Thursday 01 August 2002

Polishing and perfecting

Dave Winer:

When I see writing that’s too polished, where the grammar is too perfect, I am suspicious that at a deeper level it has been sanitized and dumbed-down.

Vladimir Nabokov:

I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.

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Dave can't have meant that to come across as painting himself as casually anti-intellectual as it does.

I know sooooooo many problems, misunderstandings, conflicts that have been exacerbated (if not outright caused) by careless expression. Anything worth saying in public is worth saying carefully--by which I don't mean to say "everyone has to write carefully all the time," but that no one ought ever to be subject to slings and arrows for taking pains to communicate thoughtfully and precisely.

Now, since it's taken me 45 minutes to write these words, and I've changed them all several times over, I have to get on with life.

Posted by AKMA on 1 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

You don't see the process at all in weblogs. This is precisely why people criticize him for substantially editing posts after the fact. They link to (and possibly comment on) version A, then all of a sudden, version B takes its place. No revision history, no warning, no visible "process". In the long run, version B is the only one that will survive, get indexed by Google, etc. Unless you're disciplined enough to create a new post for every little thought, or *only* ever add to posts instead of editing the existing content. But discipline is antithetical to Dave's (and many people's) idea of weblogging.

After doing my "30 days" series, I've been thinking about some of the same things Dave and Meg are thinking about, but possibly coming to different conclusions. I think Dave is too locked into one particular format of weblog, what Sam Ruby calls "firehose" mode, where he just spews links and random thoughts all day. No continuity, no structure other than "that was yesterday, this is today". That's fine, it works well for Dave, but many people want (and have) more structure than that, and we're seeing evolution of blogging tools that support a wider variety of forms. Categories, linkbacks and inline referrers, hybrid wiki/weblogs, guest blogs, dynamic Amazon and Google searches for related content.

Furthermore, the weblogging tools themselves are being used for more than just weblogs. and are somewhat removed from what Dave would consider a weblog, but both are powered by Movable Type. So is -- I use MT categories to create those "by person", "by disability" alternate tables of contents. That *Dave's* tools don't easily support these forms is his problem, not mine. As people start digging into the new MT plugins being developed that give fine-grained control over entry lists, I think we'll see even more experiments in form, further and further away from the link-comment-permalink-timestamp box.

Posted by Mark Pilgrim on 1 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This is part of evolution of the medium, though, which happens everywhere and to every technology. Part of what interests me about the whole weblogging phenomenon is how it's pushed beyond its limits and therefore progress is made; as Mark points out, look at The Morning News, for example. To take a larger example, there's already an enormous distinction between fire-and-forget link-sharing weblogs (like, say, Dave's), and the more diary-oriented, discussion-starter weblogs such as, well, here, or CavLec at And this is only the beginning of evolution. This ties into something that Dorothea herself was commenting on -- the notion of what a "blog" is, and whether burningbird's latest output counts as blogging. Is our work defined by the tools we use? I suspect not, unless every wall-painter is Michaelangelo, which means that blogging is a state of mind. Dave's state of mind is perhaps more limited than others, but maybe that's a good thing; instead of expanding what blogging means, expand what we do and then think of a new word for it.

Posted by sil on 1 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Exactly. The street finds its own uses for things. A year ago, I would have written "Dive Into Accessibility" in DocBook XML and spent hundreds of hours tweaking the XSL stylesheets until the output was exactly what I wanted, then publish the static HTML files via FTP. This year I handcoded HTML and published (and republished) it with Movable Type.

This is why I'm so excited that MT 2.2 has plugin support. I've already seen some kickass code, and it's incredibly easy to define new tags with new behaviors. Every template-based system eventually tries this; some succeed better than others. (Don't talk to me about !@#$ tag libraries in JSP.) Some enterprising young souls will make cool plugins that scratch an itch, some other soul will pick it up and realize it solves some thorny problem in an elegant way, and suddenly the whole world of blogging shifts subtlely, the feature gets built into the next rev of everything, and people start quoting it as an "essential" element of blogging...

Posted by Mark Pilgrim on 1 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

What's killin' me is that I gotta learn Perl or SQL to get involved. Grrr. Some days I wish I had the chops to recreate MT in Python, just for the sake of writing plugins.

As for blog edits -- I am among the folks who get slightly (only slightly) peeved by disappearing posts and edits that completely change a post's meaning. I would prefer updating or a retraction in a separate post. Edits for grammar/style/clarity don't bug me at all (I commit them often myself).

It all fits into a perfectionistic ethos that I don't personally think is healthy -- if a post turns out not just to be imperfect, but imperfect enough to reflect badly on the blogger, the immediate response is to sweep it into the bit-bin and pretend it didn't happen. Me, I'd rather see the imperfection acknowledged, apologized for if necessary, and (most importantly!) forgiven.

We all say things we wish we hadn't. What is the utility of pretending otherwise? (Not a rhetorical question. If somebody can explain this to me, I'd appreciate it.)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 2 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Personally, I'd have to say just the opposite of what Dave says is true.

When it's not polished, when it appears to just come off the top of your head, it's more likely to be "dumb."

The biggest part of "polishing" your writing is trying to get it to say precisely what you want it to say, not just to be grammatically correct.

