Automotive R&D for Writers

For about a decade, more than half of my freelancing gigs were in automotive journalism. I still keep a hand in, but I do more editing and authoring these days. Automotive journalism involves a lot more travel and fancy dinners than you might expect. Car companies fly journalists from around the country, and sometimes the world, to test drive their cars in locations that photograph very, very well, which I should probably write about. They also fly journalists, especially the kinds of journalists like me who wrote about automotive tech, to their research and development facilities. These were actually my favorite trips because I got to talk to engineers.

One time, I was part of a contingent of journalists who were flown to Toyota’s new R&D facility in Michigan. It was state of the art, with tons of new tech and perks for the people who worked there. But the part I liked best and think about a lot was the giant cement room where they dismantled their competitors’ cars.

This is apparently standard practice for car manufacturers. Toyota will buy a Honda, or a Volkswagen, or a Chevy or whatever. Some car or SUV that’s a direct competitor to one of Toyota’s models. Then they will carefully disassemble it piece by piece and place every component, along with its hardware, on a long set of freestanding metal shelves in this big room. Every shelf is labeled grouped by category. So there are, of course, engine parts placed on the shelves, but also the mechanism for adjusting the driver’s seat. The seat itself will be there, probably partially disassembled or with a slice removed so the fabric(s) and cushioning are visible. They look at everything, and they keep a few cars, each on its own set of shelves, for reference.

Maybe the engineering team is building a new engine from scratch for a less expensive model, like a Camry. They may check the reference engines to see what kind of bolts and things they use, because using the same kind of bolts can keep the cost of parts and labor down for an entry-level car. Or maybe the people putting together the sound system want to compare their speakers with a competitor’s speakers. Or maybe someone is having problems with the rearview camera and they want to see how someone else solved the problem. Or maybe they want to congratulate themselves on finding a better solution.

There are any number of useful reasons to take apart a similar (or very different) vehicle to see how it works and keep it around as a reference.

You may have guessed where I’m going with this by now, given that I write a lot about literature.

Authors are often advised to read widely, and yes! Do that! It’s crucial to read widely in your genre, outside your genre, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, food labels, junk mail. Read it all.

But when a piece catches your attention, snags on some sharp edge of your brain, you can take it apart, piece by piece, and lay it out in a notebook. How does a short story open? What is the first paragraph, the first sentence, the first word? What’s the point of view? Who speaks first? What do they say, and what does the reader learn? What assumptions are made by the author of an interesting essay? What knowledge do they bring to the subject, and what might their blind spots be? How do they convince the reader of their argument? Do they convince the reader of their argument?

I could go on, and I would, because these questions are fascinating to me. They’re the kinds of questions that I don’t usually ask on first reading, but I always ask them on rereading. So the first criteria is that a book has to be interesting enough (not necessarily a favorite or even great in some way) to reread. It helps if I bring some question to the text, like an engineer at Toyota with a Honda laid out piece by piece in front of me. How did this author solve the problem of an unreliable narrator? How did this short story span so many years within so few pages and I, as reader, never felt lost?

To answer these kinds of questions, you’re not reading the whole work to absorb the narrative and revel in it as a reader, like you did the first time. You are looking at the parts, the nuts and bolts, the words. All of the craft elements we talk about, like pacing or setting or telling details, are made of words. And words are the nuts and bolts and upholstery and seat foam of writing. Put a few pieces together, and you have an ignition system or a scene. Put more of those pieces together, and you have a hybrid powertrain or a narrative structure.

Read widely, but when you really want to learn how something is done, read so closely you can disassemble the machinery to see how it works. It’s all assembled parts. It’s all assembled words.