Manuscript Debt

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Manuscript debt happens when you take a short cut writing your book. It saves you time, but just like real world money debt it has to be paid back with interest. And just like real world money debt, too much manuscript debt is very, very dangerous.

I patterned manuscript debt after the concept of technical debt, defined by Ward Cunningham. Ben Horowitz has a clear, simple explanation of how it works.

“While you may be able to borrow time by writing quick and dirty code, you will eventually have to pay it back— with interest.”

“Good enough” isn’t

When you encounter a difficult writing problem, you’ll be tempted to “let it go for now.” Or you may decide that what you’ve got is “good enough” even when you know you can do better. Those choices save you time, but they incur manuscript debt. Sometime in the future you will have to take more time to fix things.

Why it’s better to do it now

When you’ve been working on part of your book, you carry a host of details in your head. You know why you chose some options but didn’t choose others. That context evaporates if you want to fix the issue later.

The teams that developed the original Palm Pilot studied the impact of waiting to fix an issue compared with fixing it right away. What they discovered is staggering.

On average it takes twenty-four times as long to fix an error if you wait a few weeks to tackle the problem. If you take the extra fifteen minutes to do it right today you save six hours of work trying to fix things later.

That’s reason enough to take the time to do good work now. As my mother used to say: “If you don’t have time to do it right, how will you find time to do it over?”

Once the folks at Palm discovered the difference, they required all their developers to test their code on the day they wrote it. If there was a problem, they were to deal with it that day, not put it off. Here’s how you can do this with your book manuscript.

In every session

Before you wrap up every session read your work aloud. That’s the best way I know to find issues you need to fix. It’s the equivalent of Palm’s developers testing their code.

Most of the time you’ll be able to fix things right away. So fix them right away.

When you can’t fix it now

Sometimes you can’t fix things right away. You may need information that you don’t have or you may need permission that you haven’t received.

When that happens, make some notes describing the issue as you understand it. Describe your assumptions and questions and ideas. Making good notes will help you recreate the mindset you have today. It won’t be perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Then make a note on your punch list for the manuscript so you make sure to come back to it later. Cross off punch list items as you complete them. The sooner the better.

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