What is Iteration?

By Sean Platt

New Version written on laptop screen

Today I want to talk about the word iteration.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

You’ll surely have heard us say this if you listen to the podcast at all. We’ve been talking about it all year, since January.

This is our year of iteration and optimization.

A lot of people have asked us exactly what that means. The basic definition is pretty simple.

To iterate is to do something over and over with slight improvements each time.

You’ve probably also heard me say over and over, perfection is the enemy of done.

I love this saying. I don’t even know where the first time I heard it was, but it’s so great because it’s really easy as an artist to doubt yourself and to think nobody’s going to care about what I’m doing, why do I even do it, I’m not good enough.

But you don’t have to be great to get going, but you have to get going if you ever want to be great.

It’s really important to get that first thing out there.

Dave and I first published Available Darkness in summer of 2011, and we sat down and we said okay, how do we market this. We thought, you know what, we write another book.

Available Darkness was good, but we can get better, we can do better, we can come up with better new ideas.

That’s our model. That became our model very quickly.

By January 2012 we had decided we needed to publish a book every single week.

A book back then was 15,000-20,000 words, but it was every week, because our model was get better constantly.

If you look at traditional publishing, that model is one book a year. Self-publishers, we may do up to 10 books a year.

If I’m given the choice between the two, there’s no way I would ever pick the one book a year because I think I’m going to get better writing 10 books a year. That’s because it’s constantly doing.

Taking that one book and slowly self-editing it as I write it, questioning everything I’m doing, writing slowly and painstakingly and then editing that book ten times, even if that gives me a marginally better book than I would have otherwise, the craft that I learn from writing a book, finishing it, writing another book, finishing it, on and on and on through the process, I’m getting better by visiting new stories, new characters, new worlds than I would be by just sanding down the same piece of furniture.

You want your stuff to be great for your readers. It’s unacceptable to put stuff out that isn’t polished or well edited or well thought out.

You want your stuff to be great for your readers. It’s unacceptable to put stuff out that isn’t polished or well edited or well thought out. Click To Tweet

We go through our stuff many times. From outlines that are strong to first drafts, at least two edits before we get a polish. Then professional copy edit after that.

We’re talking five times through the story before a reader reads that. I think that that’s enough.

If I can get 90% of the quality that maybe I would spend doing one book many, many times over, but I get many more stories, I’m absolutely content with that.

Yet, I would make the argument that more stories make you a stronger storyteller anyway.

So, I don’t think the argument that I’m getting only 90% of the story is even necessarily valid.

For me personally, I don’t think I could ever grow as fast writing a single novel and spending a year at it.

I think that goes for everything that we do, our books, our covers, our podcasts, our audiobooks.

We’re building an app right now, for example. Will the first version of that app be anything like the 10th iteration? Not a chance.

If we do it right, the good stuff will be there and the not-so-good stuff is going to disappear.

Your business is the same.

You just have to iterate. Iterate yourself along with your creative business because that’s the best way to get smarter faster.

Don’t settle for anything. Always improve. Always get better.

writer typing in front of a pile of crumpled paperAlways know that whatever you did last time isn’t as good as what you’re going to be capable of doing the next time, and don’t let your self fear or worry that you’re not going to be good enough allow you to not start.

Just know that you can iterate.

This mindset is prevalent in software development because it has to be. You can’t just put an app out there that’s fully done. That doesn’t exist.

Apps continue to grow based on the developer’s getting better and better skills and the users of those apps knowing what they need.

In your book business, you’re going to get better and better as a writer. You’re going to get better at building characters and building worlds and telling stories.

And your readers are the user of your app, your book, and they’re going to tell you what they want based on their feedback to your books.

App reviews and book reviews have a lot in common. You’ll see the one star reviews and the five star reviews. You can ignore a lot of the three star reviews.

But the one star reviews are going to tell you where you have a deficit, what you need to do better.  The five star reviews are going to tell you what people love about your work and what you should do more of.

That’s what iteration is for.

That goes for every part of your business. It goes for your edits, they can always be tighter.

It goes for your covers, they can always be prettier. They can always do a better job. We’re getting new covers on 60 of our titles this year. That’s a lot of new covers, but we’re iterating that entire part of our business.

So, iterate yourself. Iterate your business and you’ll grow a lot faster.

Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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