Monday, March 14, 2011

Law 3: Truth is Not Wishful Thinking

Making Monday

During the day I make software and systems. One of the benefits of working in technology is that I spend proportionally more of my time with people who deal in truth.

Engineers quickly learn that if a device blows up on a test bench, no amount of wishful thinking will turn a smoking ruin into a functioning device.

I listened recently to a discussion on Science Talk, a weekly podcast from Scientific American, about how much of the population understands scientific thinking. The editors defined scientific thinking as willingness to understand the facts of the matter and draw conclusions based primarily on evidence and not emotion or ideology.

Making has much in common with scientific thinking. Makers are more interested in what a thing is than what it should be. Only when they understand the truth of a thing can they make it into something else. For example, a piece of wood can't become a beautiful carving if it has a hidden flaw.

Makers also understand that wishful thinking can't finish a thing half made. Redefining something unfinished as finished compromises the integrity of both the maker and the thing being made.

We fall prey to wishful thinking in writing, for example, when we bang out a draft and assume it's ready for agents, or when we dismiss criticism.

I've often heard the best writing characterized as the result, often painful, of digging deep to reveal the emotional core of the story. There are other truths, like flat dialog or a dull midsection, that writers as makers have the courage to find and face. The best writers are never content to take refuge in wishful thinking.

Image: Bill Longshaw /