How often do you read the introduction of a technical manual?
When I was in school, I never did. Who cared, and who had the time?
Nowadays, I read them, because in many cases I find a gem or two.
As one of my surveying manuals (Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location 5th Addition by Robillard, Wilson & Brown) said,
Seldom do professors require that students read introductions to their textbooks. Over 50 years ago one of our college professors patterned his entire examination on the introduction to the textbook we used in his class. The indignation of the students of “having to read” the introduction could be heard across the campus of Syracuse University.
Yet the introduction or preface should set the tone of the book.
I would have failed that test as well.
Another gem came from another surveying manual (in case you don’t know, I’m a registered land surveyor) entitled Interpreting Land Records by Donald A. Wilson. “Chapter 1: Introduction to Land Records” contains a quote by Brian Clark in his book The Pursuit of Stillwater Trout (Adam and Charles Black, 1975).
The critical difference between the expert at anything, and the non-expert, is not the information, but understanding.
The non-expert fails most of the time because his success depends upon meeting conditions which coincide with a fixed, and usually limited, range of mentally-catalogued techniques; whereas the expert, because of his fundamental understanding of what he is trying to achieve, thinks more in terms of how and why, than that of what; and thus is able to devise specific techniques in response to the demands of specific conditions. Through understanding, he achieves a kind of infinite flexibility.
The truth is that all books really do is act as a catalyst, by providing enough basic information to fire the interest. They cannot, on behalf of the reader, translate this fireside knowledge into better returns. We can only learn so much by proxy, at second hand; and really to improve one’s performance requires commitment on the part of each individual, and effort. No one else can do the work for us; and if we rely on books and the written word, the task will be over and gone before, book in hand, tools in the other, we have gotten half way down the index in an effort to identify the cause of all the interest. It is essential, therefore, that anyone who hopes to improve his performance on a basis of more thought, is willing to put other work without which his aspirations will never be fulfilled.
I could read a slew of writing books, ask for critiques from professional and non-professional alike, but none of them will make me a better writer until I pick up my tools and work.
Knowing the rules of writing isn’t the same as applying them, and finding ways to work within them. Sometimes I find all the rules overwhelming and constraining.
Perhaps it’s because I haven’t stopped to ask why. Readers, agents and publishers expect certain rules to be followed for a reason. Once I understand that reason, I can use them better.
That’s not to say rules can’t be broken, but they have to make sense. When we understand the rules we can better know when to break them, and justify them to those who question.
Knowledge may be power, but what good is it if we don’t understand or apply what we know?
NOTE: Chapter One of A Reason to Hope is now up.