I correct my pages all the time when I look back at them. However, if I find out that I've been substantially wrong on something, if someone emails me a comment that corrects my post, I have no problem admitting that in another post.

Only a fool pretends he's omniscient or is afraid to admit he's made a mistake

Posted by Loren on 2 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

When I see writing that's too polished, where the grammar is too perfect I'm jealous.
Loren is right when he says The biggest part of "polishing" your writing is trying to get it to say precisely what you want it to say, not just to be grammatically correct.

Posted by Norm Jenson on 2 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Every day I think about picking up xlog, my old blogging system (which was written in Python) and breathing new life into it, Dorothea. But it would be a horrific rod for my back, which is why I haven't done it, as you may imagine. On the other hand, SQL isn't that hard, and it pretty much defines the paradigm for data access, so I can't really fault Ben and Mena for allowing MySQL storage of MT data. (On the other hand, the way Kuhn talks about paradigms, they're almost *meant* to be broken. On the gripping hand, I'm not convinced that blogging systems are the place for data access research.)

The main area of change -- well, of innovation -- in weblogging at the moment is all the cross-linking; RSS auto-discovery, related links, and, Trackback. We're still missing a way of tracking progress on a comment thread (I have to manually remember where I've posted comments and go back to check for updates, and there's no way of getting a master list of threads you're interested in), which is something that's on my list -- like a news aggregator, but for selected comment threads. This is the disadvantage with the decentralisation of the web; with, say, Usenet, all posts are there in your newsreader, so you can quickly chase the threads in which you're interested. I keep meaning to devote some time to thinking about this, and I never get a sufficiently round tuit.

Posted by sil on 2 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

We all say things we wish we hadn't. What is the utility of pretending otherwise? (Not a rhetorical question. If somebody can explain this to me, I'd appreciate it.)

The utility is the hope that others will follow suit and forget your faux pas. No one likes to feel stupid, or perhaps more importantly, look foolish in front of others. By pretending that the foolish thing was never said, one might be wishing it away, and if everyone follows your lead, then it is as if you had never said it.

Or at least that seems to be my rationale, in moments of weakness.

Not so much with the written word as with the spoken. I have an unfortunate habit of saying "I didn't think I said that, you must have heard me wrong." I've much more committment to the written word, and a personal commitment to showing my edits, if they change the meaning, in my blogging. (then again, I can't spell committment, so what're you gonna do?)

Both care and carelessness have their place in writing. I am a fiend for revision (in fiction/poetry), but at the same time, I often write long rambling posts without editing (in my weblog, as in my paper journal).

By which I mean that I totally agree with AKMA's original comment. :)

Posted by elaine on 3 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"You write with ease to show your breeding, but easy writing's curst hard reading." -Sheridan

Posted by Pete on 3 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

As editor of Boxes and Arrows I can give you a little back story on our decision to use MT. It was pretty simple actually.

We're a no-budget labor of love so we needed a content management system that was free (or at least pretty low cost). We also needed something that was relatively simple to set-up/use and something that was flexible enough to be tweaked to our needs. Ain't many CMS products out there that fit the bill.

Second, Christina Wodtke know MT really well and was able to hack it to fit out initial needs. As was said, the street finds it own uses for things. Unfortunately, we're starting to hit the point where it's tougher and tougher to stretch it to do things we need done.

We're far from the only people in this position. So there's definitely opportunites for someone who comes out with something that's more publication-oriented that blog-oriented.

Posted by george on 3 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I want to offer comments relating to the discussion of revision of posts. Nabokov was of course the master of revision. By his own estimate, he prepared about 150 words of finished copy each day. The concentrated attention Nabokov brought to his work is entirely unlike the occasional revisionism that Dave Winer permits himself. Yet both are writers and Winer's desk is the tidier because the delete key leaves no eraser crumbs.

Many would prefer that Dave carve his posts in stone, or at least etch them in something permanent. These people have an interest in catching him out, crystalizing his errors and retaining an historical record of Dave's mistakes. Like Nabokov, Dave would prefer to tidy up around his mistakes. Unlike Nabokov he is willing to release his drafts and correct them later when errors are clear.

From the 1855 first edition of Song of Myself to a posthumous edition published around 1900, no two print iterations of Whitman's masterpiece were the same. He was constantly tidying up, tinkering with his work.

Joyce's "Stephen Hero" evolved to become Stephen Daedelus in Portrait... The books were incredibly similar, Stephen Hero could be thought of as an early draft, but the narrator's perspective and sense of self shifts across the two volumes in such a way that these are two distinct works. Would Joyce have preferred that Stephen Hero not see the light of day? Probably.

Is Dave Winer's writing on a par with Nabokov, Whitman, or Joyce? Let's not even giggle here. But as a writer, like a software creator, it is his right to withdraw early versions and only support what is current.

So Dave prefers not to put too fine a polish on his work, not to draft and re-draft until he has stated a truth, but rather to generate sketches and impressions. He reserves the author's right to discard these sketches at will, and if a reader had invested emotional energy in her response to his work, too bad... vicissitudes of the marketplace of ideas. It's Dave's blog, and he can do what he wants to with it.

I prefer to think of publication as some kind of final presentation of a piece. But in the end, we are each left simply with what is, and what has gone before can only be inferred.

Posted by fp on 4 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour