Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who's in Charge: You or Your Writing Tools?

From guest blogger Dustin Higbee:

By day, I’m a software developer.  By night, I’m a sleeper.  The spaces in between are filled with family and writing.  There are many parallels between software development and writing.  You need to know a language, but more importantly, you need to know how languages work.  You need to learn the fundamentals of good structure.  You need to adopt a work process that suits you.  This can be planning via outline or model, or you can iteratively write and revise.  No matter how you get there, the only thing that matters is the working code you ship or the finished manuscript that you publish.  But I’ve noticed that there is one part of the process that keeps both developers and writers from getting to done: tools.

It starts with an unmet need.  The project has grown too large to organize, so you search for a tool to help with organization.  The tedium of a repetitive task drives you to look for a tool that can automate the task.  Pretty soon you are auditioning tools instead of cutting code.  You are testing features instead of putting words on the page.  A little of this is ok, because a legitimate productivity boost is possible. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Enter phase two.  You’re comfortable with the new tool, blissfully hacking away at your project, when a friend (or your stand-in, the Internet) mentions a useful feature that hadn’t occurred to you.  New tool X has it, your tool does not.  You decide that you don’t need it and continue working with what you have.  But the knowledge nags you from the back of your mind, tells you that you’re incomplete without it.  So you switch.

Again, you’re blissfully hacking away at your project.  But alas, you find that New Tool is missing features that were available in Old Tool.  In a brief moment of insanity, you contemplate using both tools at the same time.  If you are a software developer AND a writer, you are permanently insane, so you contemplate coding up a new tool that has all of the “required” features.  Maybe you are lucky enough to find a third tool that has everything.  But at some point, you catch on to what others in your profession have already discovered: the tool is a distraction.
If you’re a developer, you switch from Eclipse to Sublime Text.  If you’re a writer you ditch Scrivener for WriteRoom.  These tools hide the features they contain when placed in “distraction-free” mode (Scrivener tries to do this too), but in many cases these tools are simply missing features.  So you are almost back where you started.  From here you have options. 
  1. Repeat the cycle until vomiting ensues
  2. Retreat to quill and parchment
  3. Plan your process
Option one is obviously bad, but many great works have been created with option two.  If it works for you, I am impressed.  But I will still think of you as a Luddite who is missing out on the progress of humanity.  What about option three?

Option three starts with recognizing that the tools have taken over your writing process and that you need to regain control.  A little Project Management can help here.  Many writers think about the steps of their projects as Plan, Write, Revise, although maybe not always in that order.  In this view, the Plan task is focused on the real work of researching and outlining that happens during the project.  I’m suggesting that you add a pre-planning step in which you create a project plan.

The project plan describes your process for completing the work.  The key for this discussion is that you are choosing the tools you will use for the duration of the project.  You are setting aside a specific time for selecting tools (before the project begins), and then making an agreement with yourself to stick to them until the project is complete.  When you start the project, you simply Plan, Write, and Revise using the tools you have in your toolbox.
There are, of course, other parts of the process that you can lay out ahead of time and it is easy to fall into the trap of planning so much that you never start.  But if you know that tools flip on your ADD switch, then a little planning ahead may just help you maintain your focus.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dustin. I've found that the only tool I really need is a word processing app -- I use Word because I know it. I tried Scrivner, and it's a great tool (to me) for research and documentation, but as you alluded to I got lost in some of the options and ... well, I'm just a plain old girl who needs something simple.

    I hope you will write here again, really!! Love you!