtaken by the idea of gradual deployment. I first caught it in Robin Sloan’s 2009 essay from The New Liberal Arts, “Iteration,” which says,

“Making things is a circle. You start the arc with an idea about the world: an observation or hunch. Then you sprint around the track, getting to a prototype — a breadboard, a rough draft, a run-through—as fast as you can. Your goal isn’t to finish the thing. It’s to expose it, no matter how rough or ragged, to the real world. You do that, and you learn: Which of your ideas were right? Which were wrong? What surprised you? What did other people think? Then you plow those findings back into an improved prototype. Around the circle again. Run!”

I write for two reasons these days: I write for myself as some sort of leisure, where I explore the things that are interesting to me, and I write for my job, where I help others develop the processes they’ll need to be successful on the web.

When I write for myself, I slam it out and post it. There is one iteration: the final one.

When I write for my job, I employ a process. There is no end. There is only “what’s next.” When I hand the project off to the client, my work doesn’t end – it’s designed to keep moving forward, even after I’ve stopped actually writing words and speaking to the client.

There are iterations, and the client is expected to keep the documents and theories alive.

I still write for a finished product, because that’s what I was taught. But the technology I have access to allows me to move toward something less concrete – and, ultimately, more in line with language itself: shifting, adapting and changing, all while keeping honest the history of the words.

There’s draft and there’s published. We should fight to be somewhere in between. The question is if the method to reaching that hazy middle-ground forces us to abandon the biggest thrill of publication: the rush of the big reveal.

Or maybe that’s just it; maybe, just maybe, the big reveal is already dead.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 27th, 2012