Agile Writing

Lets put this in the category of "tycho writing about software development in an attempt to draw a conclusion beyond software development." Often I find this to be an annoying impulse as, software can be meaningful in and of itself and it's practices aren't always incredibly relevant. On the other hand, most of my work is (at least theoretically) not software, so I find myself doing this kind of thing more than I'd really like. So be it.

Agile Development refers to a set of practices that encourages developers to review their progress regularly, to write code in testable units, to consult with the client regularly to allow the client to lead the design process to reflect the reality that requirements, contexts, and possibilities change as a result of the ongoing development process. Extreme Programing (XP), is probably the most famous subset of Agile Development, and I think both are interesting (and popular) because they promote a kind of flexibility and respond to (and draws from) the creative impulse. XP takes the iterative/test driven Agile philosophy and does "wacky" things like "pair programming" where two developers take turns typing and monitoring the coding process. I've of course, not really, worked in these situations, but I am fascinated by the possibilities.

I often think about the implications of these kinds of methodologies on the work I do (writing). I have yet to be convinced that this is an entirely productive impulse, but that never stops me.

The key feature of Agile development--to my mind--is that it's built around multiple iterations. Rather than concentrating on getting all of the details right, the goal is to get something working, and then expand/refactor/revise and get review on all these iterations, so that through successive iteration you have a solid, relevant, and sturdy result. Once you have iterations, getting customer review is easier (because there's something to evaluate), testing is easier, collaboration is easier.

Writers already have a sense of drafts, and as such this is the way we always work. In another sense, we don't seek feedback on most drafts, and so while we might revise in a couple of "lumps" we editorial collaboration is pretty minimal during the writing process. That's not a bad thing, just a commentary on the analogy. Writing collaboratively is also damned hard, and so collaborations are more often based on structural divisions (eg. "you write parts one, four, five, and seven; and I'll write two, three, six, and eight,") or in larger groups, require dedicated editorial nodes/contributors to organize logistics.

True story: I wrote an academic paper with someones (we lived next door to each other at the time) and as I remember, we tended to do something very much like "pair programming," I'd drive (type) and she'd navigate (read over my shoulder,) or she'd type and I'd pace, though I think I tended toward the typing roll for any number of reasons. It worked, but we had (and have) such different approaches to writing, thinking about that sort of boggles.

In another sense, posting rough drafts of works on the Internet (critical futures; Cory Doctorow's Podcast; sam starbuck's projects; etc.) is another way to get the kind of on going feedback that features so prominently in the Agile/XP methodologies.

The truth is that I had expected to talk about how programming and writing are fundamentally different, and how while Agile and XP are really powerful ways to think about the creation of programs, the creation of novels, stories, and essays can't work that way.

While I was able to find some parallels, and examples to the contrary, there are so many features of the way that I write, the way that I create, that run quite counter to the "agile way:"

  • I don't do iterative drafting very well. I write something, I run through it twice, someone else gives feedback, I run through it once more, and it's either good enough to do something with at that point, or I abandon it.
  • We mysticsize the creative process, particularly for "artistic" creation. I don't particularly think of myself as an artist, but I think regardless, because we're not very good at articulating our creative process (and generally unwilling to change the way we work, much), there isn't a lot of willingness to change how we write.
  • Collaboration is a challenge because of the aforementioned mysticism, and because individuals are capable of (in most cases) writing the long-forms by themselves (novels, screenplays) collaboration isn't a vital necessity. The counter-example would be what happens in the writing rooms of television shows, I suppose, though I haven't worked in these situations. Not that I'd be opposed, if someone wanted to hire me to do that ;).
  • Writers make their money (at least as we're taught to think) by selling publication rights. Iterative work requires frequent publication, which discourages working in this way. Obviously there are some other business models, and other kinds of writing, but generally speaking...

Writing this has inspired me to move more in the direction of posting to Critical Futures again, and to work harder on collaboration projects. I've been stuck in my own writing, as life and an iterative hump have combined to really take me out of the game for a while. While I doubt any change in methodology could really make me slightly less linear, it is helpful to think about process in new and different ways. In point of fact, everyone works eclectically anyway, but just thinking about how we/I work has some worth. That much I'm sure.

Onward and Upward!

comments powered by Disqus