There is a well-known and venerable node on Everything2, called What to do when you have too many votes on your hands, that gathers together a list of multi-writeup nodes, updated annually. Created by Footprints years ago, the purpose of this node, as best I have determined, is to permit time-pressed noders to find multi-writeup sites easily, thereby enabling them to vote on several series of writeups in rapid succession.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this node. I myself have used it a number of times when midnight was fast approaching on the server and I was running out of time. Yet while the node is certainly convenient in such situations, it does have one practical drawback. By its very nature, it may tend to promote a certain degree of drive-by voting, particularly downvoting, since many of the multi-writeup sites contained in the node are chock full of one-liners and add-on writeups.
But there is another solution to the problem of having “too many votes,” which is, after all, simply another way of saying that you have “too little time.” This solution does not rely on the number of writeups in each node, although multi-writeup nodes will always speed up the voting process. Instead, this solution relies on the experience that each of you has acquired over the years as a reader and writer on E2 and elsewhere. By exercising greater reliance on this hard-won experience –- rather than simply reading every single word of each writeup –- you will be able to evaluate writeups with greater speed, consistency, and, for the most part, greater or equal accuracy.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar to you, just Blink.
That 70’s Show
It was the spring of 1976, and I was twelve years old. The country was in pretty bad shape. The President and the Vice-President had both been appointed after their predecessors were forced to leave office in disgrace. Disco was all the rage, and innocent pre-teens such as myself were having their musical tastes warped by groups like the Bee Gees and K.C. and the Sunshine Band “getting down tonight.” Coke had hit the scene years ago, turning the “free love” 60’s into the tweaked-out 70’s. Inflation and unemployment were running at all-time highs, and the continuing threat of an Arab-induced oil crisis loomed large.
And Jimmy Carter was just around the corner.
But for me, all was right with the world. I was just finishing a foot-long growth spurt that put the kibosh on any baby fat I had left. Thanks to a previous summer of working my ass off, I was the proud owner of a decent quality copy of The Amazing Spiderman #1. But most importantly, I had moved back to Virginia, to live with my father.
I idolized the man back then. Hung on every word. In my mind, he could do no wrong. So imagine my surprise when I watched him grading term papers late one evening. It was a huge stack of papers, a foot high if it was an inch. But my Dad was tearing through those papers like a knife through butter. He couldn’t have been spending more than a minute on each paper.
What was going on? Up until then, my Dad had always been a real hard-ass, telling me that “you can tell the quality of a man’s work by how he does things no one will ever see.” But here he was, skating through his students’ papers, seemingly shirking his responsibilities. Was my Dad just an unmotivated slacker, after all?
So I asked him how he could grade the papers so fast. Didn’t he need to actually read the papers before giving them a grade? Did he have any idea of the arguments being made, or even the topic that each student was writing about? Most importantly, I thought, was he trying to be fair to the students who got a bad grade, when he didn’t even bother to read their work?
My Dad grinned at me, with an expression I would later realize was condescension, and gave me an answer that has informed my writing to this day. He said that he didn’t need to read each word of a paper to evaluate it. He had been teaching and grading his students’ papers for so long that he knew what a good paper looked like. With a good paper, he said, the introductory paragraph would look a certain way, the spelling and punctuation would be correct, the formatting would be neat and uniform, and the conclusion drawn would be reasonable, supported, and well-presented.
For a bad paper, not so much.
As far as my Dad was concerned, he could get by simply “eyeballing” the papers. Well, this was certainly convenient for my Dad, but I was horrified. He was literally judging a book by its cover, and I didn’t understand how he could justify giving a grade based on anything less than complete information.
So my Dad made me a deal. After he graded the papers, he let me read each one of them for myself and “grade” them as best I could. My Dad taught the “Physics for Poets” class at U.Va., and I was pretty advanced for a 7th grader, so it worked out. Well, I read those papers for weeks, agonizing over the “grades” to give each student. I may not have finished in time to get the papers back to the students by the end of the semester, but when I was done, I proudly walked into my Dad’s office and handed him the stack of papers, ranked according to my grades.
Much to my surprise, the grades were virtually identical. To be sure, there were some minor differences, a B- here, a C+ there, but the evaluations were pretty much the same. Most importantly, the relative evaluations were exactly the same. I hadn’t seen my Dad’s grades before I read the papers, so what on Earth was going on?
