Writing and Computer Programming and the Ability to Compartmentalize

I have written all my adult life. I have written things from computer user manuals to children’s stories. From magazine feature articles to drama sketches. From college textbooks to novels.

I have also been a computer programmer my whole adult life. In fact the number one thing that kept me away from writing for a living most of my life was that I could make more money in computers.

Writing and computer programming. That might seem like the ultimate left brain / right brain dichotomy. What could those two endeavors possibly have in common? More than you might think.

One is the ability to compartmentalize. That term is often used of the ability to put feelings in a box until an appropriate time to deal with them. But it can refer to thoughts as well as feelings. Most of my career I have had to juggle multiple gigs, and I have been aided by an ability to focus on the job at hand and not worry about all the other things coming up later.

That ability to compartmentalize is actually a skill taught in computer programming. You take the total task and break it down into component parts. Then you write a method or function that does just one thing, just one part of the total task. While working on that piece of code you focus only on that one thing, knowing that later you can focus on the next thing and the next thing and then put them all together.

I have found that to be extremely useful in writing also. In a long writing project you have hundreds or thousands of details to juggle - characters, description of surroundings, elements of the plot. And when I was writing my first mystery, A Town Called Potato, I also had to juggle clues, red herrings, lies that characters told, sci-fi planets, different alien species, and even film noirish similes that I would try to slip in throughout the text. It was a dizzying prospect. The only way I could handle it was to treat it like a programming project. I first got a handle on the scope and big picture of the project, in this case the outline and character notes. Then I treated each chapter in the outline like a programming method or function, focusing just on telling that part of the story in the best way I could.

So instead of writing a novel, I was writing a series of chapters. And within each chapter I could use techniques of writing short works to create a flow and tell a story, without having to think about everything else that would come later. Then in the second draft and the proofing process I made sure everything fit together.

I couldn’t have done it without compartmentalizing it like a computer project.
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Published on May 10, 2020 14:28 Tags: writing
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