The Work That Reinforces Also Weakens

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)


My friend Serdar has a fascinating response to my column on the Agile Manifesto for creatives.  Focusing on my calling out overdocumentation, he sums things up amazingly well:

Back when I started working on Flight Of The Vajra, that mammoth space opera epic thing o’ mine, I wasn’t in the habit of assiduously documenting the contents of my stories for reference. If I couldn’t fit the whole thing in my head, my thinking went, it was my fault. Then I discovered Dostoevsky’s work notebooks and decided to stop being silly and start keeping track of everything. And thus was born my use of a wiki as a receptacle for all things related to a given project — characters, plotting, storyline, locations, red herrings, MacGuffins, veeblefetzers*, etc.

The trap with such things, as I quickly found out, is that you can spend so much time planning and documenting the project that it becomes tempting to use that as a substitute for writing it. In which case you’re not dealing in fiction anymore, but something more akin to tabletop RPG modules.

(Emphasis Mine)

I’ve played a lot of RPGs and games.  I love worldbooks and guides.  I enjoy fan wikis.  However, reading Serdar’s comments made me realize that it’s possible to take documentation concepts from one form of media and apply it to another inappropriately.

RPG books, character sheets, wikis, etc. can teach us great documentation skills, as well as different forms of documentation.  However, if one is not careful, one can take the methods and skills from one form of media and try to apply them to another where they don’t do any good and may harm the work.

Case in point, Serdar’s example of overdetailing something so much that you’re not writing, say a book, but a module about the book’s world – which may keep you from writing the damn book.

This is a danger that creatives face, and I think it’s a more modern creation – we have so many documentation methods and tools at our disposal, we may over-use them or use then inappropriately.  We end up wasting time with unneeded documentation and documentation forms that keep us from writing the story or creating the comic or coding the game.

A good creative has to be selective in what they document and how they do it.  By all means get diverse experience, try different methods, indulge your skills – but pick what works. Don’t go overboard with documentation you don’t need.

This is extremely hard for me to admit as a worldbuilding fanatic, but you can overdo documentation or do it wrong.

Let me leave you with a metaphor a co-worker used (which in term he derived from a Scrum training event) – optimal miscommunication.  You don’t have to say everything to say enough, and it’s better to leave things out to help you communicate what’s important.

Or as I put it, better to have 80% of what you need documented and it’s all useful, than have 120% of everything documented and then have to figure out which of the extra 20% you don’t need.

– Steve

A Writer’s Life: Method To Your Radness

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

My friend Serdar had opinions on my recent halfway-point review/light rewrite of “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet.” Namely, he was surprised at the ambition, as he says:

Sometimes you can put your head down, bluster through the rest of a draft, and fix everything next time around. Sometimes you simply can’t, especially if the psychic pressure created by the need to make those changes in the first place becomes a distraction.

My main objection to stopping and turning around mid-draft is that it breaks momentum. Anything you can do to sustain momentum is helpful. But if it comes at the cost of the overall maintainability of the work, it’s not worth it.

Serdar’s preferred method is to power through a draft. Meanwhile, in fiction I tend to plot it out and when a revision is necessary work it in as opposed to waiting. For me, having that intimate feel is important, and a revision keeps me in touch and focused.

What’s ironic is the “power through” method is something I often use for my instructional writing. My friend writes fiction the way I write job guides.

We see these discussions of different methods all the time in writing. “Pantsers versus plotters.” Diamond methods and three part structures. Writers of all stripes are always talking methods; and writers often take different approaches to writing.

This can lead to confusion over what the “right” method is to writing. I can say with full confidence that the real question is “are you finding the method that works for yo?.” Remember despite these endless debates, books are still getting written.

First, whatever method lets you comfortably deliver quality work is a good method. I can’t tell you what’ll work for you. Nor can Serdar. Nor can a multi-million-book selling author. You have to find what works. If in your head and heart and gut you can see it’s working, fine.

And that’s the second point, and perhaps the more critical point, of writing. You have to actively look to understand what methods of writing work for you. I don’t care if it’s exactly like mine or something I think is ridiculous; if it works, for you and good works get made, fine. As long as it’s not unethical, go for it.

Being a writer means actively understanding what helps you write better. Take the time to review methods, study theories, and try stuff out. In time, you’ll get better – possibly in ways you never expected.

This is also why I keep notes on my writing methods. It helps me both understand what I’ve done, and intimately learn the lessons I need.

(Remember I do all sorts of books on creativity to help you out!)

– Steve

A Writer’s View: Pitches And Product

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

Lately Serdar was commenting on the use of pitches in our writing.  I tend to love making them, and he calls out my current work, “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” which I summed up as “A sorceress, an engineer, and a priest on a planet-hopping road trip with the owner of a mysterious collection of holy books.”  As amusing as such pitches/summarites seem, they’re actually powerful tools for writing – not just marketing.

The way I use pitches/summaries comes from a mix of my own research into resumes (which are a kind of writing), Agile Product Ownership, the theories of Joel Orr, and the must-read Snowflake method.  They’re not just a way to sell your book – they’re a way to help you write your book.   Stick with me here – let me walk you through an exercise.

Go and take a communications project and sum it up in one sentence.  Such as:

  • Superintelligent whales end up in a religious war over the controversial theory they were created by beings called “humans.”
  • A no-nonsense guide to building your writing career by setting, measuring, and meeting goals.
  • A song parodying internet memes by calling out as many as possible in alphabetical order.

OK, we’ve got three summaries – which are also pitches.  I’m sure at least one might interest you and one might horrify you, but let’s go on.

Now, imagine someone doing any of the above projects takes the summary and then begins to outline the project, figuring what’s really going on in it.  That pitch, summary, acts as a seed and gives you something to aim for – and also an idea of what the boundaries of the project are.  The summary helps you focus (or in some cases, realize the summary is bunk and start over).

But, somewhere in that outline, you may find the summary should change a bit.  The deeper you get in touch with the work, the more you find that one sentence may not communicate it.  So, perhaps you change it.  The summary defined the goal, the work on the project made you rethink it slightly, and so on.

  • Superintelligent whales disagree over the theory they were created by “humans,” which plunges them into a species-threatening religious war with an unsure outcome. (Changed because it gives a better idea of the plot).
  • A practical, step-by-step guide to a writing career with measurable goals and milestones that anyone can use. (Changed as it focuses the goal more)
  • An electronica song that parodies the most enduring internet memes – in alphabetical order. (Describes better, more clear goals).

It’s a dialogue. You have a summary, then an outline, which may influence each other.  Then as you flesh out your work you may change the outline, or the summary, and vice versa.  The ability to write summaries and pitches gives you the ability to create a dialogue among all levels of your work so they stay coherent – because it all comes back to making sure the summary is accurate.

If you can get an idea of what your work is about on all the different levels, from a summary to a scene, from character arc to story arc, you have a much better idea of what’s going on.  In turn, you’ll make a better work because all your work, at all levels, keeps reinforcing what you’re doing.

Plus you get a great sales pitch that’s been well-honed!


(Remember I do all sorts of books on creativity to help you out!)

– Steve