Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wednesday Book Review: Stephen King “On Writing”

Yes, to my astute readers, you will notice that this is being written on a Thursday, but I typically do my book reviews on Wednesday and I so hate to break up a set :).


Having said that, some might look at the title of this week’s review and think “Huh? What does that have to do with software testing?” In my typical manner, my reply is “it has nothing to do with it and everything to do with it”.


A little history… one of my favorite and most oft repeated podcast listens has to be, without a doubt, Merlin Mann and Jon Gruber’s talk at SxSW 2009 entitled “HowTo: 149 Surprising Ways to TurboCharge Your Blog with Credibility”. Yes, this was a somewhat silly title, but it has proven to be a treasure trove of information related to my desire to develop TESTHEAD as a blog that means something and depicts something I’m passionate about as opposed to a way to make money (which is good, because my blog doesn’t make me any money, so I’m covered there :) ). In this talk, Merlin discussed Stephen King's book “On Writing” and said there are two types of people; those who have never read “On Writing” and then get irritated about people who talk about it, and those who have read it and said “It changed my game!”


That was far too ringing an endorsement and a challenge for me to pass up, so I ordered it around Christmas and promptly put it on the stack of books I would get to reading as soon as I transitioned into my new job and got my bearings.

So is “On Writing” really all that?! In a short word, the answer is “yes” but I’m not going to stop with a short word (otherwise, what’s the value in a review?!). In more lengthy terms, “On Writing” is a practitioner's love letter to the craft, written in the way that only Stephen King can write it. First, one thing to get out of the way; you do not have to be a fan of Stephen King’s work to appreciate this book, though I can imagine it would certainly help. Me personally, I like some of his stuff and other books of his, meh! Truth be told, I feel that way about most authors, including my personal favorites (such as Orson Scott Card).

Still, as a blogger, I can appreciate the effort that goes into practicing the craft of writing. As a somewhat late blooming writer who is striving to get work published (one chapter for a book and an article for a web periodical is to date the sum total of my accepted and published or pending published body of work, but I’d love opportunities to do more), I realized that, even if I am much more focused on writing non-fiction and technical commentary, many of the same rules apply. To this end, Stephen King offers a lot of great insight, a working toolkit for an aspiring, author, writer, or blogger to get acquainted with, and some concepts that help writers tell a more compelling and interesting story.

My goal as a blogger is to not write fiction. In fact, my goal is the exact opposite, to share real experiences and write about real ideas, events and people (OK, occasionally I change names to protect the identities of participants or to meet the requirements that I not violate an NDA while I create a blog post) but I still am bound by the same rules and expectations. Ultimately, I’m here to tell a story, and my story needs to be compelling and interesting, else why would you or anyone else bother to read it? To this end, King’s advice is excellent. He makes the point that there are rules of the road. There are grammar rules that are best to be followed, there are style rules that are helpful and vital to the process, but that’s about the extent that King focuses on the rules. King describes early on in the book his own upbringing and the events that lead him to the present day. He handles this in about the first 15% of the book, and a small section towards the end of the book, but otherwise spends very little time on personal matters. In short, he sets the stage for why you would care to read about his ideas.

Next, he describes what he calls his writers toolbox, which has a few well used and well crafted tools, but those tools are powerful when used correctly. Vocabulary is one, but not to the point where it’s overwhelming or pretentious. Use your vocabulary the way you would use it, don’t just pick out words because they look good, because they will come of as both stuffy and inauthentic. Focus on good grammar, and exercise it sparingly. Get to the point, be direct, and when in doubt, be more direct and lean rather than pad things just because they sound good or feel important. Focuses on style, and here’s where the meat of the book comes into play. Not a lot of style rules, but the ones that actually matter. Lose the passive voice (a lesson I had drilled into me as I prepped my chapter for the Cost of Testing book), structure paragraphs so that they are inviting, not impenetrable and dense. Above all, edit and be brief when in doubt.

One of the valuable aspects that I appreciate is the idea of identifying your "Ideal Reader". Merlin put this very succinctly in the SxSW talk by saying that when he writes, instead of trying to put something out that he thinks will get a lot of page views, he aims to make what he writes something that will appeal to a specific person, or as he put it, he wants to have someone he respects look at what he is writing and not think it’s a load of crap. I do much the same thing. Who is my ideal reader you might ask? It’s anyone in the Twitter-verse who has taken the time to read my stuff and comment on it. It’s the Miagi-Do ka (people like Ajay Balamurugadas, Markus Gartner and Matt Heusser), it's the frequent readers who come back time and time again to leave comments and offer encouragement (Albert Gareev, Shmuel Gershon, Devon Smith, Adam Yuret and numerous others) and other testing writers that I have a great deal of respect for, such as James and Jon Bach, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Doug Hoffman, Cem Kaner and Bret Pettichord. The fact that I might be writing something that some of these people would dig, yeah, that motivates me!


King’s philosophy about writing is that there is a large pool of bad writers, a slightly smaller pool of competent writers, an even smaller pool of good writers, and a really small pool of great writers. He doesn’t believe the bad writers will get to be good, or that the good writers will get to be great, at least not by the advice in a book. He does however, believe there’s a lot that can be done to bridge the gap between competent and good, and in his estimation, most people who are willing to put the effort in fall into that camp (and by extension, I’m hoping I do as well; I’d like to believe I do). King emphasizes that good writing is not necessarily super polished literary work that would necessarily gain critical praise, but it is writing that is authentic and sounds and feels natural.


King is often quoted as saying the first draft is done with the door closed, and the second draft is done with the door open. By closing the door, we focus on getting our thoughts out and fleshed out. From there, we then welcome our readers in and ask for their input for the second draft. In truth, I do this and I don’t do this, because very often, my first draft goes right onto the blog. Still, I think it’s good advice, in that most ideas should be created and written in isolation, and then opened up for others consideration after the main idea is down.


Additionally, to be a good writer, one has to write. A lot. They also have to read. A lot. Having a desire to write, but saying you don’t have time to read is basically killing the purpose. Additionally, by reading, we learn what we want to do and what we don’t want to do (the good with the bad, or even just the style we don’t want to use).


I like the closing advice of the section, which is that if you are going to write, write for the right reasons. I apply this to the blog in this manner: I write because I want an active memory of my experiences that I can go back and reference and remind myself where I’ve been and where I want to go. Additionally, I want to be a warning to others (LOL)! What I mean is that I post both good things and bad things in this blog, my successes and failures, triumphs and frustrations, in the hope that some young tester down the road will learn from my mistakes and not have to repeat all of my screw-ups!


Bottom Line:

You may or may not be a fan of King’s body of work, but you don’t have to be to appreciate the value of “On Writing”. It’s an authentic, earthy, and very real view into the mind and life of Stephen King and the experiences that have shaped him (his early life, his successes and failures, his alcoholism and recovery and the accident in 1999 that nearly ended his life). Most of all, it shares the message that writing just plain matters to him, and after a career of almost 40 years, he’s figured out a few things that would be worth looking at and learning. Even if your goal is not to write the heir-apparent to The Stand (which, if anyone cares, is my all time favorite Stephen King book), or write fiction at all, give “On Writing” a read. For those who have said “it changed my game”,  I’m not sure I’m at that point just yet, but I have a glimmer of an understanding as to why it receives the praise it gets.
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