#37 - How Writing is Making Me a Better Engineer

Spoiler Alert: There Isn’t One Weird Trick

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Last night, I started reading Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck starts off with this:

“The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact.”

Equally true, I’ve found, is that writing shapes and controls reality itself. Writing about my projects has forced me to think about them differently. 

More specifically, it’s forced me to think more clearly about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. My early writings were tricky to follow, because the reader (and, for that matter, the writer) couldn’t tell which way the stream of consciousness would turn next. For your sake and mine, I read On Writing Well. This sentence stood out to me: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.”

In trying to write more clearly, I’ve had to clarify my own thoughts about what I’ve experienced. Take post #32 for example -- I broke down a failure into three separate issues and solved each one in turn. 

It may seem like a small thing, but my instinct on seeing a project going up in flames is to rush in right away and try to put it out. The problem is that I usually get lost in the smoke. More effective, but more unnatural, is to pause, take a step back, and consider what specifically is on fire, whether it’s worth saving, and, if it is, how to save it. 

It is difficult. I have to keep reminding myself to take that step back. Even when nothing is wrong, it’s so easy to get drawn into the details. I do a few things to make looking at the big picture a habit. For my writing, I make outlines. For my engineering, I write posts about what I’m doing as clearly as I can. For my drawing, I start every exercise with a rough outline, focused on proportions, as prescribed in Cours de dessin

Writing has also taught me to accept redos as a natural part of the process of creation. Again from On Writing Well, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard.”

It’s perfectly normal in drawing too. I erase and redraw over and over without a second thought. But somehow, when it comes to engineering, the expectation is perfection on the first try. That’s never going to happen. Instead of trying to solve everything in my head and build once, I’m allowing myself to build over and over - editing and rewriting along the way.


Corrections? Questions? Comments? I’d love to have your input. Leave a comment, email me at surjan@substack.com, or find me on LinkedIn.

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Drawing exercise #26. If you missed it, here’s why I’m learning to draw.