This past weekend, I went to the Bay Area Maker Faire, billed as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” There were a lot of really interesting things there, way more than I could have seen in a whole week, and one of those things that I missed (because I went on Saturday, and it happened on Sunday) was Adam Savage’s talk. Luckily, we live in the information age, and it’s already up on youtube. You can watch the whole thing on your own, though most of it is a question and answer session, but I’m mostly interested in something that Adam said in his semi-prepared speech at the beginning. To paraphrase, he said that what separates novices from experts is knowing where you need tight tolerances and where you can get away with loose ones.
Adam was talking about this in the context of making things, but that, especially, resonated with me as a writer as much as a maker. Precision of language is something that can make or break a story. Knowing where you need to be precise and where you can be more vague is the difference between holding a reader’s attention and either boring or confusing them. If a character, Bob, has been sitting in a chair and then leaves the room, you only need a loose tolerance in your language to tell readers that the character stood up from that chair, walked to the door, opened it, and left the room—you can just say “Bob got up and left the room,” or even just “Bob left.” That’s a pretty loose tolerance, but readers don’t need any extra verbiage to get the intended meaning from that sentence.
You would need close tolerances, though, if Bob left the room without getting out of his chair: “Bob, still seated, rolled his chair across the room and out the door,” or “Bob half rose, still gripping his chair, and shuffled out of the door.”
The important part in both of those examples, though, is knowing what level of precision is required and keeping your language compact while meeting the informational requirements of your sentence.
All of Adam’s 10 Commandments of Making can be seen in the video below, and I think most of them can apply beyond making things, but this one lodged in my head particularly.