To Blink, or Not to Blink
Malcolm Gladwell would eventually articulate the answer to this question nearly twenty years later in his 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, but I would internalize its message long before that. The message of Blink is really quite simple, intuitive, you might say, although Gladwell repeatedly denies such characterizations. The idea is that the human mind is built to draw initial conclusions very rapidly, based on limited information, and that these “snap judgments” are often, but not always, better than those resulting from more complete information.
Gladwell describes a Cleveland firefighter responding to a kitchen fire. When the hoses didn’t control the fire as quickly as they should have, the firefighter “sensed” a problem and called his men out. Seconds later, the kitchen floor collapsed. The fire had actually originated in the basement floor below. Upon further questioning, the firefighter was able to articulate a few reasons for his decision –- the fire didn’t respond as it should have, the kitchen was too quiet given the level of heat, that sort of thing. But that wasn’t the basis for his decision at the time he made it. Instead, when he made the call to take his men out, it just felt “right.”
Other real-world examples of this phenomenon appear in Gladwell’s book, including the program at Cook County Hospital in Chicago encouraging their emergency room doctors to focus on just a few significant pieces of information –- like blood pressure and EKG –- and to ignore other potentially useful, but less important, items. While the doctors initially resisted the program, it quickly propelled Cook County to the forefront of emergency cardiac diagnosis.
I personally saw this same principle at work beginning with my very first years as an attorney, or “baby associate,” as I now refer to it. Back then, now 14 years ago, I was repeatedly impressed at the ability of senior associates and partners to quickly survey a situation, draw conclusions, and plan a course of action, seemingly out of thin air. As I grew in knowledge and experience, I found that prior cases I myself had worked on would come forth –- at first consciously, later only as a “feeling” or “hunch” –- and would help inform my decisions.
Eventually, I found myself able to assess simple cases quickly from their outset, with surprising accuracy. More complex cases, or cases that diverged from my previous experience, would require more thought, but even there my experience allowed me to glean more from the facts at hand than I would otherwise be able. My familiarity with legal writing allowed me to read and digest case law and opponents’ briefs quickly, and to gauge their relevance and impact on my own client’s position.
This is not to say that all experience is a magic bullet, endowing its owner with mystical powers. Indeed, having the wrong experience is sometimes worse than having no experience at all. Just ask the French war planners who built the Maginot Line, foolishly staking the fate of their country on their knowledge of military technology long since outdated. Or Captain Edward J. Smith of Titanic fame, whose years of sailing the North Atlantic led him to believe he would be able to see, and avoid, any iceberg large enough to harm his vessel. Or the example set forth in Blink itself, in which the experiences –- and resulting prejudices –- of four New York police officers led to the killing of an innocent man, Amadou Diallo, in 1999.
But, for the most part, the idea is that less information can lead to better results in the hands of someone with knowledge and experience –- what Gladwell refers to as an “expert” –- by cutting down on background noise and permitting the expert to focus on what’s important. Gladwell adopts a phrase from psychology –- “thin slicing” –- to describe an expert’s ability to discern the most important information in a situation with which he is familiar, and then to derive a judgment from that select information.
Such thin-slicing lets a senior partner in a law firm reach the heart of the matter with maybe 10 or 20 of the most important documents of a case, where an associate might take hundreds of hours, and thousands upon thousands of documents, only to reach an inferior conclusion. It also allows a firefighter to make a split-second decision –- and save his men in the process –- where a more careful and thorough evaluation would leave his men to die in flames.
Maybe most importantly for this, a professed writer’s website, such thin-slicing permits experienced editors to evaluate writing quickly and efficiently, and hopefully to find the diamonds scattered amongst the chaff, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor. That is why the message underlying Blink speaks to those times when find yourself with “too many votes on your hands” as 12:00 GMT bears down.
The experience each of you has acquired, both as a reader and a writer on E2 and elsewhere, makes you a more efficient editor/voter of others’ work on this site. This is true for all but the most idiosyncratic writeups you might come across, but is especially true when the writeup is similar to those you may have written or read extensively over the years, or which may involve subjects or topics with which you are particularly familiar. The more familiar the style or topic of the writeup, the more comfortable you should feel relying on your previous experience to “thin-slice” effectively.
So the next time you find yourself pressed for time, don’t be afraid to rely on your store of prior knowledge to make your evaluation. Don’t “drive-by” vote, by any means, but feel free to follow your gut instinct when it comes to that thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision. It will not only help you, but will encourage your fellow noders to make themselves better writers, as well.