Write Only As Much As You Can Revise Carefully

Feb 20, 2012

A New York Times entry from March last year included a Harvard entrance exam from nearly 150 years ago. The first line is the only part that I will call attention to here:

Write only as much as you can revise carefully.

Brilliant. Here, in fewer than 10 words, is an approach that applies to nearly every undertaking that we intend for others to see.

Put another way: don’t drive so fast that you lose control.

Is this really Advanced material?

Every month I write entries for four categories: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Special Topic. This entry is intended for Advanced.

But, I can hear certain experienced readers objecting, isn’t overextension generally a beginner’s mistake?

That way of thinking leaves advanced developers – and everyone else putting trust in their judgment – even more vulnerable. Beginners often have a problem with overextending, certainly, though they do not yet have enough perspective to be able to recognize that as what they are getting themselves into. It is the more advanced developers that are capable of recognizing overextension, and are therefore in position to either ignore it or apply the brakes.

Experience does not render us immune to overextending ourselves. At best it can help us notice when we begin to lose control, after which we still need to take swift and deliberate action to correct for it.

Growing requires stretching a bit every time, but what ought be stretched is the presentable result. Stretching for its own sake without bound is simply stretching further into the territory that we can’t possibly polish to a presentable state. Anyone, no matter how experienced, is capable of growing a project beyond their means to finish it well.

Write only as much as you can revise carefully.

Otherwise, the project may wind up wrecked roadside while others pass it by.

This probably was not the driver’s first time behind the wheel.

And if you’re working with a team on which you are among the more experienced developers, you have other people in that car.

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