The Secret to Not Sucking

There is a fine line between shipping and sucking.

Vacuum cleaner
Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

Here’s what I mean by that: If you subscribe to any number of blogs on writing, productivity, or business, you’ve probably heard the term shipping used in reference to creative work.

In past newsletters and blog posts, you’ve probably heard me tell you to ship, to just get your work out the door and see how it can change things.

And for the most part, I love this idea. It teaches you the difference between brainstorming and creating. It forces you to overcome your fear of failure and just put something out there. Plus, it frees you up to create new things.

But there is a shadow side to shipping.

Mediocrity versus making a difference

If you’re constantly shipping half-finished projects, it’s going to hurt your reputation.

“Just ship it” is not an excuse to do mediocre work. You should always be striving for excellence. Just remember that your work may never feel good enough and that even when it’s fantastic, you will still feel fear.

It’s a weird paradox, and I have no other counsel except this: embrace this tension. Always be looking for ways to make things better, and always remember that if it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.

Deadlines and budgets

I’m writing you this as I argue with my publisher about whether or not my next book is ready for publication — or if it needs another month of editing.

Part of me wonders if I’m just stalling, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s just not ready. I can’t explain it. I just feel it. (Note: A few trusted friends are encouraging me in this. They say it’s good, but that it could be awesome. I am trusting them.)

After reading the Steve Jobs biography, I found it interesting that many of Apple’s best products were over-budget and past deadline. All due to Jobs’s perfectionism.

Here’s the thing: Jobs was also obsessed with shipping. He was meticulous about things like rounded corners and the box a computer came in. Everything mattered.

But he also wasn’t afraid to fail.

This is where we must find ourselves. If we’re going to do work that the world notices, it has to be great, and it has to ship.

Having twenty good books is not as good as having five excellent books. It might make you more money, but it won’t leave a legacy.

Then again, it’s better than having no books at all.

This is relative

We are all at different places.

If you’re just starting out, you should probably err on the side of shipping. Because releasing your work is practice. It’s scary and hard, but it helps you get better.

But if you’ve learned the discipline of finishing, try holding off on a project. Do another revision. Get some feedback from a friend. Go the extra mile. Make it amazing.

So when do you ship and when do you wait? When is it okay to go over budget and extend your deadline? That’s up to you and your gut. Learn to trust your artist instincts (and the counsel of others).

But at the end of the day, it’ll still feel risky.

And it is.

The thing to not do is stall. No one is going to pick you. Whether you wait or not is your call. You’re the one who has to live with the consequences.

My suggestions? Be brave. Fail fast. And make it count. 

I know of no other way to do this. Good luck.

Recommendation: If you haven’t read Steve Jobs yet, I highly recommend it. It’s on sale via Kindle on Amazon (affiliate link).

When have you chosen to not ship because it meant making something better? Share in the comments.

96 thoughts on “The Secret to Not Sucking

  1. Thanks Jeff. I struggle with this all the time. I often feel the tension that you wrote about between perfection and shipping. This post will encourage me to fight the pressure to ship, and strive for excellence.

  2. Once we developed a program for our clients that would have revolutionized the industry. It was unlike anything anyone else had and it was done. It would have helped our clients a ton and won us millions of dollars in business.

    But…It wasn’t perfect. And not just “not perfect.” It was broken. Think of it as having 5 stages and the fifth was broken.

    Now, we could take it to market with the first four, be 400% better than everyone else, win millions in business and coast from there. Maybe even add on part five later.

    But we decided to fix it. It meant delaying it for four months. Four months worth about $800,000. $800,000 was our entire annual profit margin at that point…actually slightly more. A lot of money to us.

    We fixed it. And when we did, we made an even bigger splash than any of us could have imagined.

    Because we made it perfect, it was literally two years before anyone caught up with us. By then, we cornered the market. If we had gone with parts 1-4 only, someone might have caught up with us in six months or at least come close. Instead of having a 1000% advantage it would have been much smaller.

  3. I see and experience this tension all the time in the academic research world. Some really excellent work never appears in print because the scientist is too obsessed with trying to make it perfect. But, you do want your work to make a valuable contribution. Does it need to be awesome (which, by the way, is such an overused word as to be practically undefined)? No, I don’t think so, but it does need to be useful, and to achieve this I would emphasize relying on the opinions of professionals in your area of work. Friends and family are good sounding boards if they have the expertise, but their opinions don’t compare to the critical evaluations from professional peers.

    1. Now that’s interesting, Kacy. Does it need to be awesome? No. It just needs to be useful. I’m engraving that on my hand while I finish my book. Thank you.

