The Fieldstone Method

January 3, 2021

Gerald M. Weinberg is one of my favourite writers when it comes to explaining complicated ideas in simple terms. This book explains his writing process and contains valuable advice for aspiring writers. What’s funny is that all the advice for writers is equally applicable to software developers. Just replace writing with programming.

You can build anything you wish, in any style you wish, as long as you never attempt to write what you don’t care about. You don’t have to write only what you know about. In fact, writing about a subject is one of the best ways to learn about it. What would you really like to write?

What is the fieldstone method?

Short answer: The Fieldstone Method uses ideas as its “stones” - writing, photos, diagrams, quotations, pictures, and references that you find interesting. Using such a collection of “fieldstones” you craft your “walls” - articles, reports, books, and scripts.

Here’s the long answer. Imagine you are trying to build a stone retaining wall. Searching for perfect stones on the fields, how long will it take for you to find enough stones just of the right size? One problem with this approach is that you can’t find stones in a field just by saying, “I will now find such and such a colour stone of this size, over there!” But when you are writing, that’s just what you are told to do. “Find good ideas on this topic you are trying to write right now, and write an essay.” Wandering around in the field looking for great ideas is almost guaranteed to get you writer’s block.

If you’re preparing to make a fieldstone wall and you don’t have a stone yard handy, you’ll have to accumulate a pile of stones, one or two at a time. During this gathering phase, you’ll traipse about in the fields of your life with an eye peeled for stones that might go into some wall, someday, somewhere.

When you become aware of stone, you’ll be surprised at how much is available.

If you have several current projects, you might find a stone and say to yourself, “Oh, this one looks as if it will fit well in Wall A.” Obviously, you would put that stone in Pile A. But, you might collect a stone because it appeals to you, and you might put it in a pile that’s not designated for any particular wall—the X pile. The pile of stones worth caring about. The pile of stones you’ll turn to when you are stuck for something interesting—something you care about—to stick in your wall.

The stones you collect will be influenced by the types of walls you intend to build - and the types of walls you build will ultimately be influenced by the stones you collect.

Gathering Fieldstones

The secret is to gather, gather, gather - and do it in advance of any pressing need.

The energy principle

When you notice a potential stone, i.e. when you come across a new idea, turn your mind away from its details. Instead, turn inwards and notice your response. If you don’t respond, your readers probably won’t, either. Always be guided by an emotional response.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. 

How to steal stones safely? To write, you don’t have to invent everything from scratch. Borrowing ideas is never plagiarism. However, if you borrow significant chunks of writing from someone, give credit where credit is due.

Discarding stones. Less is more. As a writer, a major part of your job is knowing which stones you shouldn’t use in your wall. Remove all the words, sentences, paragraphs that are unnecessary and don’t contribute to the text in a meaningful way. Wait until the passage has been ripened in your brain for at least one day. Feel free to write first drafts without worrying about making them tight. Then prune them.

Organizing Your Fieldstones

There are many right ways to organize your ideas on paper. Readers don’t have to read in order. You don’t have to get it right the first time. You can always backtrack and rearrange your word stones.

Don’t be in a hurry around a stone. … Stones are accustomed to waiting.

As a last resort, you can shuffle your outline of ideas randomly and see what emerges in your mind. Write keywords for each idea on a card, and then shuffle the cards and arrange them randomly. Each new shuffling produces new ideas about how things might be organized and help you make progress.

Organizing based on the underlying ideas

You have to preserve the fundamental connections based on the underlying ideas or storyline.

The higher the wall, the deeper should be the footings. … This is a lot of work lost to the eye forever, but it guarantees a good wall.

If you’re writing a story, the underlying idea keeps the story moving for the reader. If it’s a technical piece, the underlying idea conveys information. So, when you think you’re finished making all the connections, step back and take a look to see if you’ve preserved the underlying idea.

Knowing when to stop

Using the Fieldstone Method, organizing should accelerate as the end approaches, much like fitting the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When you’re finished organizing, you may or may not be finished with the project. You have the major stones in place but a great deal more polishing. You may have many rewritings to go before you can consider the project complete.

Ignore the need to be perfect. Letting go of your fear of imperfection doesn’t mean you can become sloppy. Fieldstone walls are fine examples of the difference between imperfect and sloppy. Perhaps a brick wall can be perfectly laid, but a fieldstone wall never can be—and its very imperfection is what contributes half the beauty.

When you follow the Fieldstone Method, giving up one project is no big deal because you have dozens of others to occupy your time and interest. Real professional writers seldom write one thing at a time.

Getting Unstuck

There are a few ways to get unstuck that you can try. The general formula can be described as Center and Enter.

Center: The first step is always focused on you, not on the problem outside of you. Before you can deal with the world outside, you must work on yourself. Some of the things you can try:

  • Spend five minutes doing mild aerobics or stretching.
  • Go for a walk outside.
  • Meditate silently for five to ten minutes.
  • Spend some time drawing a picture of any object near your desk.
  • Make some tea, coffee.
  • Listen to music, sing, or dance.

Enter: Once you feel in yourself, it’s time to engage the material you’re writing. Do something with the material, either mechanical or creative. Keep it up, and you will find that your mind soon starts putting things together creatively. Some of the things you can try:

  • Correct spelling and grammar.
  • Reformat the text.
  • Trim the text, throwing away stuff that no longer fits.
  • Use the internet to find supporting material.
  • Read and revise the entire text.
  • Look up references.