Think Sideways

Invention is complicated. Inventing something useful is really complicated.

Most invention seems to come from combining two or more seemingly unrelated concepts. I’ve been spending a fair portion of my semester studying invention as part of one of my classes, focused on inventing a video game. Looking at distant ideas and pulling them together is a key part of what has made many great video games, and I have little doubt that my projects that start out like that will consistently at least feel more unique than others. This extends to the writing involved in the project as well; drawing on multiple sources for inspiration will be key.

But this lesson can be applied to other parts of life besides creative works. Have a problem? Look in the obvious places first, then look at the less obvious places that might have a solution. That probably seems pretty obvious to you, but really think about it. Use the whole breadth of your knowledge. Think sideways.

Today I looked at the problem of version control for writing books. It’s been a reasonably well-solved problem, with many different proprietary solutions that are excellent at making backups. In most cases, though, it is difficult to merge changes together if two different versions are being modified at once. And those proprietary solutions? They are proprietary, which tends to mean costly in many cases. Many book authors take care of their own version control, with editors not interfacing with it at all. So what happens when multiple authors or an author and an editor need to work on different versions simultaneously? Trouble. How to avoid that trouble? It’s an open question.

I think distributed version control would be a solution. Git, Mercurial, and other tools are used daily across the software industry to ensure complicated code can be worked on by many people at once, and helps minimize code errors. When a problem arises, having many tracked versions helps with fixing those problems. I’ve seen so far just one notable example of a whole book being written using Git since I first thought of this; I think it might be a solution that I’ll try out one day. Who knows? It could be the obvious solution the writing profession overall has mostly overlooked.

This thought came from taking knowledge of writing and programming and piecing them together. (Code is just another language you write in, in a sense.) I only today got confirmation that this solution was not widely known among writers. I wasn’t the first to think of this, but who knows? Maybe you have something that only you are in a position to think of right now.

Take all of your knowledge. Use your education: formal, informal, and self-taught. Use your experience with the world, and look at the problems you have — then think sideways.

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