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A Different Sort Of Drafting | Writing Lessons From Computer-Aided Drafting & Mechanical Design

One thing you may not know about me is that I went to a technical high school.

Technical high schools offer trade programs alongside the standard high school education. The structure and trades offered may vary, but this allows students to have the foundations to enter professions after graduation, whether that means earning their state license if they were in a hairdressing program or continuing on with a plumbing apprenticeship. Tech schools are great because they create opportunities, especially for those who may not want to go the college route.

My school split us up between classes and would be either in Academics or in Shop for the entire day; if the Seniors and Freshmen were in Academics, they would be taking the standard English and Mathematics classes while the Sophomores and Juniors were in their trades. We alternated every couple of weeks.

I was enrolled in the Computer-Aided Drafting and Mechanical Design program, which was referred to simply as Drafting (as I'll be calling it from here on out).

Drafting, as the name implies, focused on learning to produce diagrams for various mechanical components in computer programs like the Autodesk suite, though the first two years of the program also focused on hand-drawn assignments done at slanted desks.

While several of my Drafting classmates now for notable companies in the region, I haven't done much drafting since graduating. Instead, I went on to attend a four-year college and earn my bachelor's degree in English and Communications, and continue to work towards my goal of one day becoming a published author of historical romance—something I've been passionate about since my high school years.

Being so far removed from my tech school days doesn't mean I'm through with the Drafting. For one thing, I've become incredibly picky about the pencils I use for writing and tend to file the tips to an angle out of habit and preference.

In fact, many of the principles taught in that curriculum have stuck with me even as I continue down a different path.

Clarity Is Key

Few ideas were drilled into our skulls more than the importance of clarity.

No matter which field of Drafting you're working in, it's absolutely crucial that your work can be understood by anyone who needs the information. This includes the placement and penmanship of dimensions, knowing which angles and views you need to show in order to provide all of the details, when to bisect a part to show the inside or when a partial view makes sense, which kind of lines are used, and numerous other aspects.

Unlike writing, very few things in the Drafting world are better left to the imagination and up to interpretation. Rules here are meant to be followed, not bent or broken.

However, there are plenty of instances where it's better to prioritize clarity in your writing.

Throwing your readers into the unknown can inspire curiosity that keeps them reading, but it can also overwhelm them.

Having clearly defined goals from your protagonist is almost always a must, even if the way those goals will be achieved is kept more vague at first or subject to change.

Clarity is also a key component in the process of worldbuilding and introducing your readers to your setting. You want to paint a vivid picture in their mind, but you simultaneously want to avoid providing too many details in the dreaded infodump.

We've all read books where we've begged the author to get to the point, and prioritizing clarity ensures you don't take too long in getting to the good stuff. Show off the pertinent details about what matters most, and skip the fluff to avoid convoluted and ultimately inconsequential descriptions.

Clarity can come in different forms depending on your genre.

In a sci-fi work, this could mean explaining the hierarchy of officer ranks on a spaceship or how different gadgets function. Fantasy writers might need to break down their magic system. Writers like myself who write stories rooted in historical settings have the task of bringing a contemporary audience into the past, which can sometimes mean describing societal customs or expectations influencing a character's actions.

Clarity also has a place in the traditional publication process, too. Writers aiming to earn a literary agent's favor need to be clear about the details of their manuscript, as query letters cannot be too lengthy. The same can also be said for the accompanying synopsis and other related materials.

No matter how you look at it, clarity is as crucial in storytelling as it is in Drafting.

Testing The Waters

Even though I did ultimately enroll in Drafting, that was not the only trade at my tech school I tried my hand at.

In fact, I tried them all.

The first half of Freshman year was called Exploratory —and was broken into two phases.

During the first, we rotated through all of the shops to see how we liked them, spending two days in each.

Every shop would have a fairly simple assignment for us to introduce the day-to-day tasks. Automotive had us take apart and rebuild a car engine in small groups. Cosmetology ended in giving each other manicuresmuch to the annoyance of several male classmates. And somewhere I still have the pipes I welded together in Plumbing.

Following the first cycle, we got to choose our top three to revisit for an additional four days before making our final decision come Shop Selection Night.

Looking back on the setup, it's something I truly appreciate. Although I did eventually land in Drafting, that wasn't the plan.

