A blog

Premature Publication, and Other Problems

It happened some time during primary school, I’m not sure exactly
when. I was old enough to be given homework, but not so old that
failing to do it had real consequences. I was already a bit of a
goody two-shoes, and getting good marks was pretty important to me.

So, I’d been given some homework, and I got into trouble for not doing
it. The truth was that I had done it, but I didn’t think I’d done it
very well - so I lied, and said I hadn’t done it at all. I figured it
was better to look like I hadn’t even tried, than to have given it a
good shot and come up short.

I shared that anecdote with a few people over drinks at DevOpsDays, the outward expression of a train of thought concerning my failure to blog. It even occurred to me as a neat framing device for a post reflecting on that failure, considered as part of an ongoing struggle with perfectionism. Neat, but disingenuous.

Over the years, I’ve produced unexceptional work for various reasons – sometimes I’ve been focussed on some other subject, other times I just haven’t been particularly interested in the task at hand. When neither of those has played a part, procrastination has often been to blame. When facing a deadline, pedestrian effort in hand, you can choose between turning in something that may reflect badly on you, or turning in nothing (that definitely will). Both perfectionism and procrastination are counterproductive traits, and their battle for my mind has brought about a grudging acceptance of adequacy.

The real reason I fail to publish is not that I’m striving for excellence, but simply that I fear embarrassing myself. Without deadlines, or anyone calling me to account, the easiest way to avoid embarrassing myself through my writing is not to do any. Sometimes, I’ll write 90% of an article before deciding the whole idea was stupid, other times it’s no more than an outline. I’ve thrown out some drafts for failing to address every possible objection, and others for saying too much.

So, I decided that I needed to tackle this by making a conscious effort to publish things that I thought might be a little flawed – a vague sense that I might do better wouldn’t be reason enough to hold back. That seemed like a fair compromise. I’ll generally have mulled an idea over a little before I start writing, and I’ve never been able to resist editing and reworking as I go. After getting the whole idea out, and re-reading it a couple of times, I’ll generally know whether I’m uncomfortable with the way I’ve presented, or with the idea of sharing it. Release early, release often! It’s easy to write a follow-up if you need to.

You might recognise this as a false dichotomy. While “publish prematurely” is an improvement over “publish never”, they are not the only strategies I could have adopted.

I’m not particularly ashamed of my last post, but it has some serious flaws. The conclusion is fine (and is the idea I wanted to share), but the build up to it was a bit sloppy – indeed, it could have supported a different argument entirely. This invited some readers to miss the point I was trying to make – and that’s my fault, not theirs. The first few comments I read were enough to show me what I’d done wrong, and I started outlining a follow-up. Around that time, Matt S Trout saw the original and immediately pointed out every issue I’d belatedly noticed. I’d have saved a lot of time (and a little personal embarrassment) if I’d asked for some other people to review it in the first place.

So, lesson learned. In future, I’ll be soliciting feedback before publishing material that could be misunderstood, or risks preaching to the client. Although my honest motivation will be to avoid looking stupid in public, I expect this will also help me to communicate more effectively. Seems like a win-win to me.