  4. Great post Jeff. I am glad to see you talk about this Jeff. It is such a balance that I am trying to figure out. I am going much slower on my second book. My first book I just wanted to get on to Amazon because if I thought about it I would have talked myself out of it.

    1. There’s that tension. You have to do risky stuff, stuff that scares you, but at the same time it needs to be worth people’s time. Thanks for sharing how you process it all, Zechariah.

  5. Thanks for sharing your perspective and your experience. I think the scariest part about shipping is wondering if it’s going to suck or if it will be received well. Blog posts are a small aspect of that and gives me the practice to ship and to fail. And it builds the muscles I’ll need for my first e-book that I hope to ship when it’s ready.

    Thanks, again!

  6. As a Leadership Coach who helps women find clarity and purpose, this is huge. I’m a ready, fire, aim kind of gal and love to build. As I build, however, I find it important to also have people who will help me clean up all the sawdust everywhere after building :). But at least the product is out there, and can start making a difference in the world. And with time, the products and writing get better and better.

      1. Yes, it can. That’s why it’s so powerful to share your dreams with people who will help make them better. Thanks for the interview again, yesterday! You were great!

  7. I’ve been arguing with Self if I should query my MG novel WHILE I am making the last pass through it. Almost 30 chapters and I just finished chapter 3. I was considering it. My logic being that the agents probably only want at the most 10 pages and by the time they read the query and possibly ask for more pages, I’ll be close to chapter 10. If they ask for a full, I reason that I could pull an all nighter and have it ready. But would it REALLY be ready after rushing through it? Loss of sleep, eyes drooping, achy back and neck mean it would NOT be my best. Even though those first 3 chapters are really good. I don’t want the rest to be rushed through. Thanks again, Jeff. In a couple of days, I’ll probably have to refer back to this post to remind myself why I should wait. 🙂

    1. Heh. Well for the record, Robyn, I’m not a proponent of waiting. But sometimes, you have to work through “good enough” to get to great.

  8. Hi Jeff. I know that feeling. I am writing a book (my memoir…how crazy is that?!). I am working with a great writing coach…someone who has been in the publishing industry for a very long time, and I belong to a writers critique group. All say “great writing!” But my gut tells me it can be so much better. I keep going in and doing editing but I have a feeling that after the last chapter is written I am going to want to go back and and edit “line by line.” It will never be perfect and at some point I am going to have to ship. I’m thinking that if I give myself a self-imposed drop dead date to have it completely edited it will help. Have you done anything like that?

    1. Yes. And I think you need to get someone in your life who says, “It could be better.” Sometimes, it’s hard to find harsh critics, but if you know it could be better, then it can. You just need help making it so.

  9. “Be brave. Fail fast. Make it count.” Wise words. Good is often enemy of the great. Wishing you the win of a hard-fought battle and a best-seller when it ships. And thanks for sharing your journey!

  10. Every Tuesday I post on my blog. Eventually these will be turned into my book. I feel like I need to finish shipping each week with the blog before I refine and publish the whole story. Thanks for your continued inspiration!

  11. Hope you win with your publisher! I had a back-and-forth with my editor for the first time and I stuck up for a couple of things she wanted changed or deleted and I was able to effectively argue for their inclusion with slight changes. Felt good to know that I have enough confidence to do that. And kudos to you for doing the same! On occasion the author does know best. 🙂

  12. this balance has taken me a long time to figure out but in the end what I’ve learned is what you say: trust your gut. There are times I’ve just “shipped it” so I get it done and other times I’ve waited because something inside told me it wasn’t ready yet. I think the best way to know if your listening to your gut or your mind is to pay attention to whether the thoughts or rooted in fear or “knowing.”

    How to know? I don’t always but usually when it’s fear putting it off feels tight in my body and when it’s knowing, it feels light and easy.

    Thanks Jeff. As always, your posts simply rock.

    1. Thanks, Daphne! It is certainly a tension. And you’re right: you’ve got to trust your gut.

      When in doubt, I put my work out there and try to learn from the process. I’m okay with failing so long as it means I do better the next time.

  13. I can’t explain it either. I just keep a close watch on the word in my mind’s eye, and as soon as the “t” turns into a “p,” I know it’s time to ship.

  14. I’ve been encouraged to ship. I just couldn’t live with my work not being pleasing to me. Its time that i ship away in strides of course

  15. I think you put you finger right on it. Fear is a vile thing, a shadow in our minds that makes us doubt our own abilities to a fault. Yet, in small doses it is also a necessary evil that keeps us on our toes and on top of the razors edge of creativity. I don’t want to be completely devoid of fear, I just don’t want to be afraid of it anymore.
    Great post.