Even before touring the school on Accepted Students Night, I was dead set on joining Cosmetology. I've loved painting my nails since childhood and had a budding interest in makeup around the time I was starting high school, so it seemed like a perfect fit. However, when we got into it during Exploratory, I gradually realized that, unlike writing, I didn't want to turn what was a hobby and primary outlet for self-care into a career.

This became especially prevalent when we were tasked with setting rollers in a mannequin head and mine just wouldn't stay put despite my best efforts.

Contrarily, I had gone into Drafting the way I had gone into Plumbing and Autobody: with an open mind but under the assumption I would do my two days and that would be it.

To my absolute astonishment, Drafting was one of my favorite experiences and landed in my top three alongside Cosmetology and Bioenvironmental Technology.

The additional four days proved to be the deciding factor on Shop Selection Night, during which I officially registered for Drafting.

The biggest takeaway from Exploratory for me was learning that branching out and dipping a toe into unfamiliar waters may bring pleasant surprises, and this is something you may encounter in your writing journey.

Some writers instinctively know the genre they want to write, but others may need time to find where they fit or where their interests lie.

They may even be like Freshman-year me and think they know what they want to do, only to realize that's not their true path, that their story may be better suited for an entirely different genre.

Taking that leap of faith and trying something new may, in fact, work out for the best if you're willing to go in with an open mind.

Having The Right Tools

After enrolling in Drafting, as with any trade at my tech school, I had some shopping to do. Along with ordering the polo shirts that were part of the shop's uniform, Drafting students also needed to buy their kits. These included sticks of graphite at various darknesses, heavy-duty mechanical pencils and their sharpeners, triangles, a compass, and other tools needed for our work.

Having the right tools at your disposal is also important for writing, though the scope is broader by comparison and is not limited to physical objects.

Dictionaries, reliable resources for researching, word processing software, and the devices powering them could all be counted in this toolkit, but a lot of what you'll find is not exactly tangible, but concepts and knowledge gained through studying the craft. Understanding grammatical rules (and exceptions), narrative styles, formatting standards, knowing the tropes and archetypes of your genre, and editing techniques can also fall into this area.

A writer cannot work without these tools. Even if they are only ideas and things to be kept in the back of one's mind, they are essential to have.

As with Drafting, having the right tools at the ready is truly an essential part of the writing process.

Putting It Another Way

I'll be the first to admit that I am not great at math.

The thing is, there is a lot of math to be done in Drafting—particularly with hand-drawn assignments in which you don't have a computer to do the calculations for you or automatically offset lines at precise intervals.

In drawing a model, we would measure by fractions, but the dimensions would be written in decimals. So a line needing to be 3 1/4 inches would be marked as 3.25. When replicating a figure from a printout, the measurements would be listed in decimals, so we would have to convert the dimensions in order to produce the copy. Changing fractions to decimals and vice versa tripped me up quite often in the early days of my Drafting experience until I made myself a little cheat sheet (though strangely enough I'm now able to ramble off the decimals from memory).

There were plenty of challenges for me when it came to math, but few sent me as far over the edge as fits and clearances.

For context, fits and clearances are used to identify the size limits for a hole or shaft, such as with a piston or a drawer. This prevents pieces from not being able to slide into gaps during the assembly process. It also ensures that a change in temperature would not cause the part to become stuck and therefore unusable, as certain materials such as metal expand or contract when exposed to heat or cold.

Calculating fits and clearances required us to thumb through a technical manual we referred to as "The Drafting Bible," which contained charts pertaining to the temperatures at which the aforementioned metals would swell or shrink, along with other necessary information. There would be an equation involved to determine the allowances for the dimensions marked on our diagrams, but even now I couldn't tell you how to do it.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds, at least for me, and I struggled with the math anytime it came up.

And of course, hearing the same explanation from the instructor despite its not making a lick of sense to me exacerbated my frustration both with the material and with myself for failing to grasp it as easily as my classmates.

It wasn't until the other Drafting teacher sat down with me one-on-one and went over it that it started to get it, and I supplemented that with YouTube videos after school.

Fits and clearances still evade my comprehension even now, but at least they're no longer affecting my GPA.

