Friday, February 17, 2012

Origins addendum

Some of the comments on my "Origins" post on Monday sparked a couple of thoughts which were worth follow-up posts.

In my "Origins" story, it sounded like I just started writing out of the blue. That's certainly how it felt at the time, and, as far as recreational creative writing goes, that is indeed true.

But, in retrospect, it wasn't quite as surprising as I may have portrayed it.

Looking back, I've actually been writing for many years, I just didn't realize it at the time.

Until my family and I left the UK, I was a software developer. Far broader than just programming, my work was "soup to nuts", and the dry world of professional IT offered many surprising opportunities for good writing - if only you knew where to look for them.

First off, there's the obvious world of coding comments. Long ago, I learned to respect the human mind's tendency to forget what was running through it at the time it wrote something. So, I learned the value of very clear explanations of complex thought processes, written as if explaining something to a complete stranger.

Then my company moved to data dictionary technology, and comprehensive documentation was embedded deep into every aspect of the development cycle. Faced with the task of describing, for example, the "Customer number" field, it begged a response slightly more substantial than "A number for the customer."

So, I practiced the art of asking, "What thing of value can I say about this?" and I lost my paralysis when faced with a blank page, and nothing more than vague and elusive thoughts with which to fill it.

In other parts of the software development cycle, I waged a crusade to write things like business requirements, process descriptions, high level system designs, and user guides, in plain and accessible lay terms. If I could write something that didn't induce chronic narcolepsy, I reasoned, then maybe people would actually read the darned things.

More than this, some of these documents verged on storytelling. Did you ever realise how much a complex workflow resembles a story? There's the end user - the protagonist - embarking on an epic journey to place a purchase order, playing a deadly game of "Hunt the Part Number" with the Guardian of the Database, seeking the blessing of the Expense Authorities, and then battling the perils of Misquoted Prices, Partial Deliveries, and Changing Requirements.

I developed stamina, too. Some of these documents ran to hundreds of pages.

At the other end of the scale, my professional work sometimes demanded leanness bordering on the anorexic. Ever tried to present a complex business case, with an explanation (to someone who is meeting this proposal for the first time), options with pros and cons, and a recommendation - all in less than two pages?

When you add this all up, throwing in a bit of fiction wasn't so much of a leap after all.

Question: What opportunities for writing present themselves in your life?


  1. It sounds like all you did led you naturally to where you are today. Programmer, huh? You know there's 10 kinds of people in the world? Yup, those who understand binary, and those who don't.

  2. Awesome! Sounds similar to what I do. Many of my code comments consist of things like:

    Viewscript is a piece of crap that doesn't support looping, so we have to run through this huge block of stupid code instead.

    That's actually a comment that made it into my last project. Informative and entertaining, right?

    Thanks for sharing!


  3. You are obviously someone in the know, Susan :)

    Andrew, at the top of a 10,000-line COBOL program I once wrote "A good stiff drink is recommended before reading further." And I meant it.

    1. If your writing COBOL, you automatically need a stiff drink. I took a semester on COBOL and it was truly horrifying.

      COBOL is the only language where the source is more verbose than the compiled.


  4. Yes. Sounds like you had all the major elements needed to become a writer. Add a dash of fiction and off you go!

  5. Andrew, I actually found COBOL very good for business purposes. Obviously not something you'd use for systems programming, but it did have its up-sides.

    Ellie, yes, it was the fiction part that was waiting to ambush me :)

  6. Er, I know NOTHING about programming. But I like how you compared writing about it to a story. Sounds like you were learning about story structure and didn't know it! Good post!

    1. I think I was looking at business process like a story, so I could describe it in a way that didn't make people want to gouge their eyes out :)

  7. I'm soooo late following up on the Origins blogfest! So I'm glad that you followed up with an expanded post here. sounds as though anything after COBOL should be easy. ;-)

    1. Hi Li, there were just so many entries in that blogfest. I confess I haven't visited them all, and probably won't by now :(


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