Reclaim Your Personal Method

(Since this pertains to both self-education AND technical work, I’m posting this on both of my blogs)

Randy Ingermanson has an interesting approach to writing fiction. It’s called the Snowflake Method. It looks interesting, but I won’t be following it in my work.

First, Don’t Follow
I only use my own methods. That is to say I’m happy to use anyone else’s ideas, but only if they become mine, first. I can learn from other people, but I don’t follow anyone. See the difference? The only way I can responsibly follow someone as a thinker is if they are supervising my work. For instance, when Captain Ben taught me to sail, I used his methods because he was right there to correct me. Also it was his boat, and he answered my questions and let me experiment with alternative ideas to see why they were inferior. As he trained me, his methods became my methods. I began to do them based on my sense of their logic– which means I also came to understand under what circumstances I might need to change them. That’s the difference between learning and numb indoctrination.

When Jerry Weinberg taught me the Fieldstone Method of writing, I formed my own interpretation of it, and now it’s the James Bach version of Weinberg’s Fieldstone Method. And when I teach Rapid Software Testing, my methodology ideally becomes personal to each student, morphing to their own preferences and patterns, or else they should not be using it.

“Composting” Good?
In describing the Snowflake Method, Ingermanson discusses something that he says every writer does: composting. That’s where you actually dream up the story. He writes that

“It’s an informal process and every writer does it differently. I’m going to assume that you know how to compost your story ideas and that you have already got a novel well-composted in your mind and that you’re ready to sit down and start writing that novel.He says how you do that is a personal creative matter.”

Okay. Interesting that he says nothing about how to do that, though, since for me that’s almost all that writing is. But now, the actual Snowflake Method, he says, kicks in after composting is done with. It’s a way of progressive outlining of the book so that you can write it in an organized way.

Wait, did he say that happens after composting?

AFTER composting? Seriously?

This is a problem for me, because I’m nearly always doing that thing he calls composting. For me, writing is an exploratory activity. I’m constructing my ideas before I write them down and also as I’m writing them down. I’ve written many articles and two books that way. I have not yet written much fiction, but I have a hard time believing my method will be or should be different for fiction.

“Seat of the Pants” Bad?
Here Ingermanson makes a tiresome rhetorical move: He contrasts his approach with the “seat of the pants” method. He believes his method is better. I agree that it’s probably better for him, because it’s his own personal method. But on what basis can he say that his method is better than the alternatives for anyone else? Besides, it sounds like “composting” is just “seat of the pants” that happens to be Ingermanson-approved.

This is typical best practices rhetoric, and the pattern generally goes as follows:

1. I conceive my method as figure and everything else as ground. I won’t talk about how my method blends into and is supported by any other methods or skills or talents or preferences. I won’t talk about how it may go horribly wrong. The method is an island.

2. Since I like my method better than the other not-the-method thing I once did, [cite anecdotal and cherry-picked evidence here], it is probably better.

3. Since I taught someone else to use my method and they said they like my method better than whatever unexamined way of working they once had, [did they actually use my method? Well, they said they did, but I didn’t actually watch them do it], it is even more probably better.

There are a few problems with this pattern of reasoning. One is that it is not necessarily a comparison of one method to another. It’s more likely a comparison of a state of confusion to a state of decision. Decision usually does win over confusion. The people who are out looking for a method may not already have a sound understanding of the methods they already use. So they leap on any method offered as if it were a life buoy. This of course is no indication that the method itself is better than any other method, but merely that people hate feeling confused and incompetent.

Another problem is that even when it is a comparison of methods, it’s generally a comparison between an ineffable method and one that sounds good when explained. Things that are ineffable, no matter how useful, get a bad reputation. That’s why you’ve met at least one person in your life who has claimed that you need to “learn to breathe” or “remember to breathe.” In fact, you already have a method of breathing, and unless your eyes have just gone so fuzzy that you can’t read this at all, you are probably breathing pretty well right this moment. An effective way to present a method of breathing could be to say “If you are having problem X, one solution might be to try a special kind of breathing called Y. Let’s try it now so you can see what I mean…” This way offers the practice without implicitly or explicitly denying other ways of working.

Yet another problem is that all methods rest on a certain way of organizing the world. If you don’t accept that foundation, then the method won’t satisfy you. Ingermanson seems to find it easy to segment heavy creative work from the light creative work. Hence composting is good, but seat-of-the-pants writing is bad. Since I don’t accept that distinction, to use the Snowflake Method as presented would force me to become alienated from my creative process. I would not be in direct touch with my own mind, but all thoughts would be mediated through the controlling outline of the Snowflake. Ick!

