Hypothesis Driven Writing

I just tackled hypothesis-driven troubleshooting, which brings me to an important subject for blog writers and #vDM30in30 in particular: hypothesis-driven writing. As writers, we constantly seek to improve our abilities. One of the most important skills, in my opinion, is to use a hypothesis as the foundation of your writing. Writing around a solid hypothesis results in an interesting, focused result that engages readers and leaves them with a clear impression of what the writer wanted to say. A lack of hypothesis results in an aimless article that leaves the reader confused and wondering what the writer was trying to convey.

As a reader, most of us find this hypothesis to be true without requiring great analysis. If an article starts out talking about the importance of OpenStack and devolves into comparing Disney films, we all feel the lack of a solid hypothesis. On the other hand, if Disney films are involved in the hypothesis, perhaps as analogies to the components of or community around OpenStack, the reader may feel rewarded and be very receptive to the writer’s goals (I challenge someone to write such an article, it would be quite the feat!). When the writer follows the hypothesis, everyone enjoys the benefits.

If we agree that good writing relies on a solid hypothesis and the writer’s adherence to the hypothesis, how do we, as writers, craft an effective hypothesis? Look at the definition of hypothesis. There are many types and the type chosen will be based on the writing goal. A research paper would require a working hypothesis, a hypothesis that is provisionally accepted to further research. It is constructed as a statement of expectations, such as, “We expect X to increase proportionally to the decrease of Y,” which would then be tested to determine it’s validity. A formal logic statement, of the form, “If X, then Y,” is based on hypothesis X, and can be the foundation of a logical proof or experiment. In an opinion piece, like a blog, a hypothesis may be crafted as a general plot, such as, “Creating and adhering to a hypothesis is the key to good writing,” which is then examined in detail.

Now that you have a hypothesis, you need to state it. The first paragraph if your writing is where you state the hypothesis. There are many ways to state your hypothesis. I follow a few guidelines.

  • Describe the general hypothesis.
  • State your specific hypothesis. Avoid terms like, “I think,” when possible.
  • Repeat your specific hypothesis.

Throughout the rest of your writing, every paragraph needs to relate to the hypothesis, through direct support of the statement or through indirect support, such as data or analysis that relates to the hypothesis. Your readers will be able to follow the thread of your writing and, hopefully, see exactly what you were trying to present them.

In your final summary (typically the final paragraph, except in larger articles), restate the hypothesis and the supporting evidence. If you did a good job explaining yourself, this will reinforce the ideas in your reader’s minds.

As a writer, your goal is to create a valuable article. The foundation of that article is a hypothesis. It’s important to adhere to this hypothesis in order to reward your readers with a solid article. Whether you’re participating in #vDM30in30 or writing on a less frequent basis, by practicing hypothesis-drive writing, take the time to focus on improving this skill and both you and your readers will appreciate the results.

Hypothesis Driven Troubleshooting

John Price wrote a wonderful article about troubleshooting the other day that got me thinking about this skill. Troubleshooting is an incredibly vital skill in IT and one that many people view as an innate skill, to the point that a common adage is, “You can’t teach troubleshooting, you have it or you don’t.” I believe that, like nearly every other skill, it is a learned skill, and those without the skills should not be treated as hopeless. It may come easier to some people, but anyone can be taught the fundamentals of troubleshooting if they care to learn.

Troubleshooting is, at a bare minimum, the search for the source of a problem. Good, effective troubleshooting is a logical and systematic search for that source. That difference is driven by a scientific hypothesis, or a proposed explanation for a problem that can be tested. The hypothesis might be, “The reason the internet is unavailable for users is that their internet connection is down.” This can be tested and determined to be the cause, or discarded as a failed hypothesis. The troubleshooter can determine another scientific hypothesis, “The reason the internet is unavailable for users is because the firewall is not passing traffic,” which can then be tested. By creating and following a series of hypothesis until a valid hypothesis is found, the troubleshooter can identify a problem that can be fixed. This is the essence of the scientific method, which isn’t just for scientists anymore. Troubleshooting without a hypothesis may lead to the source of a problem, but only through random luck.

The scientific method, how to craft a hypothesis, and how to test a hypothesis are all methods and skills that must be learned. We are not born with this knowledge, it must be taught. Some of us learn this in school as part of our formal education. Some of us learn in less formal methods. In John’s article, his father taught him how to define and test a hypothesis via the Socratic method, asking John to ask and answer questions and teaching him how to narrow the possible sources down to a single source. While most of us learn these skills at a relatively young age, usually before age 20, the skills and knowledge are teachable to anyone of any age. All it requires is a good teacher and a student willing to listen.

If someone you know does not have good troubleshooting skills and their job – or a job they want to obtain – requires it, they can be taught. If this person is your colleague or friend, do not give up on them! Become a teacher to them or find them a mentor. Perhaps they’ll teach you something along the way, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve contributed to the next generation of IT leaders.