It was a hot summer night ...
“Well, let me retort.”1

On prototypes and craftsmen

A few weeks ago, Ken Davis wrote an interesting post on Manage Your Writing, comparing the writing of a first draft to the building of a prototype. Ken says that, like a prototype, a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; its purpose is to enable the writer or builder to test ideas.

I don’t disagree with Ken. In fact, most of my own first drafts of briefs are prototypes, never seen by anyone except me. But I do want to offer a competing metaphor to emphasize a different aspect of building a prototype: what Ken describes as the “elaborate planning process” preceding the prototype.

John, a friend and former next-door neighbor, is a professional art-hanger; his job is to hang works of art on the walls of galleries and rich people’s homes. So seven years ago, when I moved into my new office at my then-new firm, I asked John to hang my diploma, other framed credentials, and artwork on my office walls.

Now, when I hang a picture on a wall, I generally follow the trial-and-error method. I guess where the nail or picture hanger should go, hammer it in, hang the picture, decide that it’s too high or low or too far left or right, remove the picture, move the nail or picture hanger to another location, and repeat until satisfied.

DSCN3375 That’s not how a pro like John does it. When he came to my office to hang my stuff up, the job took around an hour or so. About 90% of the time was spent planning where the nails would go. First, he talked to me about what I wanted. That took only a few minutes. Most of the time he spent measuring stuff: the framed things, the walls, and various intermediate distances on the walls, and toward the end, making one little pencil mark for each nail (two nails for each framed thing). It took just a couple of minutes to tap the nails into the wall. Then we hung up the stuff. The result: perfect. And perfect on the first try.

What does this story have to do with writing? I’ll grant that we shouldn’t expect any piece of writing to be perfect on the first try. But if it’s a brief, we had better think of spending around 90% to 95% of the time pre-writing: studying the record, doing the research, outlining the evidence, and assessing the arguments. That’s what I do, anyway—I spend far more time pre-writing than actually writing the first draft. The resulting first draft is never perfect, but it’s usually good enough to need only moderate revision and editing before presentation to others for review. (The process is described in a couple of articles that you can find here.)

By all means, treat your first drafts as prototypes. But remember that a good prototype is never just slapped together. If you want the prototype to work, you need to plan it carefully.