Tag Archives: sketch

“Murder your darlings”, and the importance of rewriting

This Friday I got a fat manilla envelope from IMLS. We had submitted a proposal for the IMLS’ National Leadership Grant program, and hadn’t made the cut. Disappointing, but not unexpected.  Competition was fierce this year, and we’d never applied before, so there was no institutional knowledge base to draw on.  I am super-excited that Rob Stein and Co. at IMA got some serious funding for TAP and TourML.

The envelope contained the reviewers’ comments on the proposal along with the “Dear John” letter explaining IMLS’s budget and criteria for rating proposals.  I didn’t have much time, but I skimmed them, trying to glean what I could. Going through anonymous comments on your work can be painful, especially when it’s a rejected piece, but it’s a great learning experience. It made me realize I needed to go back and reread the proposal before I went through the reviewers comments more thoroughly.

What happened?
This proposal was for a project I’ve been working on, in fits and starts, since January 2006. It’s been fleshed out several times, rejiggered a few times, and tweaked to appeal to different audiences enough times that I have trouble sometimes remembering which version of the project I’m currently in. As I skimmed the proposal before leaving work, it became clear to me that next time I was going to have to start from scratch and rewrite the entire thing.Why? I didn’t sketch enough for one. It also suffered form a bad case of cut and paste syndrome, combined with loving my darlings too much for my own good.

Months ago I wrote a post on the importance of sketching, rapidly producing coarse-grained representations of your thinking.  If you’re a designer, you draw sketches, if you’re a writer, you write what I call “sketches” for lack of a better term. The point is that you make them, you make them right then in response to the situation that created the need for a sketch, and that the expectation is that the sketch is just a first approximation of something much more detailed, later. It’s hard for me to do, and I have to keep at myself to keep doing it, and not get hung up on making it “better” than it needs to be. Looking at my proposal, I think it suffered from not being sketched first. I took an existing document and reworked it, and then reworked it again, and again, but I never put it aside, sketched a fresh new proposal out and filled it back in with detail from older versions.

Kate Haley-Goldman talked about her methods for searching for inspiration in my series of posts on cognitive load. One of the things she said that I immediately recognized as truth was that taking ideas and rewriting them yourself is a way of making them your own, of internalizing something so you can find out what you can do with it. I think with this proposal, I hadn’t done enough rewriting, and instead monkeyed around with what was already there. This is ironic, given that one of my few rules of label writing is,

“The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

The tyranny of Word
The trouble is that word processing makes it a lot easier to monkey, and rewriting is still every bit as hard as ever.  The tyranny of Word and cut and paste mean you have to be a lot more vigilant about flow and tone. Whole chunks of documents can move around!  If you’re doing something like writing a proposal for one funder and then writing another proposal on the same topic for another funder, the temptation to cut and paste is overwhelming. For me, I think it has a lot to do with preferring to work with text I think is “good enough” rather than rough, first draft-y text. It’s a syndrome Anne Lamott covered beautifully in “Bird by Bird”. She has a whole chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” that almost made me cry with laughter the first time I read it. She writes so eloquently about the feelings of unworthiness, the self-doubt and loathing that plague me when I read first drafts of my own writing.  It might be time to reread that book again.

Murder your darlings
Another problem I think the proposal suffered from was that it wasn’t tightly enough focused on what the funder wanted because I was too attached to ideas and chunks of writing that were important to me. As Orwell would have said, I got too attached to my own ego to make the document adequately serve the purpose it was intended for. Almost a century ago, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch wrote  in “On The Art of Writing”,  “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” Faulkner later shortened this to “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  What they mean is not that you must not write things you like or love, but that you must be extra suspicious of them and be willing to expunge them when they don’t serve the purpose of the text.  This is why God created editors and first readers.  When you love a piece of writing, it’s hard to be critical of it. Grant proposals, with their straightjacket page limits and rigid format, are no place for deathless prose for the sake of deathless prose. They are place where your writing should be clear as glass, so that the ideas are immediately apparent by the reviewers who will decide its fate.

Live and learn, right?

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part three of four

Separating inspiration from information

from Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This is the third of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. This post will cover separating inspiration from information, and final one will discuss the importance of making time to learn. My apologies for taking awhile to get through this. It’s been a pretty fascinating trip, though.

When I posted about cognitive load and asked for your processes and practices, I was pretty vague in how I framed my question. “Information” is a pretty opaque term. And sure enough, the responses all went over slightly different territory.  Kate Haley Goldman applied her analytical eye to my question, and replied, “If I understand you correctly Ed, you’re interested in the processes and tools that we use to manage information.  I see that as different than the tools and processes for managing research, connections, inspiration, or products of creation.  Or workflow.”  Though I was tickled at how thoroughly she’d unpacked the question, the “managing inspiration” part made me sit up and read faster.

 “Over the last few months I’ve been thinking quite a bit about separating managing information and managing inspiration.  I find Twitter to be useful in all sorts of ways, but I’ve noticed that only occasionally do I find something that makes me think for more than 5 minutes.  Or something that truly inspires me there.  The content ebbs and flows like a YouTube video of the week, and I find that the buzz of the Twittersphere fascinating and distracting, but rarely provides concepts or insights that stick with me.  So I’ve returned to reviewing a much smaller set of sites regularly with my morning coffee (and the Firefox plug-in).”

