Wednesday, July 22, 2015

If you can't articulate a problem, does it exist?

What do you call it when you have educated intuition? I'm actually not even sure if that is a term, but it should be, or at least there should be a term for it. What I'm talking about is not the sixth-sense sort of intuition, but more the sort of intuition you have about something you're familiar with.

For instance, I know a woman who bakes a lot of bread, and she can look at the dough and say "Not enough yeast" or "It's too sticky" or even "I can't make bread today--it won't rise in this weather."

So far, she's never been wrong with these assessments, but I can't see what she's talking about. Bread-making is not my skill-set. (I am very good at baking, but bread-making is a whole other branch of culinary chemistry.)

In general, this educated intuition is good--it's why I can do a high-level review of files and find the error. It's how cooks know to add a little more of one seasoning and not another. It's how we make a lot of day-to-day decisions that we may not even realize we're making.

But this educated intuition can be frustrating, too, when either you don't have it, or you can't access it fast enough.

I was recently at a writing conference where possible titles were being suggested for an as-yet unpublished work, and I knew that the facilitator was listening for a certain rhythm, or cadence, or structure as he rejected titles or put them on the mental "maybe" list. But I am not a professional writer (yet) and I don't have years of experience (or any at all) in the publishing industry. I couldn't hear the difference between suggestions like "The Stone of God" and "God's Stone." (Which one would you be more likely to buy based on title alone?) (Also, if you google image these two phrases you get some similar, but mostly different results. Crazy, right?)

This is frustrating because as a would-be author, I want to market my writing in the best possible way. I want a title that works for the book, catches publishers' and readers' eyes, and is easy to promote. But I have no idea what this sounds like.

Similarly, I work with a woman who is very familiar with her field (we call her a SME--subject matter expert. Oh corporate America and your acronyms!), but when we're in meetings lead by strong personalities, she sometimes pauses before she speaks and by the time she decides what to say, the meeting has moved on to a new discussion point. When I asked her about this, she told me that sometimes she hears an idea, and it clicks around in her brain for a moment or two as she processes it. So she's nearly always a beat behind.

This is unfortunate in two ways: when her educational intuition says "that's won't work" but she can't pinpoint why, people move ahead with plans that have already been tried, or don't have enough data to be useful, or have some other limitation, when a more useful solution could be found if the matter were discussed a little longer. Secondly, when she hears something that sounds workable she doesn't speak up, so the rest of the room doesn't know that they're on the right path.

So obviously, in the first example, experience is a huge help, but it's also fairly easy to google book titles in your genre, or *even crazier* go to a book store and look at what sells (fantasy, for example, has a lot of titles where the structure is The [object] of [some location, person, etc.] as in The Sword in the Stone, while historical fiction uses a [Main character's name]:[His/her unique identifier] model, such as Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World.

But what do you do when you can't access the data quickly? Should you interrupt the meeting and say, "I think you're going to find some problems with that suggestion, but I'll have to get back to you on them"? That sounds pretty lame. And you don't want to schedule another meeting to resolve something you thought was already resolved but turned out it wasn't, although this sort of thing happens all the time.

The problem, it turns out, is in the ability to articulate the problem.

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