REVIEW - Writers' Workshops and the Work of Making Things


Writers' Workshops and the Work of Making Things


Richard P. Gabriel


Addison-Wesley Professional (2002)




Francis Glassborow


October 2002



When this title landed on my doormat my first instinct was that it was one of those books that has been sent to me by accident. I bet your instinctive reaction is that poetry and programming have little to do with each other. If you stop for a few moments and think about it you may realise that they actually share a very great deal. Both programmers and poets create by writing in a language that is constrained by a bundle of rules and guiding principles. There is a tendency for both to work alone. Both groups need exposure to the thinking of others.

Of course there is more. We need to learn to write documentation, both the specific for an application or library or the more general such as researching and documenting a software pattern.

Now there is poetry in the souls of many programmers. I am sure that is one reason that some revolt against such things as Hungarian Notation (it looks so ugly). We do not just want to write successful code but we want to write elegant code. Good code does not just appeal to our intellects but to our aesthetic sense as well. I wonder how many poets, romantic novelists etc. would consider that they had anything in common with programmers.

Now this little book addresses the wide range of issues concerned with organising and participating in successful workshops for writing regardless as to what sort of writing is involved. Let me quote the first paragraph of chapter 5, The Gift :

The writers' workshop begins with some people's decision to give each other the gift of their work in progress, and a more experienced individual's decision to give the gift of experience and expertise as a workshop leader. The magic of the gift.

The magic of the gift is not something new - it's always been part of human culture. The gift economy has been studied deeply. It's how our families are held together. It's how many ancient and contemporary cultures are held together. It forms the center of many religions. The writers' workshop works best when it is most firmly based on a gift economy.

Now does that seem familiar to you? If you are a member of ACCU it should because that is one of the fundamentals on which it is built. It finds expression in many ways, those who take time to write for our journals, those who participate in our Mentored Developers programme and those who participate in our conferences. Indeed reflecting onmuch that this author writes makes me realise that the success of our conferences is exactly because we have instinctively created something that is closer to a workshop than most technical conferences.

I would encourage you to read this book, to think about the message and then think how you can apply it both in your place of work and within ACCU. Perhaps it is time that we thought about having summer workshops. Read this book and let me, or better still your committee know what you think.

Now for non-ACCU members, I think this is an excellent book in that it gives guidance on one more way that your professional development can progress. I think that I would make this book compulsory reading for anyone organising a workshop. I would also make it highly recommended reading for anyone planning to participate in a workshop. Yes, programmers are writers, and they do make things and some even have poetry in their souls.

Book cover image courtesy of Open Library.

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