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Hunt, Gather, and Build: A Review of “Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method”

Hunt, Gather, and Build: A Review of “Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method”

Fieldstone Wall

    Gerald M. Weinberg has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles on computers, technology, consulting, and the craft of composition.  Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method is an excellent survey of the methods he has used in order to produce this voluminous output.  The comprehensive table of contents provides the reader with a clear, useful map of what lies ahead, and the exercises sprinkled throughout this short, readable book make it a valuable addition to any writer’s bookshelf.

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    Weinberg on Writing cover

      (p. 6). Weinberg begins with a clear principle that we would all do well to take to heart: you can’t write about things you don’t care about.  You might be able to type about things you don’t care about, but if your heart isn’t in it, it is likely to be flat, boring, and uninspiring.  Thus, one exercise he suggests is to try to take assignments that don’t look very interesting at the beginning and turn them into things we would like to write about.

      There is a double benefit to taking this kind of risk.  First, we get to change the boring and uninspiring into the exciting and meaningful by applying a little creativity.  Second, we can separate ourselves from the crowd by turning in something important rather than something that is simply “assigned.”

      2.  You need to collect stones before you can build.  In other words, you need something to write about before you can start writing.  Most of these stones will be useful in one project or another: as Weinberg notes (p. 15), for people who are working on multiple projects at any given time, gathering stones and putting them in appropriate project-specific piles brings us closer to completion.

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      This can also be dangerous, though, because gathering stones can be a kind of unproductive procrastination.  Balance is the key, and you should work on projects with an eye toward completion rather than mere accumulation.

      3.  How we react to the ideas we have is what is important (pp. 18-21).  It isn’t that we have too many ideas, or even usually too few.  Organizing the ideas we do have (when we have too many) and finding new ideas (when we have too few) helps us break through “writer’s block.”  If we aren’t sure what to do with the ideas once we have them, we can start relating to them by writing “blah blah blah blah…” or “X X X X…” until we decide to start writing something else (p. 128).  A key to writing is to overcome the fear of engaging with our ideas.

      4.  Be an alert intellectual entrepreneur.  Weinberg “cannot take a trip anywhere–in real space or virtual space–without coming home with a collection of ‘stones.'”  Ideas are out there–we have to be on the lookout for them, and most of the work of gathering those ideas will be done incrementally.

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      5.  Learn by copying.  Hunter S. Thompson used to re-type the work of Hemingway in order to get a feel for great writing.  Weinberg suggests doing something similar: copy samples of what we think of as great writing, and then reflect on the process.  Over time, we develop a better feel for good and bad writing.

      6.  Practice continuous capture.  Being a fieldstone writer, according to Weinberg, is about constantly having the resources needed to capture ideas.  There are obvious parallels between Weinberg’s fieldstone method and the “collect” and “organize” components of David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done methodology.  Where Allen discusses these activities in the abstract, Weinberg offers concrete examples in the context of a very specific task: writing.

      7.  Recycle.  Weinberg devotes a lot of space to borrowing and stealing from both fiction and non-fiction and argues that both can be done very effectively.  Imitation is bad style, but a writer who steals from and improves on others’ work is advancing the craft (astute readers will note that I stole this from T.S. Eliot).

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      8.  If you’re passionate about writing, don’t skimp on capital (chapter 7).  Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s a bad investment if it really improves your writing.  Over the summer, I bought a MacBook Air that goes with me virtually everywhere and that is ridiculously easy to use.  It wasn’t cheap, but it has improved my productivity.

      9.  Just get it on paper already.  It won’t be perfect.  Nothing is, and nothing ever will be.  However, an idea that is written down is much closer to perfection–or at least completion–than one that isn’t.

      10.  Be merciless with revisions and criticism, but know when to stop.  On one hand, you should make every word prove itself.  If there is any doubt whether it should be invited to the party, remove it.  On the other hand, it is easy to turn this into an unhealthy obsession.  Compare marginal costs and marginal benefits: if the marginal cost of one more revision is higher than the marginal benefit, then it’s good enough.

      I have heard it said that the best way to learn to write well is to begin by writing poorly.  Just as one can’t learn to run marathons by reading about it or by watching runners on TV, one cannot become a writer by reading about writing or by watching other people write.  This might help, but the process of composition is a process of exploration and experimentation where the efficacy of a given phrase, sentence, paragraph, or chapter may not become apparent until after it has been written.  The method described by Weinberg brings this into high relief through an arresting metaphor and the use of clear principles, and the principles he discusses will prove a worthy addition to the writer’s toolkit.

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      Last Updated on March 14, 2019

      7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

      7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

      Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

      For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

      Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

      1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

      A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

      It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

      It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

      How it helps you:

      If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

      Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

      2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

      Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

      Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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      How it helps you:

      Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

      Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

      If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

      Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

      3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

      Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

      Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

      How it helps you:

      This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

      For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

      Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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      A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

      4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

      To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

      A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

      How it helps you:

      One word: hierarchy.

      All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

      In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

      If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

      5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

      Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

      Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

      How it helps you:

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      Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

      If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

      This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

      6. What do you like about working here?

      This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

      Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

      How it helps you:

      You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

      Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

      Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

      7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

      What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

      As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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      How it helps you:

      What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

      First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

      Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

      Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

      Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

      Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

      Making Your Interview Work for You

      Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

      Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

      More Resources About Job Interviews

      Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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