Perhaps novelists are really frustrated tech writers (humour)

Subject: Perhaps novelists are really frustrated tech writers (humour)
From: CBamber -at- castek -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Fri, 2 Jun 2000 08:20:14 -0400

Bruce Byfield wrote:
>By this last comment, I mean that a large proportion of the
>tech-writers I've met would rather be journalists or fiction
>writers. In their own minds they've settled for tech-writing, and
>they chafe at the barely submerged feeling that they're failures.

In response, with permission, this article that one of my guys (Todd Van
Allen) wrote for our company news letter (the News Factory), that explains
the reality of the situation. Todd has a remarkable turn with
pseudo-neo-shakepearean poetry, is a talented tech writer, business analyst
and database administrator and can make online help systems turn

Candace Bamber
cbamber -at- castek -dot- com

The World's Greatest Tech Writers

Tech writing is just one of those careers. Some are born with it, some
achieve it, and some have technical writing thrust upon them. I fall into
the latter category. I stepped into it with the naïve vigour of a child's
first visit to the dairy farm. Quite surprised am I to be called a
"writer" knowing some of the verbal sewage that I've wiped onto the page
in my time. I came across some of my old essays from high school in a box
that should have been hidden way more better. My adolescent attempts at
meaningful prose should be viewed through a pinhole in a piece of
cardboard. Pretty painful stuff. And it's not like tech writing is the
simplest of the writing arts. The audience for the matter is pretty
specific. Really specific. In fact, the fraught user is typically
looking for the fruits of your labour when the application is flying into
the ground like a dart, or even better, if they've totally forgotten how to
print. Hey, it happens.

And it seems that tech writers get the short shrift, fame wise anyway. When
people think of writers, it's always the renowned published authors with
awards for literary brilliance that come to mind. No one I know, myself
included, can name a published tech writer let alone one that's ever won
the Booker...and I doubt that's happened. Public reaction to tech writing
is also far from splendid. Schmoozing at a party doesn't get you too far
with this career in your pocket.

"So what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a writer."

"Really! How fascinating. It must be delightful being able to spin so
many beautiful tales. The imagery, the characterization. Have you been

"Uh, actually, I don't write fiction."

"Oh, I see. Journalism? History? Self help?"

"Sort of self help, I guess."

"Fascinating! What's your scope? The inner person? Physical health? New
age healing? Feng Shui?"

"I'm a tech writer."

"Oh. Be a dear and get me some more wine, would you?"

We in IP (Information Products) periodically run these chinwag sessions
where we impart some portion of our knowledge to the others in the team A
cerebral Show-and-Tell of sorts. At the most recent of these afternoons,
Darryl Wilson discussed the importance of addressing the appropriate
audience in writing. Ours is quite different from the "regular" forms of
writing in that the focus isn't to be entertaining, or artistic. No one
turns to technical manuals for a dandy yarn. They turn to our craft when
Excel gets cranky. I don't think there will ever be a literary course
where you'll open your final exam and see "In Word For Dummies, the author
refers to the Esc key throughout the work as a method of egress. What is
the suggestion of these instances? Discuss the thematic foundations for
the citations with reference to the author's notion of the 'active

So really, why must we be held up to the candle of the "creative" author's
sense of self-righteousness? Why are we always assumed to be biding our
techy-time until our big creative break is offered? If our metier is so
rudimentary, why don't the supposed greats have a go at tech writing and
see what spills out of their pens?

Well, I did just that. I went and asked some decently well known authors
to take a spell in IP and see what they could come up with. Frankly, I'm
not feeling to bad about the results. In the same way I don't expect
people to be slamming into to grab a copy of the Policy
Configuration Tool User Manual, I really don't expect any of these folks
work to appear when you hit F1 in the Policy Changes window.

Let's start things off with Canada's favourite daughter of an entomologist.
She's got three kids, two cats, and a stack of literary honours. She wrote
Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale. Let's see how Margaret Atwood fares
describing why a policy can't be created:

"I thought it over, and turned it this way and that in my mind; and towards
the end of this huge process I discovered that all she wanted to do was to
issue this policy once and for all and it taxed me that I could not issue
no matter how I tried and it burdened me to see her in this state, as she
was restless at night, and had dark circles beneath her eyes, and was
oppressed by the burden of her secret. Then she broke down and cried, and
said my suspicions were all too true; and the policy that she tried to
create would not take shape before her and she grew more and more desperate
and it was at that point that my sharp eyes detected that what she had
wanted was lying before her so plainly that it could not go long
undetected. She needed to add a location."

Uh, yeah.

