Monday, December 3, 2012

Why Every Writer Should Major in Architecture

“How long did that take you…fifteen minutes?”
“Your drawings hurt my eyes.”
“If I was in your building, I would want to kill myself.”
“To be honest, I hate your project.”

These are comments we architecture students routinely heard during the bi-monthly critiques at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design—and we were an easy school. For the first three minutes, you sold your design to a panel of six judges. For the next twenty-seven, they attacked it.

I didn't know anybody in college who worked as hard as the architects. We measured the time since we last slept in days, not hours. Without exception, everybody in our studio pulled an all-nighter before the crit—and for many, this was their second in a row. Or their third.

During crits, I remember people breaking out in tears, to which the judges would just raise their voices and claim they’d never make it as architects. Occasionally, you’d get a good review. Not praise, never praise, just distracted conversation amongst the judges until the thirty minutes were up. But a good critique was poisonous. A good critique could do serious damage…because of what would happen the next time.

A good critique got to your head, and you’d start feeling cocky. You’d act cocky, and the second you walked up there two weeks later, you’d look cocky. They could smell it. And they’d be on you like hyenas.

So we learned a few things. Keep your damn mouths shut. Just smile and nod. If you had to speak, thank them for their advice but say nothing else. And we learned the inevitable: no matter how good your project was, they would always find something to criticize.

During my first three years, I thought it was because they were big meanies and they wanted to hurt my feelings. But during that last year, I learned the truth. They would always find something to criticize because there always was something to criticize. In other words, no matter how perfect I believed my novel—I mean architecture project—was, there was something about it that sucked. Or at least, something that could be improved.

When I realized that, I started listening to my instructors. I took the critiques to heart. I started going back and making “perfect” projects even better. It was like I had crossed the sound barrier. Suddenly, with no ego to get in my way, there was no limit to how good I could make something given enough feedback and enough iterations. Let me show you how it works with some simple math.

Some Simple Math

Quality builds on itself, wouldn't you agree? It’s easier to edit something that’s already written than it is to write something from scratch. Revision is cumulative. It works like interest. Let’s say each time you edit, you make your project 20 percent better. Now let’s say you do ten revisions total. You’re final product is 200% better than the original, right? 20% x 10 = 200%. Wrong.

The law of Accelerating Returns

It works on technology, it works on finance (compound interest), it works on architecture. And it works on your book. After ten revisions, your work is over 600% better. Try it yourself on a calculator. Enter 1 x 1.2 x 1.2 x 1.2…etc. Each time you revise, you’re taking all your prior work and investing it in the next revision. It’s just like investing money. You wouldn't give your retirement fund one year to grow and then take it out and say, “that’s long enough,” would you?

Now, I know it’s weird to talk about writing in terms of percentages, but the same concept applies. It must.

So here’s my challenge:

When you’ve gotten your project—whether it’s a paranormal thriller or an addition to the Guggenheim—as good as you can make it, go back and revise it again. Huge leaps will come only after you push past the limitations of “perfection”. From this point forward, you will amaze yourself with your improvements.

Perfection is not a destination. It is a process.


  1. Perfection is not a destination. It is a process. That's good advice for ALL endeavors! Thanks Dan!

  2. So true. Most of your life you'll be working toward a goal or travelling toward a destination, and often even when you reach your goal, you'll feel good for five minutes before you set a new goal. Cherish the journey, and not only will you be happier, you'll go farther.

    Thanks for the comment!!

  3. Third year architecture student here and I completely agree with you!As we keep revising, the project constantly evolves and becomes better than before- let it be architecture or writing.Wonderful post! :)

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