when visiting my parents a few weeks ago, i picked up one of the books on my mom’s bookshelf, the first of barack obama’s presidential memoirs. i started reading it, but it was kind of hefty and i was only going to be there for a week and didn’t want to start a book i couldn’t finish, so i put it down and picked up another one instead (which, turns out i couldn’t finish that one, either, so maybe i didn’t have to abandon the obama book). anyway, i made it through the intro before deciding to put it down, and one point he shared really stuck with me which i have been reflecting on since: president obama says he prefers to draft his writing by hand, on paper, not by typing on a computer or word processor, because it gives a false sense of completeness or polish. (i’m paraphrasing.)
i’ve also read, from proponents of journaling by hand, that there is a material difference between writing by hand and typing, in that the former necessarily takes longer to do and therefore your thoughts slow down (or maybe it’s that the writing speed better matches the speed of your thoughts) which is why journaling is therapeutic. i don’t know about the science supporting that statement, but anecdotally i do find journaling (by hand) helps me better articulate my feelings and in some cases DECIDE how i feel about something, by dissecting my thoughts on paper in great detail with no regard for readability or clear communication.
i’ve noticed this phenomenon (is it a phenomenon? maybe just an observation) in other types of writing, too. in business writing, because everything is pretty much typed out in an email or a document nowadays, it’s sometimes hard to tell just from glancing at the writing itself if something is a draft of someone’s unedited thought process (akin to taking scratch notes on a piece of paper) versus a more formal perspective on something. despite how one may feel about google as a Big Tech and as a giant corporation, google docs is an incredible piece of software that enables collaboration to degrees we may have never imagined when first encountering the humble typewriter (or even the first iterations of word processing software).
it is also, in my opinion, a little TOO frictionless to create documents. and in my experience, google docs documents are very rarely if ever deleted. every organization i’ve ever done work for that uses google workspace1 has a problem with document bloat where google drive is just a mess of disorganized files, and document management is a job in itself. (in google drive’s defense, i don’t think it was designed to replicate the file and file folder model; documents were meant to be as googlable as the internet itself.)
i think the observation applies to personal websites as well. while i love the concept of a “digital garden” in theory, one reason i’m not convinced it would be the best way to architect my own website is that from my understanding, the idea is that writing is published, but more like planting seeds or seedlings, “half-finished thoughts that will grow and evolve over time”, as maggie appleton eloquently puts it. and i LOVE that idea; however, i want the challenge of committing to publishing something, putting it out there, and leaving it be. that’s not to say things should NEVER be edited, and certainly not that our thinking shouldn’t change over time. on the contrary, i want to always be able to change my mind about things. i recently found out that the person who coined the phrase “dark pattern” literally changed the domain name of his site and corrected all references from “dark pattern” to “deceptive pattern” because that terminology is both (1) more clear and (2) more inclusive (the implication being that the use of “dark” at best confers coded negative bias and at worst perpetuates racism and colorism). honestly, huge claps for that guy. that’s a perfect example of acknowledging that your thinking has changed on something, and not just saying “i guess my thinking has changed, but too bad because we’ve already as an industry decided we’re going to use this term forever and there’s no way we could ever change it!!” but instead doing the hard thing of correcting and communicating and evolving the term and the thinking in a really elegant way.
i digress—that point was not specific to personal websites. what i meant to say is that something about replacing words and thoughts or basically perpetually publicly editing personal thoughts and feelings doesn’t feel like what i want this space to be. (and that is the beauty of personal websites: your website is yours and my website is mine and if you want your site to be a digital garden written in pencil because it’s right for you and i want mine to be a messy collection of notes written in sharpie, there is a place for all of us and the existence of all of our quirks and strong opinions makes the overall ecosystem better!)
i could also be totally wrong, and maybe the idea isn’t that things are deleted and replaced as if they never existed, but that conceptually there is some evolution of content and the interpretation and execution of that is up to the individual owner.
weird analogy incoming: in clinical medicine, the major underlying principle of the medical record (whether the electronic patient chart or the paper chart) is that documentation is truth. if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen (and vice versa). one manifestation of that principle is that NOTHING can EVER be deleted from the medical record. when we used to write clinical notes on paper, that would look like crossing out what was written, writing “error” and marking my initials by it; in the electronic version, clinical notes are essentially a database where write permissions do not include the ability to delete, only to add a new correct note, or mark something in error. perhaps subconsciously i have carried over those principles here. there’s a difference between noting that a week ago the patient had a fever but today they are afebrile (or apyrectic in the queen’s medical english), versus pretending the fever never happened because there is no fever today. likewise something just doesn’t sit right with me about constantly editing my own published writing.
(again, there is a lot of nuance that i am conveniently ignoring here to make my point, including the fact that “editing” can include all manner of things including correcting a simple typo to removing harmful or hurtful language to just not wanting to keep something up in perpetuity because your own writing makes you cringe, and the same rules should probably not apply to both, and others.)
relatedly, it’s an interesting thought exercise to consider how we might indicate that something is more of a draft or more unpolished when writing on the internet. (terrible idea: publish everything that’s not been heavily edited in an ornate cursive typeface to indicate handwriting, and include a lot of misspellings and strikethroughs. haha. let’s not do that.)
one way i’ve tried to accomplish that here is by calling these posts “notes” versus something like “posts” or “essays” which to me feel more serious. i wouldn’t say there is zero editing that happens in a “note,” but more that it’s very light editing for basic readability, and the goal is not always to have the cleanest and most concise copy but moreso to be able to share and communicate something i’m thinking or feeling, even if it’s messy.
all told, i don’t mean to say that it’s a big problem that the typewritten word appears more polished than the thoughts behind it sometimes are. i think it’s wonderful that it has become relatively easy to publish one’s lightly edited thoughts. (and a huge unlock for accessibility with screen readers being able to take the written word and transform it into the spoken word, which if you think about it, is pretty amazing regardless if you have a disability related to reading the written word or not.) for what it’s worth, i wrote this as a draft (in google docs—old habits die hard 🥴) with the paragraphs as bulleted list items and in all lowercase, halfway through realized i was writing it more as prose instead of a bulleted list, kept going anyway, ¾ of the way through realized i would have to go back and change everything to sentence case, thought “lol i’m not doing all that,” moved this into sublime text as a markdown file, and then pushed it up to the internet, so there you go.
addendum, 10:48 AM EDT, i.e., 12 mins after initial deployment: after all that ranting about how i NEVER want to EVER edit a post on this website, i published this—and immediately found something i wanted to add to this, which is that i saw manu posted a very adjacent thought, much more concisely, the philosophy that a personal blog should involve chronologically listed content, which is maybe another point i was trying to make buried in all of that waxing philosophical.
i strongly disliked the name “g suite” because i guess it was supposed to be a play on “google” + “c suite” but instead my brain would always tell me it was a portmanteau of “g spot” + “c suite” which is so silly and makes zero sense but that is how my brain works and therein lies the problem with enterprise software names that try to be too clever. i am ecstatic it was changed to “google workspace” which is so much clearer and more boring—which is exactly what i want out of enterprise software. ↩︎