    1. Beautifully stated, Clark. There’s something good to fear sometimes. It helps us stay sharp, like the “good nerves” you feel as an actor before stepping on stage.

  16. Right now I’m working on a collection of short stories that are all tied together by a central theme. I so, so badly want to publish one of the ones I’ve finished, but I’m determined to wait until they’re all ready because I think they’ll be better in a collection — the way I originally intended.

    But I love the thrill of getting published and I know this is some of my best writing, so it’s taking everything I’ve got not to push it out somewhere right now!

  17. I think there are two extremes in all of us (some more than others). We have to tell one part of us to ship and the other to perfect. Sounds crazy! It’s the crazy that makes it something worthwhile.

  18. Spot on Jeff. Steve Jobs has always been an inspiration of mine creatively in so many ways. I’ve been reading the book on and off for a while, and it’s fascinating. (I have the hardback version).

    The film on his life, whilst not out of this world, tapped into his creativity and showed this perfectionist side, the desire to create work which didn’t just function, which wasn’t just adequate, but was great work, which went beyond people’s expectations.

    Top post and great metaphor.

    1. It’s an interesting story, James, and there are parts of it that I don’t think are worth emulating. But his obsession with excellence is certainly something to pay attention to.

  19. This is what I needed! I love taking pictures and I tend to get caught up in achieving perfection, that I never show my work. I’m glad I read this today as this has given me the push I need to “ship” my work!

    Thank you.

  20. The focus on “shipping” products early is a nod to the Agile development process. The sooner you ship, the sooner you can receive feedback toward future iterations. The last thing you want to do is hold up developing a product until everything is perfect, only to find that the product wasn’t expected, wanted, or even needed.

    Early “ship” phases would be to select product team members only. Later “ship” phases would most likely be released to invitation-only beta testers. And by the time the public hears about our product, the feedback goes into ongoing maintenance—it’s too late to incorporate user feedback into the product’s core.

    In the writing world, one of the coolest methods I’ve seen to ship early and maintain quality happened recently on our NaNoWriMo* discussion group. An author completed a work, and invited other members on a typo hunt (a.k.a. invitation-only beta testing). Awards were offered for the highest numbers of typos (a.k.a. “bugs”) found.

    *National Novel Writing Month group on Facebook. Hunt it down. It’s got its good points.

    1. The idea of a beta test could be very useful for writers. We do it all the time in academic publishing, where, after putting together a research paper, we share it with a half dozen or so peers to get feedback. Is the problem presented clearly? Are the statistics helpful for understanding the study? Do the conclusions actually follow from the study? Revision then ensue, and the product is stronger before it ever gets shipped out to formal review (whether it be the academic journals or, for many hear, the marketplace).

        1. I agree with you Jeff! It is very tough to figure out what some people want. I just launched a product and not a SINGLE sale was made. I was so upset…I surveyed the audience to figure out what they want, gave them what they want….and then….NOTHING! I’m trying to get over it but it’s tough to work so hard and have such faith and trust that it will work out…and the expectations are failed.

        2. If you do decide to get some audience reaction before the big unveiling, I would be happy to help out.

    2. Great points, Tony. I think some people miss the iteration part of shipping. You ship so that you can get feedback and make the next version better.

      In that respect, blogging is a great way to practice writing.

  21. Hey Jeff! Thanks for the encouragement to the newbies that need to get in the practice of shipping. I launched my podcast in February in a very clumsy fashion and have continued to learn and perfect every week since. I’m glad I did it- even if it wasn’t the best!

    I want an excellent product to ship but that excellence does come from shipping it and learning from the feedback, mistakes, etc so it can get better each time!

  22. Listening to my artist’s voice is exactly what i’ve been doing lately, so your post hits home. While I’ve been struggling on how to market my book better, my inner artist keeps telling me to focus on writing more and putting them out there instead of how to keep marketing the same one.
    That being said, I think maybe some writers are shipping too soon, as you mentioned. I’d rather take a few months more on my book to make it shine, then release it before it’s stellar.
    So I don’t blame you at all for wanting to wait on yours.

  23. I always know it’s time for me to ship my writing when I’m just moving commas around. Plus I always listened to my trusted friends whether they say ship/not ship.

    1. I can relate. Though this articulates my experience better than any: “Writing
      a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it
      becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last
      phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you
      kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” ~ Winston Churchill — yep, that’s what it’s like on this end.

  24. Excellent points. As I read, I thought “embrace the tension”- that taut balance between the two principles. I have some children’s books I shelved for over a year, because I know they are not where they need to be. Sometimes, I will publish a blog and think, well, that probably could have been better. I give myself some grace there. (For a recovering perfectionist – kind of recovering – this is progress.)

