Monday, July 12, 2010

Doing a Job Well

Making Monday

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were part of a literary group that met more or less weekly to discuss a number of things including their own literary projects. In a program about Lewis, one of the commentators said that the mental caliber of the group, all of them university professors, and the time they took working through each other's projects was one of the reasons that the works of both Tolkien and Lewis were of such high quality by the time they were published.

A while ago, I read the first volume in a new middle grade fantasy series. The book didn't have any glaring problems (although I did wince a couple of times), but I came away with the sense that it was about half as good as it could have been. I wonder how different the book might have been with more time and attention.

I understand the structural pressure arising from the fact that publishing is fundamentally a shotgun affair: reactions to books are so subjective that the only rational strategy is to publish a lot of titles in the hope that a few of them do well. It's a lot like the venture capitalists who assume that only one in ten of the companies in which they invest will succeed.

In software development, we often talk about 80/20 relationships: 80% of the project can be finished in 20% of the time, but the last 20% of the project will take the remaining 80% of the time. Since software and the business environment in which it is used are both liable to change, developers have come up with methods to get the 80% systems to the point where they can be used so that they decision to continue to invest is driven by business factors instead of the sunk cost of the development effort.

Makers aren't perfectionists but they're rarely satisfied with an 80% job. They believe that quality is a large part of integrity. All other things being equal, makers are more interested in doing a job well than simply getting it done.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

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