I did learn a lesson of additional value to me moving forwards as a writer through all of this, and that is the importance of having multiple perspectives in the feedback you receive.

When you're writing something, especially with early drafts, there is a likelihood you'll have a list of things you know need more work and intend to revisit during the editing process. There are also things you'll grow attached to or feel are perfectly fine as they are.

But when you pass your work to a critique partner or beta reader, their feedback may suggest otherwise.

I cannot emphasize the importance of this feedback enough.

The perspective of an outsider, whether that means yourself coming back to a project after taking a break or a team of critique partners and beta readers, point out the flaws that slip under your radar.

Scenes that are too slow and don't serve the plot. Descriptions seeming clear to you as someone who has steeped themselves in research for what feels like ages that require a more in-depth explanation to be accessible to readers who are not as familiar with the subject. Instances in which the protagonist acts out of character. Loose ends that you might want to consider typing up to avoid leaving too many questions. Sentence structure.

Believe it or not, these are all things that my beta readers pointed out in their comments for Bound to the Heart.

These are things I probably would not have noticed or would not have known how to change without the input of others.

The general rule of thumb when going over writing feedback is that if the majority of your critique partners or beta readers make similar comments on the same thing, it's definitely worth looking at again and reworking as needed.

However, you may discover hearing the same thing from several people may not make it any easier to fix the problems they've pointed out.

With Bound to the Heart, I hadn't noticed any issues with sentence structure.

The way a line is written in fiction isn't something we touched on in my college writing classes beyond the classic example of Gary Provost's "This sentence has five words," which demonstrates the importance of varying your sentence lengths.

Imagine my surprise when the structure of my sentences was a topic brought up by some of my beta readers!

The problem was, I couldn't remedy this as easily because I didn't know what the problem was, let alone how to fix it.

Thankfully, one of my betas went through one of my pages line by line, showing the patterns and other issues affecting the flow of my narration, and why they were problems.

This was the moment the light bulb finally went off and things started making sense.

As was the case with the fits and clearances debacle in Drafting. having outside perspectives proved vital to my writing. Combing through Bound to the Heart for additional edits, improving weaker areas became easier because I was able to recognize them for what they were. Plus I know what to avoid doing in future projects, which will make writing and editing them a little easier.

A Lay Of The Land

Even though this one doesn't relate as directly to the writing process, I feel I would be remiss if this list didn't include it because it's a Drafting skill that has come to my aid in writing more than once.

During Junior year, we broke away from mechanical drafting and did a unit on architecture, specifically floor plans. This was by far my favorite assignment, and the one I'd say I've made the most use of.

Floor plans act as a map of rooms in one story of a building, detailing the the size of each area and things such as the placement of doorways and stairs. Some may also feature wall thicknesses, electrical wiring, and plumbing.

Post-graduation, this unit made it easier for me to navigate maps in video games and sometimes makes my more ambitious lot builds in The Sims less intimidating, but the primary use for my architectural knowledge has been in designing floor plans for my settings.

Many of my stories are rooted in the English countryside and several characters reside in grand manor houses reminiscent of Baslidon Park and Chatsworth House. The properties may only be seen a handful of times or may be the central hub for much of the action, and for the former, I've found it helpful to do a rough sketch of each floor's layout.

Since my WIPs are historical, inspiration for these locations is drawn from existing locations and architectural trends of that era, there are consistencies among them. Servants' quarters, for example, are usually downstairs, though the maids' bedrooms might be found in the attic in order to prevent fraternization between them and their male coworkers.

However, some features are specific to individual homes. When making up a floor plan, I'll identify characters' bedrooms, ballrooms, studies, and any other rooms of note. This keeps rooms from "moving" around and leaving the reader disoriented. It also helps to estimate how long it would take for characters to walk down a hall or between floors.

In some cases, I might do floor plans representing where pieces of furniture are arranged. If a group of characters is gathered in a parlor, this helps me keep track of where everyone is sitting.

This method also helped with designing Zach's bookshop in Bound to the Heart and the blacksmith's shop where Marcus works in Forged in the Salle.

Though looser than floor plans, I'll sometimes map out a town or village frequented by my characters, at a minimum denoting the locations they visit such as a church or various shops and other relevant sites like streams and bridges.

Maps can be a handy tool for writers, even if it's on a smaller scale in the form of a floor plan.