  25. It took me over 4 years to write my first book, it’s hard to believe but it’s true. I”m glad I didn’t ship because God provided me insight along the way that significantly changed my approach and overall message to my book. I like your comment Jeff in Frank Viola’s guest post where you mention that you read a lot while you’re writing for inspiration. I haven’t intentionally done that but what I was reading was one way God was speaking to me and tweaking what I did. Your encouragement to ship is just as valuable and I need to keep that in mind, last week was the first time in 6 months I didn’t write a blog post for a whole week and I’m ready to get back into “shipping” mode.

  26. As bloggers we think that more is better when the truth is killer is better. If we put out less but better content, we would get better results. Did I say better enough? 🙂

  27. Love it! I want to ship, but I don’t want to ship junk. There is a fine line, and I believe you model this well (and I’m not just kissing up…you really do!).

  28. I think most people are self critical of their work, and this can delay us in shipping, sometimes we just have to get the work out there and wait for the feedback.

  29. It’s funny currently to make a paycheck I’m a project manager that means I get stuff out the door on schedule every day. But when it comes to my writing I think you nailed me on the head on this one, I need to start shipping. Thanks for the encouragement and continue your great work I appreciate it very much.

  30. I recently read Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It’s not about writing, but some of the principles are the same. Especially don’t be afraid to try. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Who hasn’t written something they looked back at and cringed?

  31. Thanks for this post. I am only learning to convey these thoughts of mine through the writing process as we speak. I usually seem to ship when I can’t stand looking at the thing anymore – ready or not hear we come..

  32. Jeff- great post. As I work on better defining my platform and target audience, I have felt a sense of urgency in getting some work out there…shipping it. I see lots of other folks doing the same thing. Trouble is, there is a lot of mediocrity. “Done” May trump “perfect” but there still has to be value. Better to refine your work to insure the value is there than put out something less that may satisfy a few but not reach as many as something of greater value.

    1. You’re right, John. I like to say it like this: yes, you should ship your work, but remember — quality is assumed. Nobody is going to congratulate you for publish a half-done book. Similarly, you aren’t impressing anyone with spending five minutes on a blog post and throwing it out there without any thought. The tension between consistently creating work and sharing it and holding it back until it’s good enough to share is an art in itself.

  33. I was just reflecting on this the other day on my blog. I almost “shipped” a post that I knew wasn’t ready, but wrote about when to ship vs. when to wait instead. It was the first time since starting to blog that I’ve made that decision, and I’m glad that I did, I’m still refining that post but it’s already worlds better than it was last week.

  34. Thank you so much for this! I just started blogging (helping my friends to get intereted in learning English) and spent a whole week to finish the first post. I was feeling stuck and overwhelmed by this. Then, I took it easy for the second one and felt not so rewarding than the previous post. Now, I knew what I should do next and got kind of faith for my blog. Thanks again!!

  35. Having a hard deadline helps me “ship”. Discipline and mastery help me produce quality. In the end, I decide how good the “product” is going to be with all the limitations that might exist. I struggle with just finishing things to get them out of the way. Any suggestions?

    1. I think repetition helps. You get better when you ship small things over time. I ship a section of writing every day — at least 500 words. Then I ship chapters and blog posts. I don’t ship a book in a week; that would be crazy. But small pieces of execution over time lead to excellence. That’s how I practice.

  36. This definitely resonates with me. I want to publish my book (a young adult novel) but it’s just not ready. I don’t want to put it out in the world if it’s not as good as it could be. 🙂

  37. I’m a fan of your writing, but what I loved about this piece in particular is the layers in the advice. A lot of advice is so concrete, so one way of seeing things. But this takes into account that people are shifting and at different stages, they require different actions. Love this! 🙂

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  39. Great stuff. The fun thing about blogging as a way to learn to ship and to discover your voice is that the early stuff is normally read by family and friends who love you anyway. It’s a great opportunity to exercise the muscle of just getting things out in front of people. It’s like Toastmasters for writers.

    Once that muscle is good and strong, then great advice: Learn to put our writing through a more rigorous quality control process. Love it.

  40. I have a friend/coworker/mother/counselor/mentor. When she found out I enjoy writing and that I have a ridiculous number of manuscripts lying around, she gave me the best speech I ever hear. I won’t go into the whole conversation, but in short she told me to “just do it. Try. Put yourself out there. You can’t fail for trying”. That has stuck with me and influenced my entire outlook on life. My first novel is currently at the editors, I’m designing my own book cover, and I have a deadline for publication. And, because of one of your pep talks, Mister Goins, I kept up with my blog and I’m not even concerned about the page views. I blog for the fun of it. Failure doesn’t scare me. It will give me a reason to try harder.

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