Experimenting with iterative writing

Okay, two problems. I’ve gotten bogged down in my math relearning project, and I haven’t been posting once a week like I’d hoped. I think I can make progress on both problems if I change the way I’m doing the project. The problem with it is that I’m trying for both breadth and depth, and I tend to take a depth-first approach to life. That means I try to cover everything I can about one topic before I move on to the next. It takes forever. I was hoping I could do one chapter every week or two, but for measurement it’s been over a month already.

When I’m honest with myself, breadth is more important to this project than depth, because I need to learn a bunch of math to accomplish my goals. I’ve been aiming for depth because understanding helps with memory and problem solving and because understanding the more basic concepts helps you understand the more advanced ones that are based on them. But beyond a certain point understanding math at a deep conceptual level is more of a bonus than a requirement.

So I want to try covering each section shallowly at first and then adding layers of depth in later iterations. That’ll let me cover more ground faster and let me post more often. Surveying what people have already written is quicker than figuring out what things mean and how they all fit together on my own. With the depth-first approach I have trouble knowing when I’ll feel done enough to post. For example, you’d think measurement would be a straightforward topic, but no, at this point I’m sure it would still be weeks before I thought my writing was in a postable state. One reason it takes all this time is that math is somewhat unfamiliar territory to me, so I have a lot of concepts to think through, and it’s tiring. Imagine excavating this large ant colony without the benefit of cement. The way I’m thinking through this project feels like that–delicate and time consuming. If I can break up that work over a longer time and make a lot of it optional, the project will feel more possible. Since I’d be moving faster through the material, I’d also feel freer to take breaks to address other projects. I’ve used a similar iterative approach before, but with math relearning it feels like a different level of challenge.

Another benefit of taking an iterating, breadth-first approach is that it’ll be more practice with the idea of sharing imperfect, incomplete work. That’s a trend these days, if you hadn’t noticed. I picked it up from agile software development a few years ago. Release early, release often. That means the software (or whatever) won’t have every feature you want right away, and it’ll have bugs. It’s not that completeness and perfection are bad. It’s that they can get in the way of accomplishing things when less is really good enough for the purposes of the work. It’s an interesting philosophy-of-life conflict though: Which is better, quality work or getting things done? Similarly I ask myself if I want my online work to represent final products and reflect professionalism or to represent processes and reflect personalism (or do I want professional processes or personal products?). Clearly I’m picking the personal process quadrant, for various reasons. But I’ll explore all that another time.

I’m thinking the iterations will look something like this, probably with some of these clumped together:

  1. A list of topics to cover
  2. A list of references for further reading (sources for the list and results of searching with the list’s terms)
  3. A list of objectives for skills and maybe knowledge
  4. Headings from the topic list in somewhat random order with a sentence or two to summarize or introduce each section
  5. A list of open questions
  6. A full discussion for each section with footnotes (can be posted one at a time)
  7. The sections reordered more logically
  8. Revised section texts to reflect the new order (and whatever other changes I think of)
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2 Responses to Experimenting with iterative writing

  1. Linda W. says:

    “Sharing imperfect, incomplete work. That’s a trend these days, if you hadn’t noticed.” Yes, I’ve noticed. And I can’t say that’s always a good thing. Glitch-filled software infuriates people. And they’re only releasing the new software to make more money for an inferior product they could have worked on longer.

    Are you enjoying the process, however you do it? That’s the main thing right? As for posting once a week, if that’s your goal and you’ve publicly stated it was, then you know what to do.

    • Andy says:

      You’re right, it’s not always a good thing. People do get mad, and then they leave bad reviews. 😀 Ideally the developers would prioritize quality and keep the updates simple enough that they can test adequately before releasing. There are safeguards in the various agile methodologies that are meant to minimize bugs. Other than making money, the main purpose of iterative development I’ve seen is to make sure the software meets the customer’s needs. The customers are usually businesses rather than consumers. Often customers don’t know what they need until they start using the software, so it’s better to check frequently by releasing frequently than to code the whole feature set and find out the customer needed different features than they thought.

      But for the purposes of the math project, I more had in mind things like Wikipedia. It lets its articles grow in public rather than keeping all their revisions private until they’re completed. Sometimes the articles have problems, like not citing any sources, and the editors have ways of dealing with them.

      I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the process. I’ll find out soon. About posting once a week, the only thing I really know to do is the action-reflection-action cycle, which is what produced this post. I have some other ideas about it that aren’t related to the math project or iterative writing, but I figured the post was long enough. I might write about those later.

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