Friday, December 16, 2016

If You Wrote the Code . . .

A popular post from May 2009

by Annette Lyon

My husband is a software engineer. This comes in handy for a writer spouse. When my computer crashes or I'm my usual techno-idiot self, I just call him. ("Honeeeeey! Come fiiiiix it!!!")

The other day, he mentioned an industry axiom:

If you wrote the code, you can't write the test.

In other words, the software engineer who wrote the code is incapable of testing it properly. He has a limited perspective on it, so his test would cover (of course) just the things that occur to him to test. It wouldn't be comprehensive, because someone else would think of testing in other ways. If the coder is the tester, all kind of weaknesses or bugs will probably be left behind. 

A coder's test can't be comprehensive because he has blinders. He wrote the code.

It needs another perspective.

Sound familiar?

As a writer, you're too close to your "code," your manuscript, to test for problems, to find the holes. No matter how great of a writer you might be, you need someone else, a "tester," to look at it with a new, fresh perspective.

Writers need to learn how to do revision and self-editing, and I'd go so far as to suggest that those skills are crucial to being a successful writer. But they aren't enough. At some point, you need to step out of your isolated writer bubble and hand the pages off to someone else. 

I've had critiquers point out plot holes that I never would have noticed (usually things I can fix easily . . . once I know they're there). They've caught motivation issues (sometimes those fixes are more complex, but they always make for a more believable story). Other times it's something as simple as an inconsistency, a confusing passage, or a pacing problem.

The story is perfect in your head, so when you read it, you miss things a good "tester" can catch. Having such a tester is the only way to make sure that what's in your head actually made it onto the page.

In the software industry, testers are trained in what they do. They understand computer languages and coding. An engineer wouldn't grab any old Joe from the street (or his mother or best friend) to test his code. Of course not.

The same concept applies to writing: you need qualified "testers."

While Grandma Sally will pat you on the head for writing such a great story, she probably can't help you improve it. She's blinded by her love for you, for starters, but she's also not qualified. 

Pick testers who write and know writing. They need to be able to diagonose problems in a written work, tell you when you're telling and not showing, catch info dumps, and  grasp things like characterization, conflict,  exposition, and a plethora of other things.

A parallel axiom for the writing industry:

If you wrote the story, you can't critique it.


Danette said...

Makes sense!

Kimberly said...

Brilliant analogy, Annette, as always. I've certainly found this to be true in my own experiences. While any feedback is helpful, the feedback I've received from fellow writers has proven the most invaluable.

MommyJ said...

Oh this is such a perfect post for me today. :) You are absolutely right. It is a wonderful analogy. :)

Terresa said...

ooh, this is great stuff. I'm loving this blog. so helpful. blog on!

Eowyn said...

So, my question is, how do I become one of those trained people?

Besides reading voraciously. That's a done deal.

Annette Lyon said...

Eowyn, You learn by doing. Read writing books. Attend conferences. Enter contests. And then join a critique group with writers roughly on your level. You'll learn as much about giving and getting critiques as you do by seeing others critiquing one another. It's a powerful experience.

Don said...

So true on both accounts. And having code tested and writing critiqued requires a certain level of humility to accept the feedback that can make the product better.

Admittedly, with code the feedback is easily quantifiable, so it's harder to argue with. But it's really no less painful.

Maybe all writers should learn to code, so they can get extra practice at taking feedback.

Julie Wright said...

Hey! Are you implying I'm not perfect in my first draft??? Oh wait . . . yeah, you're right. I'm not. Great post! Great analogy and it's true even for me ;)

Josi said...

wow, what a great analogy. And so very true.

Heather Justesen said...

Annette, this is so true. My critique group picks up all kinds of random thing that are wrong with my books. Lately I've been struggling with the ending of a book I thought I was going to have ready for submission next month. Hahaha. At this point I'm thinking I'll just add the new scene I'm working on, and send it for full-manuscript reads, Something is wrong with the ending--I just can't figure out what!

I know I'll groan and sigh when I get it back from my readers, because it'll mean a whole lot of work. But if I'm not willing to get feedback and make sure it's the best it can be, what's the point of all the work I've already done?

Anonymous said...

Wow, yes, you are very right. It does help to have other eyes review the work, doesn't it? Now where to find my willing guinea pigs!

~Elizabeth Mueller

Botanist said...

Well, I've been a software developer for decades and am well aware of that axiom, yet I've never thought of the parallel quite so explicitly! Nice food for thought!