I recently completed some work on ChiZine Publications’ website, a small publisher for which I’m the Marketing Director. Though I’d planned to follow all kinds of best practices and integrate a bunch of new tools, in the end I ran out of time (with a full-time day job and a 4-night per week class) so I didn’t get all the changes done in the way I’d wanted.
This got me thinking about best practices and effort. And, how these ideas apply to both web professional and writers, so I will address both in different color text.
Lacking Best Practices Does Not Mean Terrible
I firmly believe in knowing your industry’s best practices. They came about because they produced the best results, so following them will improve the quality of your project. For Web professionals, this can be focus testing, standard compliance or keyword research and optimization. For writers, this can mean developing an outline, describing a sense other than sight and giving each character a distinctive voice.
But sometimes too much emphasis is placed on slavishly following them. You can still produce something very good even if it does not follow all best practices. Your comedic short story might lack strong character development, but be hilarious. Your new web site might rate high in focus groups, but not every page validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict.
Ask yourself: Do you need to follow every best practice? The answer depends on if you fulfilled the goal you set out to achieve. As well, the effort required to address some of the finely detailed requirements of best practices could be used to get other projects off the ground.
Consider you have an idea you want to accomplish, whether it’s a short story or web app. When starting with just an idea, you have 0% while 100% is the perfect, idealized realization of that idea.
To reach 80% of your goals takes X units of effort (time, resources, money, etc.). Generally, this means a pretty solid story that’s had a few revisions or app with the major bugs ironed out, but still rough around the edges—clunky interface, could crash with excess load, plain dialogue, one-dimensional secondary characters.
Now, to reach 90% takes another X units. That’s right, you double your effort to gain another 10%—interface is a bit more polished, but not slick. Characters’ voices are more distinct, but you still have a few sentences that don’t pop the way you want them to.
To reach 95% requires another X units; 97% another X units. So, it requires four times the effort to reach 97% of your goal than just 80%. From 97%, each X units of effort realizes a smaller and smaller improvement as you get closer to—but never reach—100%.
Is it Worth All That Effort?
If you are aiming for commercial release or publication in a leading magazine, you should invest the effort. A good 80% story might sell to some semi-pro markets, but not Asimov’s. Some users might use an 80% app, but it won’t be commercially viable.
However, to even reach 80%, you need to apply some best practices. You can’t just begin to write or code willy-nilly without understanding things like character development, story arcs, coding syntax or proper HTML. Don’t use them and you’ll end up with something mediocre, at best, and never achieve any kind of attention or success.
Therefore, the question is which best practices to apply and at what level of strictness.
Keep in mind that best practices are effort-eaters. To repeat what I said above, the effort it takes to improve something from 97% to 98% is the same it takes to go from nothing (0%) to a pretty good (80%). At some point, you have to say “enough,” put the project out there and move on to something else.
Know When to Say “Enough” (Hint: It comes before things are perfect)
While a few extra sentences about a character’s childhood might make him more sympathetic, and optimizing images to trim 10K off the page weight might improve load-time, it’s doubtful these small changes will drastically increase the quality of your project. All you’re doing is trying to keep raising the level of a lake by throwing in pebbles because you’re out of boulders.
When you complete a revision, don’t ask yourself if you’ve applied all best practices and/or if your project is perfect (because it never will be). Instead, does your project do what you want it to do?
If so, stop tinkering and put it out there—nothing got published or used just sitting on a folder in your desktop. If it fails, learn some lessons. You might realize you should have worked on it more, or perhaps the fundamental concept was flawed from the beginning. But at least you know. Next step: do you apply those lessons to that project and try again, or put that project in a drawer, move on and apply those lessons to the next project?
If the project does not do what you want it to do, how much more effort will it take, and can that effort be better spent on another project that perhaps has a strong fundamental concept?
No best practice in the world can answer these questions. But, you might find you develop your own best practices for deciding how much time to spent on tinkering and revisions, when to put something out there, and when to give up and move on.