There is some big truth in what Kate says. I find Twitter to be a great sort of links to useful information, news about what’s going on, and other things. But the information is usually something of short-term importance and relevance. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever gotten a tweet that has lead to me to something truly inspirational. (I’ll have to go back through my Favorites list and double check!) One of my motivations for this whole series was to heed Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify.” and be more directed and less distracted. My answer to this has been to go back and gather loads of resources into an RSS reader and try to be brutal about not even clicking links unless they seem pertinent. My less-directed web surfing has decreased and so far, it feels like a good thing.  I’m working on being more like Jasper Visser, and replacing the nagging sensation that I’m missing something with the certainty that I am missing something, and it probably doesn’t matter that much.

The part of Kate’s response that really spoke to me, though, was this,

“The inspiration pieces I manage differently, and it changes depending on the type of inspiration.  Truly inspirational researchy things I sometimes try and re-sketch in notebooks, sometimes whiteboarding, generally after talking to someone about it. … For other pieces of inspiration, primarily visual, I’ve been doing some pin boards, which seems more effective for me than bookmarks.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with photo and audio more, but nothing very advanced.”

There’s a whole new post here, and I may have to dragoon Kate into having a long conversation about her experiments. One reason this resonates with me is that all of her methods for managing inspiration are kinds of sketching, which I wrote about awhile ago.  Taking some idea, internalizing it, and re-expressing it in your own way is crucial to the creative process.   So the obvious question this raises for me, members of the great hive mind, is, “What tools do you find most useful for mentally wrestling with content?”

This idea of managing inspiration is intricately engaged with the fourth and final post, which is about taking time to learn.  None of the strategies discussed in any of these last three posts have any value if you never have time to use them.  In this current austere climate, time spent on professional development, or on anything not directly serving a current funded project, is hard to come by.  I’ll wrap up with a post on making and taking time to learn on the job, and recap what I’ve learned and some of the changes I’ve made to my routine based on your wisdom.

Everyone should be able to sketch

Once again, I’m stuck in a familiar place. A major grant proposal deadline is looming, the thing has been written, survived a round of edits largely unscathed, and now needs to be finished, and it’s like pulling teeth. Why? Something I have always struggled with is being more facile with rapid production and dissemination of my thinking.  Deep down, I’ve still got this Victorian notion of the writer in his garret, scratching away all day, perfecting his work until “it’s ready.” This might be great for literature, but it sure doesn’t work well in the workplace.  I need to improve my ability to generate the written equivalent of “sketches” – the throw away impressions of ideas that designers in general are so much better at producing. Everyone should be able to sketch.

Sketching – the rapid production of representations of your thinking –  is an essential skill. Practicing it, developing techniques that work for you, and inventing new ways to get your ideas out faster are all fundamental to design learning. “Sketches” are how you present your ideas, test your proposals, and turn your vision into something concrete. It should be at the core of your development process, and not just something for the designers to do.

Sketches are the manifestation of your ongoing conversation with the project. If you look back at the project files for a completed project, it’ll be full of sketches (concept art, wireframes, outlines, models, etc…). These are all sketches and not products in their own right. They exist to get you just far enough to advance your thinking and solicit input on some specific point.  When you’re in the midst of the dialectical conflict between the project goals and the gritty reality of the moment, sketches are things that let you find a way to proceed. “If we get rid of this, what will that look like…?” What if we add a fourth section here…?”

How can you have a conversation with something that has yet to exist? Easy. The simple act of externalizing anything changes it, so that your vision has to fit into lines and colors and volumes of space, and your idea has to fit into words. The results are always different and force you to confront the reality of making anything. Your design is an embodiment and must therefore be different than the mental image you have. There in the difference between the idea and sketch lies the center of the design process and the conversation. You have an idea and the sketch you produce, and never the twain shall meet in my experience. It’s a quantum phenomenon Heisenberg would recognize – the act of externalizing changes the vision. How your design forces you to confront your goals and plans is its part of the conversation, if you’re listening.

Why sketch?

Exhibit development shares much more with movie making than it does with software development in terms of process. A major motion picture might spend years in pre-production, and only a few weeks in principal photography, the part that most people think of as being “the meat” of the act of making a film. A major exhibition may take years to develop and a few months to fabricate and a few weeks to install, the part of the process most people visualize when you say “I make exhibitions.” Fabrication and installation are also very expensive, so a good process does everything possible to minimize the cost and duration of the fabrication and installation phases. Figuring it out on paper or on-screen is a lot cheaper than building it and then trying to figure it out. Moving a display case on a plan is easier than having four people pick up the real case and schlep it across the gallery, especially if there’s a chance of someone saying, “Nah, that doesn’t fit. OK, put it back where it was.” Moving a button on an interactive is easy on-screen, and less embarrassing than going to the fabricator and asking them to drill a new hole in the freshly-built exhibit and plug the old hole with… something. That kind of design laziness gets old fast.

The most common tools for managing the evolution of the vision during a project are written documents of various types; exhibit outlines, taxonomies, specifications, style guides, artifact lists, and so on. Documents have some significant benefits; they are concrete, they last, they are easy to share. But documents also have significant drawbacks. Documents have to be interpreted by the reader and I’m sure we all have had experiences of two people reading the same document and coming away with completely different interpretations of what was said. Documents also have a hard time adequately expressing the abstract, the vague, and the uncertain; precisely the qualities that any not-yet-created thing will possess until very late in its gestation. Many is the time I’ve seen colleagues look at a preliminary floorplan or concept document and say, “But if I show this to ____, they’ll think this is what the final is gonna look like, and we know it’s just our current version!” Documents can have a frightening concreteness. Calling them sketches robs them of some of the solidity they possess when you treat them like products. You have to look at them as temporary manifestations of your thinking. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth Life.” Putting dates on everything is a great way of expressing the idea that every sketch has an expiration date and old sketches should be treated as suspectly as an old quart of milk in the fridge.