Saturday, 12 May 2012

Crowther on Writing


Some books change your life. Once read they leave a permanent and lasting impression on you, that without some shocking change will likely stay with you the rest of your life. For these books you can remember the title and author, even what within the book you were affected by.

Some books effect a less dramatic change, they shift your view of the world and yourself a more subtle way. Perhaps the authors and titles of these books are harder to remember, though likely you will recall some idea or concept you took from the book.

I can recall many books that I've read, relating to varied subjects that at one time or other have been of interest to me. As a youngster I had a small illustrated, pocket book on Trees. It was the first time I experienced the power of books to enlighten and reveal the world around me. I'd always done hiking and camping and so knew some of the plants and trees I encountered. But I remember thinking that trees were at best just a wall of green, different shapes and heights, different forms of leaves and flowers but beyond that they were indistinguishable.

After learning more from my book on trees the world became a more meaningful place. I could recognise trees as adults and as seedlings, spot the male and female versions and understand the soil and environment they preferred. I even began to know what type of tree a twig came from due to the shape the missing leaf had left on the twig. It's hard to explain how enlightening the experience was.

Years later I'd pick up a book on rocks and had the same enriching experience. To look at rocks and stones and know what they are made of, how they formed, recognise their crystalline structures, and have insight into the history they had experienced.

Another more recent book that literally changed my life was Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen. I read it with fascination and closed it with a sense of having had my eyes opened and my way of thinking shifted forever. I've given away probably 10 copies of that book to date.

More recently still I changed my professional perspective fundamentally after reading Gojko Adzic's, Specification by Example. As some of you will know I did a little road-tour of presentations about how I'd used it. I remain convinced this work represents a paradigm shift in how we can think about what we do, like Context Driven was for testing. It may need refining but it's a pivotal moment in the progressive growth of our profession.

Just the other day, in a manner of speaking, I read Jerry's book on the Fieldstone method of writing. I've always liked writing but like most people I struggled with two concerns. Firstly, that I was not very good at writing, in that what I write is not very entertaining, instructive, well structured, etc. Secondly, that am somehow lacking in the required intellect and ability needed to recognise, capture and write-up appropriate material.

Right now, I have 12 unfinished writing projects. They range from essays and papers to a huge project that's been on the go for over 2 years and is about 30% complete. I spoke to a testing friend on email the other day and he recounted his own set of in-progress writing work.

Before I read Jerry's book I saw this as a problem, proof of my limited intellect and ability. After all, if I was really 'that clever' I'd breeze through the writing and publish material en masse, right? Well, no because it doesn't work that way. A real gem of a revelation was Jerry talking about his own mass of unfinished projects. Not sure why but I was surprised by this. He mentioned how he doesn't just sit and write a piece of work but builds it up, one energy stimulating field stone idea at a time. What's more, he collects these field stones gradually for a range of projects.

It seems like such a simple idea and yet consider how utterly contrary this is to what we were taught in school. Again, as mentioned in his book, the usual way is to conceive a topic to write about, build an outline, ensure a start-middle-end and then get writing. Just merrily writing away until it's finished. This might work for some forms of writing, say for help file, guidebook type writing. But for what I'll call creative technical writing it's a hinderence.

In creative technical writing you of course want to provide instructive material, so the reader can grasp the topic, but you also want to provide insight that connects subjects, topics, ideas and experience in ways that mean your writing provides unique value to the reader. To do this you need to have the insights in the first place, you need to have the aha moments that make the connections and then wire them together into your writing. If you don't you can't share them and your work will lack a certain unique value.

Is writing an outline and then writing out the words against that outline or Field stoning a the better way to write something that’s technical but creative too? In my view writing from an outline is like testing from a test script. You plod through each heading / test condition and prescriptively fill in the blanks. It’s OK for getting words on paper, but it’s not the best process for sparking creativity, for prompting aha moments of sudden, valuable insight and going beyond the scope of the (test) plan. Actually, just thinking about that, is getting words on paper really what we want to do when writing? I imagine like me you aspire to something more meaningful and valuable. To achieve that, Field stoning is the way.

Field stoning is like ad-hoc exploratory testing. You initiate an ad-hoc session of Field stone collection when the appropriate moment arises. That moment may be because you have some time and sit down to write or better still you’ve been journeying through your day and encountered something that connects with the writing project you’re working on. It’s like exploratory testing when you observe something interesting along the testing path you were taking, then head off to investigate. What you uncover in this way, what you end up writing about and how you write about it, is usually far more interesting and valuable than the planned items you had to guide you.

So, what more about Jerry’s technique? Well for one I no longer feel guilty about having many projects on the go at once, in fact it’s the best way. I now gather up fieldstones at apace, they’re literally everywhere and writing them down is no harder than taking notes. Fieldstones come in all shapes and sizes. Some are 200 word paragraphs, others 20 word ideas that need to be found a little nook to fit into. My writing projects are not all technical either. Some like The Human Empire, Aranath Awakes, First Weavings and Mines of Ar’tir are some of the more creative works I’m gathering a very different bag of stones for. 

So if you’re struggling to write but want to get better at it and write more, take heart. Get a copy of Jerry’s book and read it through a couple of times.

Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method

Then set out your mixed array of field stone collection bags and start gathering stones as you go about your day. Importantly, get writing and reading and keep writing and reading. Write, write, write then publish, publish, publish. Create, Read, Update, but don’t Delete, instead Publish.

It’s not about being the best writer or winning prizes. It’s about the wonderful process of writing - the time spent in gathering, analysis, thinking, reshaping, writing and sharing. Don’t worry about what others will think. Some of my first writing many years ago I now consider pretty weak but I’m still proud of them as works. If you want to write, you will, one field stone at a time.

Thoughts? Leave a message!

Mark.

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