The Agile Writer

A key concept I learned when I worked at Xtreme Labs was the idea of agility. Agile development was one of the distinctive features of their services. Xtreme believed that this style of programming, driven by weekly releases of a project to their clients at the end of every week, enabled better speed and quality. Xtreme Labs made mobile apps, for companies like Facebook, Uber, and Twitter — amongst many others.

A simple example: a client project might start as a set of wireframes the first week, then a rapid prototype the second, a core app the third, with new features being built every week. Through client meetings and internal demos, the project teams also took in feedback every week. 

Image via: Hackernoon

This stands out in contrast to the “old way,” waterfall development, in which clients wouldn’t see updates on a project until it was close to completely finished.

I started working at Xtreme Labs during my fourth year in college, and it really imprinted the virtue of speed into my mind. (It would be years before I recognized the virtues of slowness as well. More on this another time.)

The philosophies and ideas of agile are straightforward enough, but in practice, it takes focus, discipline, and critical thinking. Executing on this simplicity provided Xtreme Labs with many clients, and ultimately a $65 million acquisition.

As the pace of the world accelerates, being “agile” will matter more to every field and all sorts of work. The people who are quick enough to keep up with change, and adapt, will be the ones that can exploit the marketplace. This applies to the craft of writing. People are applying the principles of agile into their work. Here are three ways they manifest agility in their writing process to take their work to the next level: 

Constant Releases Enable Experimentation and Understanding

The benefits to agile are the constant releases, which ensures constant feedback, which ensures constant progress. In The Phoenix Project, a business fable about continuous improvement (another theme in agile programming), an operations guru tells the protagonist to, “Figure out how to get to ten deploys a day.” I recently heard entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk say to Shopify founder Tobi Lutke that he wanted to ship 4,000 pieces of content a day

Erik, probably invoking the same thinking behind Gary, elaborates, “If you can’t out-experiment and beat your competitors in time to market and agility, you are sunk. Features are always a gamble. If you’re lucky, ten percent will get the desired benefits. So the faster you can get those features to market and test them, the better off you’ll be.” Features, like content, are also a lottery.

The constant smaller, less promoted, releases create opportunities for active learning, but it requires working smaller and writing in serials. Every piece of writing you make is an opportunity to get feedback. Similar to agile programming, writing can be a team sport. And more importantly, don’t promote everything the same way — save your promotional efforts when you know you’ve worked on something that will resonate.

Define Your Criteria to Preserve Quality

The challenge is, it’s not difficult to make something fast; rather, it takes time for good work to get done. Thinking. Re-thinking. Writing. Re-writing. Author Robert Caro deliberately writes by hand so he can slow himself down. He triple spaces his words and edits by hand. It’s important for the material to make a good first impression; for him to craft it in the way that he meant to. 

It’s arguable that products and features are more objective; they either work, or they don’t. But that’s not entirely true, either. There is an art to building a product roadmap, and choosing the path to roll out the product. If the product team takes shortcuts, design and technical debt accumulates, and the user experience eventually breaks.

Certainly, for testing apps, quality assurance can be automated; and there’s always Grammarly to automate proofreading. But if you’re going to write and release more, you need to define what’s acceptable to you and to meet those goals — not necessarily to aim for perfection, every time.

Collect Feedback from People

Agile doesn’t mean thrashing away at creating high quantities of meaningless features. In the world of agile development, there is a product manager who plans and guides the roadmap, there are developers and designers who execute it, and there’s a product owner (or client) who provides feedback.

The agile writer doesn’t have (or need) such a large team, so they need to do this themselves. They need to integrate the roadmap of their writing, and the execution; they need to decide what their goal is, what to write, and then actually write it. They will need feedback, which an audience will provide. 

Having followers is absolutely invaluable; I’ve seen Daniel Vassallo, and Nat Elaisson, both test out and validate their new product ideas with a single tweet — practically on the fly. 

Even without such large audiences, the agile writer needs to work harder to collect feedback, which takes away from their agility. Instead of live feedback from a single tweet, an agile writer without an audience can search for readers. It might be at a forum, a subreddit, or their friends.

The agile writer works to build this audience with their work. They execute and release new content continuously. They scope and size their creative work, so they can make sure they don’t bite off more than they can chew. And of course, they also take in feedback and understand which articles do well, and which do not.

With this continuous release comes lower stakes, less pressure, and a greater flow of creativity. When every day provides an opportunity, the next release doesn’t seem so ominous. 

The Elements of an Agile Writer

Agile programming is full of weekly milestones and feedback points, but the promotional efforts take place when the app is finally launched. Similarly, an agile writer may take time to show people — individually, at first, if they must — and to gain an audience. 

As they continue writing and learning, the agile writer can eventually plan and work their way to make something big. Something that they know will resonate, based on their learning and the feedback. 

Then, they can put their full efforts into promoting that piece of work, and growing their audience with a massive promotional effort. 

When the circle comes to an end, they start the journey back around again. Such is the life of an agile writer.