The Essentials writing

Write When Inspired

In writing four books and an unknown quantity of articles and blog posts, I’ve discovered the simple secret to maintaining quality. I share it with you here in mnemonic nursery rhyme fashion

In writing four books and an unknown quantity of articles and blog posts, I’ve discovered the simple secret to maintaining quality. I share it with you here in mnemonic nursery rhyme fashion:

Write when inspired; rest when tired.

Whether the task is writing, design, or hanging a picture straight, it is obvious that we do our best work when healthy, rested, refreshed, alert, and eager to do the job for its own sake.

But anyone who has done professional work also knows that we must often work late into the night at the behest of deadlines. There are jobs that call for us to push ourselves, not merely creatively (which is exhilarating), but physically—even when our bodies need rest, our minds are dimmed, our concentration dented, and our inspiration nonexistent.

Therein lies our conflict, and one key to the difference between good and great.

Design is a hurting thing

Work is work, and we must do what we must do. But when quality matters most, the old saw about “good or fast—choose one,” holds true. Pushing through to the finish line when you have nothing left inside you is great for marathon runners, but not so hot for creative professionals. In particular, if you’re trying to write clearly and well, it’s better to let a deadline slide by a day than to “just finish up.”

I call out writing in particular because if you push out a design when you’re exhausted, the details and balance will suffer, and it won’t be as great as it can be—but the public has such a low expectation of aesthetics in web design that you might get away with it. Only you and a few of your designer friends will recognize the sloppy, ill-considered bits that make your work good when it could have been great. Of course, your designer friends will think less of you, and you’ll cringe every time you see the site, but if you don’t have a taste for masochism, you shouldn’t be in design, because the hurt will kill you.

Night of the living deadlines

There’s a reason they call them deadlines.

With design that could have been great but was ever so slightly bungled due to exhaustion in the face of ridiculous deadlines, it is only the designer and the rare armchair aesthetician who know.

But when writers push themselves to make a deadline, everyone knows, because the passages where they cheated are unclear, unpersuasive, ineffective. A reader needn’t follow the exact art and subtle science of kerning or vertical grid building to recognize when a sentence isn’t clear, or fails to make a convincing point, or doesn’t seem to entirely belong with its older and younger brother sentences.

When I let a publisher’s deadline push out a piece of writing before it is ready, it is like thrusting a helpless preemie into the cruel world. And it’s not just external deadlines that can wreck my work. Say I’m writing here, where there are no deadlines. I get nearly to the end of what I want to say, and then I’m called away by work or family. When I return to the blog post hours later to wrap things up and publish, I’m distracted, and the powerful emotion and single idea that initially led me me to write has flown over the garden wall. If I just bang out a finish, the whole piece will be weakened. I know because I’ve done it.

Will no one think of the readers?

Currently I’m working on the third edition of Designing With Web Standards, and in addition to mentally approaching it as a new book in order to truly rethink and reinvigorate it, I’m also sticking like epoxy to the discipline of holding back chapters until they are ready. This sounds like what a writer would always do, but trade publishing is like a slave galley in a Roman galleon—if the sufferer beside you collapses under the whip, you need to row harder. You won’t get that placement at Borders if you don’t finish on time. Amazon won’t give you that special promotional push if you don’t turn it in six weeks earlier than your contract says you must, &c.

Never mind the bollocks. You are not writing for Amazon, or to fit a staff proofreader’s vacation schedule, as important and real as those considerations may be. You are writing for readers, a duty as sacred, in its way, as parenting. If you don’t believe the previous sentence, if you think writing is mainly about getting paid, I’m sorry you wasted your time reading this page, and I hope you find another way to earn a living soon. The world is already choking on half-considered, squeezed-out shit. There’s no need to add to the pile.

If you want to be great, or at least to be better, start by breathing, taking breaks, and working intensely when the mood is on.

[tags]writing, inspiration[/tags]

By L. Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek. Author, Designer, Founder. Employer Brand at Automattic. Publisher, & Ava’s dad. Pete’s brother (RIP). He/him.