Why Testing Is Like Writing: It Takes Years Of Practice

 “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job: It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” —Neil Gaiman

I had a recent thought that writing is very much like testing. You have to learn it much like you learn most languages, developing a vocabulary, working on the pronunciations, and then figuring how to make a proper sentence.

That's all a lot harder than most people realize. We grow up in systems of learning that expose us to writing and language every day. We are inundated by the daily routine of learning language from the moment we learn how to speak.

Most testers I've known didn't start with Exploratory Testing. They started with test cases, probably dealing with regression, writing out hundreds of them, running through an application which they previously had no prior knowledge.

The description above includes myself. I didn't start off doing ad hoc anything. People wanted me to prove that what I was doing was valuable and the only way they knew how to do that was to have me write test cases and execute them in a system of record, creating metrics, and explaining why I chose to test certain things. It was the only way I knew how too, because I was learning from others.

After a time, I started to develop a sense of risk. A reflex, mostly in my gut, along with knowledge about the application, and the skill of the developers, that let me know where I should test more and what kinds of things I should be testing.

My first couple of years as a tester, I learned by rote. I learned a system of how to do things based on what others had done before me in the same position. I learned what people in that company wanted from me and others in my position.

By the end of year two, I started reading about testing. My first book was almost like getting my first reading primer in school. It was the equivalent of moving past tracing letters to constructing whole sentences and paragraphs, and having an opinion about what you should and can do as a tester.

I started to go to conferences after that. One of my first conferences actually had nothing to do with testing but instead it was around HTML5. People were surprised a tester wanted to go and people at the conference were surprised a tester was getting involved in a mostly developer driven conference.

I bought more books, started learning languages like C, C++, and SQL. I pushed boundaries on what I could as a tester, and what people thought I could do as a tester. I kept working and learning.

It seems to mirror the process of learning how to write; at least to me it does. You read more complex things. You experiment with your writing. You read different styles of writing, and different stories, from different context. You begin to learn about other places and other points of view. Those all become fuel for writing, much like learning code, or new techniques, or new tools can open similar doors allowing you to approach testing with new eyes and new abilities.

Once you've reached five years or so, being paid for your work, in either writing or testing, you start to feel like a professional. You've had experiences. You've learned from other people. You seek out new mentors and new experiences to keep learning and growing.

Travel becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. You find that leaving what you knew previously allows you to gain perspective and start fresh. You get to know people you've admired for their work from afar. Meet people who's blogs and books you've read and realize they are reading or following your work as well.

Granted, the story isn't the same for everyone. I've met some folks that are happy writing test cases and performing the work necessary to do the job they have been given. That's OK too. Maybe testing, like writing, is a stepping stone to something else. Maybe it's a placeholder for whatever they are meant to do later. There is space for all of those things in a lot of professions where there are people being paid for their work, but they might not consider it a career or want to chase after an expert level or be a recognized professional.

Bad writing happens. Bad testing happens too. No body is perfect. The cool thing about seeing so called 'bad' versions of anything is that they are great examples of what not to do, or what to avoid, if you can. Even professionals make mistakes.


  1. The best comment on that headline I saw was in the form of the next headline: "Cambridge deluged after 100 petatonne tidal wave finds authorities totally unprepared".

    Many writers I have known make a point of writing at least 1000 words a day, even if they then discard 950 of them. It is something that has to be worked at like any other job, and you get better at it not only because you keep doing it, but also because you read stuff that others write and learn from that as well.

  2. Very insightful. Thank you for your comment!


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