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Draft as Prototype

IMG_3006.1The word gets used a lot in design circles, and when working with clients active in design world, I find myself starting to say “draft” — then stopping to mumble some hybrid nonsense as I remember that “prototype” means more to them. But the two terms communicate the same basic idea. Hang on, the person presenting a prototype or draft is saying. This thing you’re looking at is hardly final. It’s just a start. I’m hoping that after reading it we can have a conversation about how to make it better.

(Here’s a good definition of prototyping, cribbed from Smashing Magazine‘s “The Skeptics Guide to Low-Fidelity Prototyping“:

The word “prototype” comes from the Greek prototypos, a compound of protos (“first”) and typos (“mold,” “pattern,” “impression”). This initial, raw presentation of our ideas is precisely what we’ve come to know as low-fidelity prototyping…. Its purpose is not to impress users, but to learn from them. Instead of wowing people with our product, the goal of low-fidelity prototyping is to have users wow us with their insight. In a way, the technique facilitates listening, rather than selling. It opens a conversation…

Why does this matter? It’s natural to get hung up on the notion that a draft should reflect one’s best writing. That a draft should wow. And when you believe that, it’s easy to become intensely frustrated.

The longer I’ve been in this business, the more wholly convinced I am that writers unshy about sharing cruddy drafts have a better time. I’ve also come to know that an editor who treats a writer’s draft as a low-fidelity prototype is vastly more helpful than an editor who views drafts only as reflections of a writer’s skill, designed to impress (but too often falling short).

Editors who immediately start commenting on a draft skip a critical step. They apply craft knowledge but zero psychology. They start polishing before they really understand what the writer is trying to do. And what a writer is trying to do is not always obvious — not even to him- or herself.

Again, why does this matter? Here’s the hopeful part: For writers having trouble, who are going through draft after draft, never content with what they’ve produced…rarely is their inability to arrive at a final version a function of missing talent. What they most need [in order to finish] is not a cabin in the woods or more time but an insightful reader / editor who will (a) not judge their skill on the basis of a draft, and (b) talk to them, for hours and hours, about things that haven’t yet made it onto the page.