Friday, May 20, 2011

The Power of Precision

I am a terrible typist. My touch typing is bad enough that I still look at the keyboard most of the time just to speed things up, and the result is a cavalcade of stupid editing mistakes that hurt my writing in very concrete ways. This is not news to me - when I MUSHed, there was never any way I could secretly play a character because sooner or later my flipper typing would give me away. I never stressed about it too much. Friends and acquaintances can quickly pick up that I am not actually the literary troglodyte that my text sometimes painted a picture of. I could dismiss it as a small thing, and if it really bothered someone, that was their problem, not mine.

This was a very stupid position.

Obviously, now that I am now cranking out this blog 5 days a week I need to address the reality that every post is potentially someone's first exposure to me. That's a change in situation that demands that I really pay attention to this problem, but as any regular reader knows, I clearly haven't. I mean, it's better than my MUSHing days, but it's still pretty embarassing at times. That's bad for me, and bad for anyone I want to reach, and the only way it's going to change is if I make the effort, accept the slog of improving my touch typing and - perhaps most importantly - really understand why I need to do this.

See, the reality is that none of us have enough time. Yes, sure, we waste some of it, but we fill it up all the same. Meanwhile, we're constantly bombarded with things demanding our attention, some important, some trivial. We develop tricks and tools for dealing with this barrage, and the people who are most successful at grabbing a slice of our time are the ones who understand that the narrow end of the wedge needs to be polished to such a shine that it catches our eye. We develop impressions almost immediately, and we're actively looking for reasons to dismiss any given distraction. Too long? Bad format? Obvious typos? Give us an excuse and we'll dump your brilliant idea in the dustbin.

This is unfair, but it is also life.

There are ways to address this. If you are in a position to understand and control people's exposure to your idea (such as in a 30 second add), then you can really focus on that. But if you have a bigger idea (such as a blog post or a game) then there's no way to tell which part is going to make an impression. That's the basic unfairness - if you want people to spend even a little of their time on you, you're going to need to spend a lot of time on making that possible.

It's easy to rail against this, to decry it as focusing on trivialities and demand to be judged on the merits of your ideas or content. And, hey, sometimes that happens, especially with people who already like you (*cough*closedsystem*cough*), but don't bet on it.

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. This is something you can use to your advantage, so long as you're willing to put in some work. As noted above, there are times when you can control which snippet someone is going to see, and those situations are powerful. One of the most potent tools you can use in this situation is the question.

I think we've all been in the situation where we've been asked for "feedback" and handed someone's 50 pages of text. We might like this person and mean well by them, but that's a lot of work and a very fuzzy goal. Even if I read the text and provide comments, there's a real risk that it won't be satisfying to either of us. But imagine that the requester had a single question. This doesn't reduce the amount of effort I must put forward (I still have to read a lot), but it makes me much more likely to do it because the task is now discrete. I know what I'm doing, and I will know when I'm done. This makes me MUCH more likely to actually do it.

So put that trick in your back pocket for next time you're looking for help. Ask yourself: if you could get the answer to just one question from this guy, what would it be? The world is full of people who want to help you out, but who are also struggling with their own lives and schedules. Make it easier for them to help you by making things as clear as possible. Even if they don't surprise you with more than you ask for, you greatly increase your chances of getting what you need.

All you need to do is figure out what that is.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Unrelated to anything in today's post: Chuck Wendig's Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey goes on sale today. Because the universe has a sense of humor, Chuck's a little distracted today by the arrival of something even better than a book, his first kid. He's a fantastic writer (and, duh, you should buy the book) but he's going to be an even better dad, so I want to wish him all the luck in the world with both of these heroic endeavors.


  1. I feel your pain an I know it well. I took typing classes and only barely passed. Over two decades later I can now mostly touch type if I'm not thinking about it.

    I'm still terrible at spelling, always have been and it's always hurt me when I ask someone to read something I've written (thank you spellcheck). Everyone feels the need to tell me when I've misspelled something. It really kills the enthusiasm for the reading. Even when I say "I know I've got spelling errors in here, ignore them for now." people are compelled to tell me when they've hit a misspelled word.

    I'm going to try handing them a red pen and say "Circle any misspelled words for me." and then ask them if they liked it when they're done. That probably won't work either but it's worth a try.

  2. @emmett I am willing to bet hard money that it will work fantastically.

  3. @emmet I know I've being the source of similar frustration from my friends as I always feel the urge to "make things right" with typos before I can say something about the text as a whole. And yes, handing a red pen(or in my case, an editorial rights to fix the spelling) work good, if slow the process a little.


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