Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

That First Half Hour

09 Sep 2009

People always think people write essays because they enjoy writing them. There's probably a decent amount of truth to that statement in my own case. But I enjoy writing essays because I enjoy publishing them on the web. And it's the first half hour after an essay goes live, a period where the number of page views shoots from 0 to a 100, that's the most amount of fun.

I could do what Paul Graham does and that is write an essay, have it reviewed by some friends, then edit it multiple times, then polish it, and then publish it. And once it is published, he seldom modifies it. But I tend to approach essays differently. I know I can get my essays polished if you gave me an hour, but putting the essay live in an unfinished state provides me with this boost of energy like never before. Polishing my essays would usually would take me 30 minutes spread out throughout a day, but now it only takes at most 5 minutes spread out across half an hour.

Because the number of pageviews climbs up so quickly after publishing to Facebook and Twitter, I get this sudden surge inside me because there are so many people who'll end up reading a version of my essay that I can't quite say is my very best. It's a version far away from being "done". It's usually riddled with typos and several grammatical errors of the kind only an amateur writer would make.

So once an essay becomes live, it's sprint time. With all the adrenaline picking up, I have to work as fast as I can. I can't have my beloved readers reading anything but my very best. I shift gears and move into ninja mode. My typing speed picks up 4x. I can read twice as fast. I spot errors instantly. I'm moving entire sentences and paragraphs around in swoops. My fingers punch keys feverishly as edits and saves are happening semi-real-time. I'm adding punch lines at the end of paragraphs. I'm constantly asking myself if this paragraph is too long and if it needs splitting. Or maybe the essay itself is too long. Painful as it may be, sometimes entire paragraphs will go away 15 minutes after making an essay live.

I guess the only way to share this process with you is to use Etherpad's time-slider feature. But saving there won't save it here on Posterous. Maybe someone will write blogging software where you type all your blogs on etherpad and the static html pages are generated from the content posted there.

So this is why the first half hour after making an essay live is perhaps the most important and also the most fun part of the essay-writing process. Whenever I'm ready to publish, I make sure the next half-hour is completely available to me and is 100% distraction-free. It's just me, my desk, my laptop, and my music.

So yes, the reality is that it's probably better for you to read my essays a few hours after it's published. The unfortunate irony is that the people I wish are reading my essays, the target audience I have in mind as I write, are usually the ones who read my essays the minute they become live. They just happen to be good with the internet, and have superior notification systems. But they don't ever get to see my best work unless they re-read an essay a while later, which they seldom do. But even then, the punch lines are lost. What good is a horror movie the second time?

I've always wished I could lead my entire life in that kind of "sprint-mode" all the time. I'd get so much done that way. I once dreamt about living my life that way every single day. I got so excited that I fell off my 2 feet-high bed. True story.

But let me get to the real point. I always have tremendous difficulty explaining why I love writing web software so much and why I love writing essays so much. It's because they can both be iterated upon and constantly improved as the audience is consuming it. You can't do this with products like the Blackberry. You can't do this with an orchestra. You can't do this with a movie. Imagine Tarantino tweaking final scenes of Inglorius Basterds as you were watching the movie. You could probably do this in a live stage drama, but not so cleanly so as to altogether avoid invoking all suspicion in your audience.

I used this strategy to my advantage while I was building Fotavia. I'd spend a day building an unfinished and unpolished version of a feature, like photo comments or the news feed, push it out to production, and then spend a few hours polishing it and fixing bugs after. This was still a lot faster than trying to roll out a polished version after 3 days, often even failing due to a lack of continual motivation.

In the spirit of meta-ness, this very post was edited several times after being published and is probably undergoing edits as you're reading it. You should be used to this idea of edits happening underneath the rug if you've ever used Wikipedia for any length of time.

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