Last week I “finished” a new medium-sized book (an ebook—that is, a PDF). But even as we downloaded the final PDF from Google Docs and uploaded it to our company website, I already had a file full of errata and omissions. Some of these are substantial problems, but my opinion remained almost unwavering: ship it.
It was 20 years ago in college that I first heard a professor say, “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” It was reinforced right away by studying some famous poems for which the original drafts and revisions were available. Seeing how much some of these poets had changed their work was inspiring and remarkable.
This led to a simple observation: since non-completion is the final state of any piece of work, all pieces of work are thus as complete as they will be. This “it’s never finished, thus it’s finished” outlook has remained my philosophy since then.
Of course this can be taken to extremes—reductio ad absurdum. Nonetheless, my experience has not yet contradicted the validity of this view on done-ness.
It’s always a judgment call when something is “ready.” Knowing this, I approach the work a little bit differently. Instead of outlining 99 topics and then starting to work on them and get them into decent shape, for example, I will keep half of the topics in a note for later, and work on the first 49 topics that I can get into shippable shape quickly.
Or, suppose I find that some of those 49 topics are harder than I expected to complete. I can do a quick survey of the book and find that 45 topics are ready to go, and I can excise the other 4 without harm. Cut them out, paste them into the note, and the first 45 are shippable. Another alternative is that I can try to keep the work, overall, shippable at all times. I find it frustrating and paralyzing to have a large amount of work accumulated, yet still be unready to deliver value to readers. These “false summits” are the reason a lot of work never gets out the door. I work hard to avoid them.
This somewhat ruthless attitude towards writing isn’t easy. It requires mindfulness of the work, avoiding becoming lost in it. Sometimes I get a little lost in something, and when I zoom out to take the long view, I have to admit that it’s not going to happen. In that case I can delete it, save it for never, or just publish what I have and let it go.
I wrote above that my opinion was almost unwaveringly “ship it.” In fact, weeks before we actually shipped it, when it was just a first draft, I was already agitating to get it out the door. Between that time and the time that we actually did ship it, the book went through dramatic changes, to the point that parts of it wouldn’t be recognizable. I’d still have been okay with it being pushed out in that raw form, though.
But just hours before we uploaded the PDF, I actually said “wait a moment, I want to fix something.” For me, this is actually quite extraordinary. I usually would prefer to ship now, fix later. And in fact we shipped the PDF with many serious issues outstanding, as I mentioned. And feedback from readers has already pointed out another handful of improvements that need to be made, some of which will require substantial work.
We’ll come back to those in days, weeks, months, maybe years. I don’t know when the right time will be to fix all those things. But the incremental value of improving them is far less than the stolen value caused by delay. So “it’s never done, thus it’s as done as it needs to be” is still the right approach to deliver the value that does exist, and avoid letting the value that doesn’t yet exist delay what does.
I have more thoughts I want to write into this essay, but there are already a few loose ends in what I’ve written, and I’m not sure how to address them. If I add the other thoughts, it’ll get even harder. I’m going to stop writing and go choose a header image now.