Learning to Write, Writing to Learn

Writing, while I love it, doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect it doesn’t come naturally to any writer. The process of getting something written, really tightly focused and right on target, is a heroic act of understanding, simplification and embracing constraints. It’s a skill for which I don’t have a good analogue in the other kinds of work I’ve done. Maybe the closest is the finish work (sanding and polishing) with jewelry making or metal-work, but that doesn’t quite fit. I suspect there are good analogues, I’m just not spotting them.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my challenges with the learning to write process, complicated by COVID and the overall lockdown. While I broke through that plateau, there are always more challenges to work through. This last week, I hit another slog-swamp – this time it’s more about mental framing than my actual writing and feedback loops.

Part of why I’m doing technical writing is that writing is an act of sharing that has an incredibly long reach. It’s a really big-damn-lever in the move the world kind of metaphor. That makes it, to me, a supremely worthy endeavor.

To really do it well, you need to know the subject you’re writing about: backwards and forwards, from a couple different angles, maybe even coming in from a different dimension or two. I embraced the idea of “If you can explain something simply, then you may understand it.” That’s the “writing to learn” part of this – what I’m doing with the writing is forcing myself to learn, to think about the subject matter from different angles.

The hardest part of that learning is figuring out the angles that don’t come naturally, or from which I don’t have a lot of background. I’m generally fairly empathetic, so I’ve got at least a slight leg up; I can often at least visualize things from another point of view, even if I don’t fully understand it.

The flip side of it, learning to write, happened this week. I completed a draft revision, and when I reviewed with some folks, I realized it fell way off the mark. There were a few things that I thought were true (that weren’t) that knocked it awry. More than that the feedback I got was about taking things to a more concrete example to help reinforce what I was trying to say. Really, it was super-positive feedback, but the kind of feedback that has me thinking I might need to gut the structure pretty heavily and rebuild it back up. As the weekend closes out, I suspect an act of creative destruction might be coming in order to reset this and get it closer to where it needs to be.

I’ve been noodling on that feedback most of this weekend – it has been percolating in my rear-brain for quite a while. Aside from the “things you thought were true that weren’t” (the evil bits that get you, no matter what the topic area) that I got straight pretty quickly, the key from this feedback is that while I was correct in what I was touching on in the writing, it was too abstracted and too easily mis-undertstood. Especially in the world of technical writing and programming topics, it’s SUPER easy to get “too abstract”. And then there’s the death knell of what should be good technical writing – too abstract AND indirect.

Embracing the constraint of “making it more concrete” is some next-level thinking. It’s forcing me to be less abstract (a good thing) and it’s taking a while to really see how to make that work for the topic I’m writing about. I mean, really, I’m still working on the “nuke all the passive voice” thing. While I’m getting better, it takes me something like 3 or 4 passes, reading sentence by sentence, to spot them in my writing.

For what it’s worth, I’m loving the “nuke passive voice” constraint. I love that it forces the writing to be specific about what takes action and what the results are – so much hidden stuff becomes clear, and it’s a great forcing function to see if you also really understand how it’s working.

For now I’ll continue to noodle on how to make my example more concrete, and get back to my baking and kitchen cleaning for the afternoon. Come tomorrow, I’ll take another pass at that article and see what I can do for the concrete-ness aspect.