Step back

One of the most useful habits I’ve developed in executing almost any project is taking a step back. Now, since most of my work is as a writer and digital media maker, that step is metaphorical. The intended meaning is that you stop working on it for a while, get some distance (that can be both literal and figurative), before finishing it.

I’ve been writing columns for Streaming Media Magazine for seven years now. I enjoy the discipline of it. They need 600 words, no more no less. Unlike blogging, I have plenty of advance notice to work on a column (provided I take advantage of it). Most of the time I try hard to leave myself at least a 12 hour buffer before deadline to finish my last draft of a column before finalizing it. Ideally, that 12 hours is overnight, so that I can sleep on it.

Usually when I finish those drafts I’m around 60–75% happy with them. They’re not always at word count–usually one or two hundred words longer. But, I have the core essence and am reasonably satisfied with word choices.

Yet, every time I am still amazed at how much easier it is to wordsmith and extract extraneous verbiage after a half-day away from the piece than it was just 12 hours prior, after staring at the thing for quite some time. Words, phrases and whole sentences that seemed utterly critical to my argument can be slashed off without pity. I can make a 800 word column 600 much better words in no time.

This phenomenon was on my mind because this past weekend I made some screencast videos giving a brief tour of a web app. When I’ve been working on one for hours I can hear every errant mouth noise in the voiceover, and see every minor glitch. It’s very much the case I can’t see the forest through the trees.

Still having a bit of time to spare, I saved the project when I was about 85% happy with it. Opening it the next day and reviewing the video, my happiness shot up at least 5%. I didn’t notice most of the supposed glitches, and quickly fixed the ones that were still obvious to me. Then, I was done and ready to send it to colleagues for comment.

It’s not about learning to live with imperfection. Rather, that perfection is not a concept on its own. It’s always relative. It must always refer to a standard.

When you’re deep into writing or making something that standard is also deeply detail-oriented, nit-picky, at 1000% zoom. Take a little time and it’s easier to zoom out, and see it like most people will. Yes, I try to set a standard that’s higher than average. And I know I’ll still see things 50 feet away that others won’t see inches away. But it’s still a lot more realistic than when I’m the one looking at it microscopically.

Take that step back, and you’ll be even more steps closer to done.