Keeping it Canadian, let's look at contemporary Zeitgeistian Douglas
Coupland, author of Generation X, Microserfs, and Miss Wyoming. We gave
him the task of writing the "Why a Style Guide?" section of the Castek
style guide for on line help. First here's the way it sits in our guide
right now in its entirety:

"A style guide maintains all document standards in one place, ensuring a
consistent look, feel, sound, and quality for all documentation. This style
guide provides all the online help guidelines for the <...> project."

Short and sweet, eh? Now, here's Douglas' first kick at the "Why a Style
Guide" cat:

"I was told the story a while ago that Albert Einstein, in an effort to
reduce the non-decisions his eldered cranium would have to contend with in
a day, supplied his clothes closet with 7 identical jackets, 7 identical
pairs of pants, 7 identical shirts and 7 identical pairs of socks. This
way his mind would not be saddled with the idle process of apparel
selection and would be free to ponder the things that Einstein would
invariably become famous for pondering. I assume that he would use the
same pair of shoes every day, and thus usher into the 1950s choking on its
disposable aerosol canisters and throw-away Swanson's dinnerware the first
of a thousand points of recycling. I picture him there, morning after
morning after morning, pulling on the same-yet-not-the-same trousers. I
see him dressing in the dithering manner of Professor Frink, knowing that
his professorial appearance from the day before continues forward through
the wonder of mathematical induction, allowing him to fully come to grips
with how the e truly dances with the m and the c2. Though appearing to the
naked eye to be the same clothes, he knows them to be completely different.
The Nutty Professor playing the home version of 'The Crying Game'.

"The colour, style, and size of the Set of 7 Everythings is immaterial.
It's the removal of the creative desire to elevate the function that is the
essence of Einstein's self-enforced style. The tweed jacket dripping with
Donald Sutherlandish confidence complementing the non-Dockers. Whatever
the custom is that is adopted, it is that, grappled to the corporate
identity with hoops of standard fonts and ClipArt. So long as it is etched
into firmware somewhere on the LAN, life can continue. A pierced nose
could be legislated into the cubicles with the normality of women in India
and give the whole office that neo-aesthetic of a lineup outside the forum
where Nine Inch Nails will perform in a couple of hours."

This goes on in a similar vein for about 3 more pages and is being picked
up by the Utne Reader. Now who says you have to be Canadian to write here?
Here's Scottish writer and author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh to tell us
how to exclude a driver from a policy in INSURE³:

"Aye, there y'are. Ye sittin' there at yer cube n aw, an' thin th' phone
rings ye up an aw ye git is some radge oan the othir end wantin' ye te git
one o' th' drivers the livin' Brilliant Luck off of a policy. Sad b******
went oan the bevvy oan th' lunch hoor an' came back tae th' office, jus'
steamin an aw. Couldnae see, useless radge. Ye kin look up th' MVR an' aw
te see jus' how bloody awful th' drivin' is on the ****. MVR. Effin'
brilliant, this. Tells ya aw ye need about some o' the useless shite ye
got drivin an aw. Any o' the stuff th' polis nick him for is written up
an' filed jis waitin' fir ye. Jus' click oan the button, likesay, an'
snap! Aw the MVR is starin' at ye, likesay. Robert's yer father's
brother. F***** brilliant!"

Irvine Welsh: Putting the 'F' in F1.

Who says you have to be living to do technical writing? Surely not anyone
hanging around my desk on a Monday. This took some doing, but I was
actually able to swing getting a work sample from William Shakespeare.
First he was really cranky about me waking him up and stuff, but to make
him audition for a tech writing job? Hell hath no fury blah-blah-blah. I
close this experiment with William's attempt to describe how to rate a
policy. Suddenly I don't feel so bad about some of my Help files:

"And before thou gloat and divinely smile
Upon all of the shelter that thou hast selected
There e'er shall be the time that pass
Where you shall with the speed
Of Mercury's feet evaluate.
As accurately as God's own registry
Of the stars you will appraise your material worth
Married within the contract of guardianship.

And for your task one must in all honesty
And truth of soul account for all that is yours
And in detail as minute as the point of plume
With which you scribe cite the very details that
Form the fabric of your appurtenance.
And with this matter answered with an angel's honour
Flow fairly forward and approach the ingress of rating
Where the very souls of your words are metamorphosed
And reborn into a numeral conformation.

These numerics that once were words shall
Swing and caper swirling and turning evermore
In an instant only to emerge as one. It is the
Consummation of this numeric bacchanal that
You must match in pounds and pence.
And with this payment made each year
Comes the mettle of shelter devoid of fear."

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