We all get stuck.
In writing and life, it’s easy to get hung up on a decision— finding the right word, the right job, the right opportunity.
In my writing, for example, I can hem and haw over a phrase or fact for 30 minutes or more. A recovering perfectionist, I tend to be one of those writers who only rarely uses discrete drafts or versions. I’ll edit the same document ad nauseam, polishing and scrubbing and tweaking.
Placeholders, I’ve found, can help us get unstuck and avoid these cul-de-sacs of indecision and inaction.
In 2009, I took Patti Wolter’s fantastic magazine editing class at Medill. There, I learned one of the most simple but effective tricks—a kind of placeholder, you could call it— to keep writing when the right word, fact or phrase wasn’t at hand.
For editors and journalists, it’s a commonplace, workman-like tool of the trade. When I first learned of it, though, it felt like a magic trick. Since then, it’s helped me write and edit better and faster. And it’s given me permission to write drafts that are incomplete.
The trick? Whenever you find yourself stuck on a phrase, fact or description, whenever a stubborn word threatens to hold the rest of your work hostage, all you need to do is to type a two-letter symbol in that place: TK.
So, let’s say I’m stuck on a sentence like this:
The man with a black hat stepped onto tarmac, looked to the horizon and thought of TK, before slipping into the back of a TK town car.
At this point, I’m not quite sure of two facts—what the man with a black hat thought of, and the color of the town car. That’s how TK can help.
TK is short for tokum, which is an intentional misspelling of “to come.” In other words, material that should be there, but will be added later. It’s a placeholder. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The intentional misspelling—also used with other copy terms such as “HED” (headline) and “DEK” (short for a deck head, or a one-line description of the story that goes below the headline)—is to alert proofers and editors that these are instructions, not part of the body copy that should be printed.
Then, when you edit, you can search for all instances of TK, and address them one by one.
The important thing is to keep writing in the moment, to get the words down on paper. You can always fix them.
This idea of using a placeholder to get unstuck works in life and business, too.
In the same way I can get hung up on finding the right words, I can find myself mired in indecision about pursuing a particular opportunity, taking this or that meeting. In these situations, when I can’t make a decision, I’m learning to put a figurative TK in that sentence, revisiting it later if it doesn’t seem to work or fit.
In the startup world, businesses use their own version of TK. They call it an MVP, or minimum viable product—a placeholder that allows the company to continue to refine the product or service and receive feedback. According to the Lean Startup:
…developing a minimum viable product [helps] to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question.
More often than not, placeholders help us in a way that we might not have intended at the outset.
Take Honda’s introduction of the modern dirt bike in the early 1960s, for example. The company had a small and nimble model of bike dubbed the “Supercub,” which carried commuters around the dense streets of urban Japan. Thinking that model wouldn’t be a hit in the U.S., where large motorcycles such as Harleys were popular, Honda executives arrived with plans of launching a competitive model. For several years, they didn’t gain much traction. Their bikes, as Clayton Christensen writes in his brilliant book, How Will You Measure Your Life, suffered from mechanical problems and required repairs that “almost bankrupted the company.”
But then, something amazing happened, Christensen writes:
To minimize start-up costs and live within foreign exchange restrictions that had been imposed by the Japanese government, the members of the Honda team had brought Supercub bikes with them to use for personal transportation in Los Angeles. One Saturday after a particularly frustrating week, one member of the team decided release his frustrations by racing his Supercub through the hills east of Los Angeles. It was fun. He invited his two colleagues to join him, and “dirtbiking” became a regular recreational outlet.
You can probably guess what happened next. The dirt bike took off.
After nearly three years, the unanticipated popularity of the Supercub and unanticipated difficulty with large bikes convinced the Honda America team that they had happened upon a better strategy – selling small bikes as recreational vehicles. They then commenced a protracted effort to persuade corporate management to support the change.
By the 1980s, Honda had become the nation’s leading motorcycle brand.
Honda’s executives realized that their larger models were placeholders for something better.
Placeholders help us keep going when ideas stop.