A Rhetoric for Pushing Back
It’s not “seat of the pants”, I say. It’s not merely “ad hoc.”

It’s thoughtful and responsible, rather than mindless and robotic. It’s exploratory, rather than pre-scripted. It’s agile rather than rigid. It’s constructive and generative, rather than a mere conditioned response.

Want more? Try breaking the method down into sub-parts. In exploratory work, I might cite such tasks as:

  • overproduce ideas and abandon them (think “brainstorming”)
  • recover previously abandoned ideas (think “boneyard”)
  • pursue lines of inquiry
  • conduct thought experiments
  • alternate my tactics for better progress
  • dynamically manage my focus (from very focused to de-focused)
  • charter my own work in light of my mission as I understand it
  • view my work from different perspectives
  • produce results, then reproduce them differently based on what I learned (cyclic learning)
  • construct a new and better version of myself as I work

Seat of the pants? That sounds like a put-down. Why don’t they call it dynamic control and development? Because that doesn’t sound like a put-down.

Reclaim Your Personal Method
As Adam Savage says, “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” Yes, indeedy.

You don’t have to accept someone else’s intermediating artifice between you and your thoughts. Whether that’s a book outline, or a test plan document, TPI, or some method of artificial breathing you can say no. You can say “that would be irresponsible, because I must remain attached to the source of my own methods of working. I can’t drive a car safely from the BACK SEAT!”

Having said all that, I found Randy’s Snowflake Method interesting and I think I will try it. I will meld it with my exploratory style of working, of course, and claim it for my own.

3 thoughts on “Reclaim Your Personal Method

  1. I don’t get methods and ideas thrust upon me so much these days – but when I did and I either wanted time to think them through (analyse) or even disagree my way of “reclaiming my personal method” was to say:-

    “Yes, that is ONE way of doing it but not the only way, there is also x, y & z – with pros & cons such as…”

    Some people would get infuriated that their idea wasn’t going to go into mass-adoption (more their problem than mine) – not realising that a group of different perspectives on the approach would usually transform the method into a consensus approach.

    [James’ Reply: Good response!]

  2. Hello James,
    With this post you describe in which state of mind I’m into over the last months. It feels like being in a kind of testing twilight zone. I already admit that the methods I have learned aren’t that good methods to start with, like Tmap, ISTQB, TPI etc. I have found the approach of CDT one of which I have the feeling the represent who I want to be. The part is: I’m not able yet to make it my own. In short: I’m in the middle of methods which gives me a bad feeling and still triggering me to continue.

    Postings like this helping me to re-think and re-judge my thoughts

    thanks for this

  3. As a ‘follower’ of yours, I must say I agree with you. In my experience with teaching and learning, no matter what the skill, you must make it your own before it can be applied effectively.
    Unfortunately, as someone with a boss and corporate standards (never mind the merits or de-merits of that concept), I am sometimes forced to follow a method I don’t agree with and don’t support. I have difficulty getting said bosses to give me enough flexibility to let me be effective. I manage to get by through a balance of playing the game when I have to and hoping I don’t get caught the rest of the time. Luckily I’m good at what I do, which buys me the occasional blind eye.

    Do you have any advice for those of us who are trying to break free from dictated methods? I know there aren’t any magic words, but anything you can suggest would be appreciated.

    [James’ Reply: First, if you are forced to play along with an idea you don’t understand or support, at least don’t take it seriously within yourself. They can rent your mind and support, but don’t sell your truth.

    Second, consider it an opportunity to gain wonderful learning experience– perhaps experience in something that runs badly, but that’s educational, too.

    Third, make sure you are on record with your boss and co-workers as either not understanding or not agreeing with the method you are being asked to use. This can be done gently (I don’t usually do it gently, though I’ve seen it done that way!), but it must be done. Otherwise you may give the impression that your independent judgment concurs with theirs, and may well continue with a course of action they might have doubted if they knew that you doubted it, too. Hence we get the “110,000 certified testers can’t be wrong” argument, as if all, or indeed more than a handful of those testers actually independently analyzed and approved of the program.

    It’s okay to try a method that you don’t understand or agree to. Consider that an experiment. But make sure that you call it an experiment and not “a better process.”]

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