Find Your Friends

Friendships can be a stress factor during high school, but attending a technical high school put a different spin on things that made it easier for my peers to make those connections.

Because we would be in our respective trades for the entirety of a school day, we spent a lot of time with our classmates and shared experiences. Being in the same shop signified at least one mutual interest, which eliminated some of the awkwardness of approaching people and not knowing anything about them.

As a result, it was pretty common for people in the trade to sit together in the cafeteria in both shop weeks and Academics. There would be a few like myself who just kinda did their own thing and hung out with people from other shops, but for the most part, Plumbing sat together, Cosmetology with Cosmetology, Culinary with Culinary, and so on.

Things were a tad different for me, as the majority of my high school friendships stemmed from the Music Department. Between being in Concert Choir, Chamber (a smaller group that met after school once a week), and general fundraising committees, I was closer to the upperclassmen in the Music Department than those in my own graduating class.

In retrospect, all of this may have contributed my appreciation for Panem's Districts in The Hunger Games, the Factions in Divergent, and similar structures in YA novels that were popular at that time because I was living my own take on it—though certainly not as strictly governed and regimented.

Writers are often encouraged to network and connect for professional reasons, as some instances require a helping hand to get a foot in the door. But there are countless other reasons to make friends with fellow writers, and finding kindred spirits is at the top of my list.

Writing, like any career, has its challenges that can be hard for those outside of that particular sphere to understand. Even if you are surrounded by a tremendous support system that encourages you every step of the way and gives you space to express frustrations, there are bound to be things they just won't get no matter how much they emphasize with you.

This is why finding writer friends is so important.

Social media has made it easy to connect with other writers. Posting questions about the craft or problems you're confronted with can inspire a sense of camaraderie. You're not the only one who has gotten hung up on things writing-wise.

While being able to turn to your fellow writers in times of uncertainty is something to appreciate, it's also equally worth mentioning being able to celebrate your successes with your peers. Time and time again, I've seen announcements of agent representation, publishing deals, inundating retweets of pitches during events like #PitMad, cover reveals, and other milestones flooded with congratulatory comments—but it doesn't have to be major accomplishments. I've seen plenty of posts receive the same level of interaction when someone celebrates finding a way to work out a scene that's been giving them trouble or sharing tidbits about a new story idea.

Writing friends cheer you on and check in as you work towards your goals, and many are also lend a hand along the way.

Most of the beta readers I entrusted with reading Bound to the Heart were people I connected with on Twitter.

This is a great opportunity to talk about the value of finding writing friends within your genre.

Thinking back to my tech school days, attending that kind of high school is an experience not shared by students of a traditional high school. A lot of us had a homework assignment or two given during Academics that we forgot about when we were in a Shop cycle or suffering the equivalent of "Brain Drain" and not being able to recall something taught in the previous shop period upon returning after Academics.

But there were also things specific to every trade, Electrical students would most likely not know the pressure of Cosmetology students preparing to take the exam to earn their state hairdressing license, just as a student in Information Systems Technology might not relate to the aggravation a Plumbing student might feel while learning how to operate soldering equipment.

Forming friendships within your particular shop meant you'd have someone who understood the difficulties of the field because they were in the same boat.

For writers, connecting with those who work in your genre can have a similar effect.

Some things that are fairly standard across the boards, but you'll also find some that are more specific to your genre; this can also be true for subgenres, as some characteristics of a medieval Scottish romance may not feature in those of a WWII romance even though they would both be considered historical romances.

Friends within your genre not only understand your struggles but can help you work them out, whether that means talking through a plot hole, sharing research materials and knowledge, and providing feedback on genre-specific elements to help your story become its best.

Bowling For Soup may have made a valid point when they sang "High School Never Ends," and as a graduate of a technical high school, my experiences continue to have a role in my life.

Even though I haven't fired up any drafting software since graduating in 2014 and did not pursue a career in any related field like many of my classmates did, lessons I learned during my time in Drafting have maintained an importance in my life as I continue to grow as a writer.

Back in the day, it was a while before a lot of my peers took my interests in writing seriously and recognized it as something I wanted to do as more than a hobby, and there was a time in which I considered finding a career in which I could meld my two worlds together.

Little did I know it would happen on its own.



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