Can Engineers Write?

Of course they can. Engineers are creative! Let’s dispel that myth right now. Engineers aren’t given a set of instructions to follow; they are given problems to solve or prevent. For me, creative writing has been a fun and challenging expansion of what I already do.

I had the privilege to attend the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) Great Lakes Region annual conference in Chicago this fall. Being around such passionate Systems Engineers got me thinking about how much my engineering training helps my writing. As some of you know, I’m a Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) – not a standard qualification for a fantasy writer. SE application may be a dry topic to many, but this unconventional training is central to defining who I am as a writer. I’ve found that the more I get used to writing, the more I am able to leverage my engineering skills.

Following are a few examples of how my SE training helps me write:

Listening: Systems Engineers are the bad guys! They tell their management when a plan isn’t likely to work and offer ways to resolve it. Those corrections usually involve a short term cost – either additional resources, a time delay, or just the embarrassment of changing course. I know very well what it’s like to be right, but still be ignored because the news is unpopular. That in mind, I listen carefully to everything an editor has to say, because I understand their job is to make the story better, not to say things I want to hear.

Architecture: Systems Engineers are charged with the big picture. Many SE professionals lament that western training “trains out” the Systems perspective from bright young minds: driving them toward specialized expertise, but losing our instinct to take in the whole world with curiosity. Being trained to see everything at once, it’s easier for me to design the story’s architecture, and slice that into different “viewpoints” – who are the characters, what are the places, what are the plotlines, how does everything connect? This is crucial to identifying and correcting gaps.

Process: Yes, the Systems Engineering “V” model works for novels! In non-technical terms, this says: 1) Plan time in the schedule for all the steps 2) Do things in the right order. (Worldbuilding before writing, for example.) 3) Check readiness before moving to the next phase. 4) Don’t be afraid to go back to earlier phases. 5) Keep all the steps in mind throughout the process. (When you’re worldbuilding, remember you’ll need to write this, and when you’re writing don’t forget how it fits into your world.) Knowing the V-model is especially critical as an independent publisher, where you’re planning from concept through reviews. That process is second-nature to an SE, allowing the focus to be on the writing.

Iteration: Systems Engineers are driven by the idea of feedback. Feedback within the V, but also to the next delivery, the next increment, the next project. We thrive on the concept of the “Lessons Learned.” Instead of negative feedback stopping us, it fuels us to do better. It’s the whole challenge of an SE project – take a need and turn it into a functional system. And then do it better the next time.

Think this is boring? If so, 1) Thank your local Systems Engineer – they are the ones we need to save our world from the crises it faces. I mean that. 2) In fairness I’m also writing about dragons and wizards.

Cheers – E.D.E. Bell, 1 November 2014

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