Written Instructions, and What to Do About Them

Today’s post is slightly odd. Is there any other kind?

Let’s talk about following directions. I have been known to do so, very occasionally (stop laughing, you in the back!). But I also tend to try to ‘improve’ projects. Even when I don’t know what I’m doing. I get started on the project- usually related to one of my hobbies- and get about two steps in before I start wondering, “What if I did it that way instead of this way?”

None of my hobbies are safe from this tendency. It’s a long-standing habit because I never seem to have exactly the right materials or tools for the project. So I have to improvise- substitute out one type of bracket for another in the raised beds, use bacon instead of ham in that quiche, shorten the sleeves on a garment because I don’t have enough of that type of fabric, et cetera. Then I found myself improvising even when I didn’t have to. Or when I shouldn’t. Because I don’t have any concept of learning a subject from the ground up; I just wing it, and when you don’t have the basic skills, winging it has a high chance of failure.

Like everything, there are trade-offs to this approach. Improv skills are usually a good thing, and you have to know something about the properties of both the substituted item/tool/procedure and the substitute, and compensate for their differences (or you end up with a product you didn’t expect, which can also be a good thing, though my husband would disagree). You end up with a greater knowledge of both items, and can put that to use the next time you do a similar project.

On the other hand, improving a project can become a full-on disaster. In my case, injuries aren’t common because I work at a pace that allows me to see them coming and stop before the train wrecks, but I’ve abandoned projects once they got too far off track, spent more money than I needed to, and been tempted to bang my head against the wall until my brains fell out because I was so annoyed (haven’t actually done that last one yet).

Let’s take the sewing project I attempted before the current one. It was a simple little jacket, and I even had a pattern to follow. If you’ve ever worked with me, you know how strange and rare that is. I actually considered drafting my own pattern before sanity prevailed (for once!) and I bought a professionally-drafted pattern.

But of course, I couldn’t just follow the pattern. I started trying to adjust the fit- I’m shaped a little oddly according to most patterns, so this wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds- and didn’t really like the sleeves, so I started wondering if I could make a vest instead of a jacket, and which I’d be more likely to wear.

It got weirder from there, and I got more frustrated because my sewing skills are beginner-level at baseline. I eventually set it aside, to be completed later. I did one thing right, though; I made a mock-up out of scrap fabric, so I’m reasonably sure the fit is correct.

Thinking over what I did right and wrong led to some conclusions about my approach, namely that it’s unscientific. Proper science requires a plan and- horror of horrors!- following said plan. Except for the one variable you’re testing, which really should be listed in the plan. If you have more than one variable, how do you know which variable affected the result?

Sometimes, there’s no time for science. You just have to wing it. But I’m going to attempt to eliminate a few variables from my next projects, and see what happens. Who knows? My skills might even improve, because I’ll be focused on what I’m doing rather than on what I could be doing.

So far, moderate success. I managed to cut out all the pieces for the current sewing project, instead of eliminating the sleeves- what is it about sleeves? I haven’t started sewing yet, so there’ll be many opportunities to fall off the science wagon.

This little saga has some parallels with writing- plotting vs. pantsing- but it’s mostly a ramble through my thought process. Maybe someone will read it and learn from my mistakes before they make their own.

11 comments

      1. ‘chicken curry from a mix’ more likely than not requires rumi cumin added to the chicken as it cooks…

      2. Oooh, what kind of curry?

        <=addicted to Japanese curry, rather liked the "um..I'm not good with hot stuff" yellowish-brown curry in Singapore, and can't remember anything but that the bright green stuff that smelled like curry at the Indian buffet in Spokane was painful yet delicious.

    1. Of course! I often don’t have everything the recipe calls for, so either omit something, or substitute a different item. Either that, or make something else entirely.

  1. Well, if you ever want to talk about sewing, or have someone talk you down from that sewing ledge you are on, let me know! Yes, lots of “fixing” and “making better” and “customizing” all parts of my life, sewing just being one of the things. I sometimes tease and say, that I’m like a M. Lackey Elf…Can’t create anything new, but I can improve nearly anything I come across!

  2. What really spoke to me here waaas that I was wondering about taking a course in writing. But thenI said to myself that I wouldn”t follow the instructions anyway and I would have paid to be given them. Did not seem like a win – but it also seems rather stubborn to refuse to listen to someone else trying to help me…

    1. Could you take the course, write down notes and save all the class material, and go over it later, when you’re in the right frame of mind to judge the merit of the material and absorb the information you need?

  3. Just a cautionary note: Fiddling with recipes or with finishing techniques for furniture, or with many other things, is fine, and fun, and frequently results in better-than-the-instructions; at worst it can cost a little money and/or time. But *please* don’t ever take up reloading ammunition. 🙂

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