I said back in my SITREP:June post that I was going to get back into regular posts, though how regular that will be remains to be seen. So this post marks the first of new series I’ve wanted to do for a while.
Welcome to the Engineering, School, and Writing Series, which is going to be about me reminiscing on the time spent in school and in my job, taking the lessons I learned there, and examining how those lessons affect me today as a writer. I have no idea if this will be helpful to anyone else, but one thing I have learned through the power of the internet is that unique ideas are hard to come by, so I’m quite certain I’m not the first person to think of these lessons in this way. But I suspect there are plenty of writers out there who could benefit from these musings, if only because it may put into words something they have been feeling for a while.
So, today is Post #1 in that series. I hope you find it interesting.
Engineering Lesson Learned
In engineering school, I remember professors, teaching assistants, grad students, and fellow work-aholic students regularly throwing around the idea that engineering is about problem solving. Sometimes that’s about figuring out how change a design to make something more comfortable for the end user, or about finding a different material that has a better modulus of elasticity for the intended use, or about deciding which math problems I really needed to practice because I thought they’d actually be on the test.
Problem Solving as a stated professional ambition has a nice appeal to it – being hired to solve problems and “fix things” sounds very hero-esque. But one of my classes started me thinking along a different line. I don’t remember which class it was, but in it we had a lab module that was all about pump optimization. A set of basic parameters were provided: required flow rate, power draw, required pressure at the exit point, etc. Using principles we’d learned in other classes, we needed to figure out things like the diameter of the pipes involved, size of the pump, and other metrics. We did the first round and while there were some differences between each group, basically the same kinds of conclusions were reached. I thought that was the point of the lab.
But then the professor revealed a different set of information – pump cost, pipe cost, pipe material type, size envelope restrictions – and we spent the rest of the lab working through how different requirements affected the choices we made in trying to optimize for certain conditions. Say the pipe material was being buried underground and needed to be more corrosion resistant; how did material affect price if we needed to optimize for lowest cost while still also meeting corrosion resistance? Or if we needed to have a pump of small size to fit within a space we couldn’t control (like a ship’s boiler room), how could we change up other parameters like power draw and pipe diameter to still meet the required flow through?
It was fascinating to see how optimizations changed as different priorities were pushed to the front.
It was in those moments of spinning through different combinations that I realized we weren’t solving a problem, as least not in the way I think about it. Problem solving implied to me that there was a single right answer. In this lab, I was seeing dozens of solutions for each set of conditions as different groups in the lab made different choices – some were objectively better than others, but not all were quite so clear cut.
We weren’t solving problems. We were providing sets of solutions.
We were “solutioning” – the process of teasing out solutions for a particular desired problem.
This simple change in word changed the way I thought about engineering on the whole. It gave me an entirely new paradigm through which to view my future career and how to make myself useful within it.
Lesson Applied to Writing
Solutioning in writing works similarly as in engineering for me, just applied to a different set of rules.
When I’m working though a problem in my fiction, I find it helpful to regard that problem as a space which needs potential solutions explored, looking at all the ways in which it might be solved. If I have a plot problem, is it really a problem with the plot? Or have I had a character do something that she wouldn’t really have done and am subconsciously trying to fight against? Or is it an issue with pacing? Or something I haven’t foreshadowed enough? Or the wrong character is doing it?
Working through the all the potential interactions takes time, but I’ve often found very rewarding fixes by forcing myself to consider things for many angles until I find the solution that fits best. Or in some cases, the combination of solutions – maybe exploring that solution space has let me see that multiple solutions could be tied together to both fix the problem I’m having at that moment, and letting me connect to other ideas I had elsewhere in the story.
There are also times in my engineering job where the “solution space” is small. Wasting time coming up with wild and crazy potential solutions only looses my company money or angers the people who have the problem. Knowing when the “easy answer” is the right one takes practice and judgement learned from experience. This is often where having lead engineers is so helpful.
Writing becomes the same way – with time, practice, and experience, I’ve been honing my inner sense of understanding to know when a plot problem is really just a plot problem, apply the simple solution, and move forward. Having good writing partners has been similar to having a good lead engineer in that they can help provide feedback to help me know if the solution I’m crafting is the right one for the situation.
Solutioning is something that has become habit for me. I use it for house problems, budgeting issues, interpersonal conflicts (though not always with the best results – whoops), vacation planning, and parenting principles. It helps me not to get locked into too particular of an answer when looking at a problem and is something I think could be of more use all around.
What approaches have you used to solve problems in your work, your writing, or your life? Drop a note below and let others knows what works for you.