Re: Are you a writer?

Subject: Re: Are you a writer?
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 13:17:50 -0800 (PST)

Michael Huggins wrote...

> It is no more a tautology than to say that divers submerge. Communicating is
> what we do, and the ability to do so gives us our unique value.

No - merely "communicating" isn't enough. Dogs, ants, and even single-celled
organisms can "communicate." What we do is communicate information - usually
technical information. The act or process of merely communicating is necessary,
but so tremendously basic that it isn't worthy of special praise. You're asking
the world to praise and respect you for something you should be doing as a
matter of being.

It reminds me of that Chris Rock joke, "People are always saying proudly 'I
take care of my kids.' YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO!!!"

Well, technical writers are always proudly proclaiming "I is a great
communicator!" YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE. That doesn't make you unique. What makes
you unique is WHAT INFORMATION you communicate.

> That is utterly invalid. To assert it is not only to misconstrue what we do
> but to confess onesself captive to the same inability to move from the
> concrete to the abstract that technical writers ought to be expected to
> relieve in the first place. The question most certainly *is* whether we are
> communicating and how skilled we are at doing so. Once that is established,
> it is applicable to the "what" of many different fields.

Again, this is the standard STC line: I can focus on the media at the total
exclusion of the content.

How about this example:

"The sky is green."

A perfect sentence. The English is correct, the punctuation correct, the tone
clear and simple - and the information is totally wrong. Therefore, this
sentence is useless. Totally, utterly worthless. It doesn't matter that the
information communicated was done "properly." All the communication skills in
the universe are totally worthless - and a technical writer is totally
worthless - if the information he/she produces is incorrect, inaccurate, or

You could be the most intelligent, brilliant, accomplished genius writer of our
time - with a room full of medals and praise. But you would still be wrong if
you wrote "The sky is green." In a document about the sky.

> It is not really surprising, though perhaps a little sad, that anyone who
> characterizes his profession with >such flippant and trivial terms
> as "slinging a phrase" should misunderstand the whole undertaking so
> completely. As to the ability to make memorable phrases or write
> grammatically being "fairly common," >that is such an astonishing error of
> fact as to make one wonder where the writer has been for the last >40 years.

Then how do you explain the utterly abysmal state of most technical
documentation? Clearly, if what you said was true, then the ability to
communicate should be sufficient for all these writers to produce fantastic

Michael, the ability to write isn't particularly amazing or praise-worthy. A
lot of people who are not writers can write very effectively. My brother is a
hydrologist. His writing is fine. He's no William Shakespeare, but he doesn't
have to be. He can string together sentences to get his point across.

We don't praise authors for the text they use or tools they mastered: we praise
them for the stories they tell, the lessons they teach, and the information
they communicate. Nobody ever once won an award because they could put a comma
in the right place.

The ability to communicate is simply not enough to make somebody an
accomplished technical writer. I know STC and others have been telling you this
for decades. It isn't true. And it is the exact reason why so many writers
produce so many bad manuals. They become so obsessed with their "craft" that
they produce crap.

>> (BB) The ability to structure material is much rarer
> (MH) That is exactly correct and is the first valid thing in the whole post.
> However, it fundamentally contradicts what has gone before.

Bruce's statement is absolutely correct and it doesn't contradict him in
anyway. The ability to digest and structure information is much rarer because
it requires intimate knowledge of the information being structured. Many
writers lack this knowledge, and as such are basically incapable of structuring
information properly. This usually leads to external attempts to structure
information using elaborate tools and methods that don't help the writer
understand the content any better.

This is ultimately the skill a good writer possesses. They are able to absorb,
digest, and structure information. The act of communicating should be second

>> (BB) and depends on the material itself.
> (MH) That is perfectly absurd. It no more depends on the material itself than

> a chef's skill "depends" on whether he or she is preparing beef or pork.

What is absurd is to think that content and structure are different entities.
This is exactly the attitude that has lead so many writers down this idiotic
path of single-sourcing and other one-off obsessions. Because they have zero
content skills, they try to compensate for that by designing a bigger and more
elaborate mouse-trap.

I understand the reasoning. If you have a really complex mouse trap, you'll
become more invaluable to your employer. But if the mouse trap fails to catch
mice properly, then it doesn't much matter how amazing it is. And you are not
adding much value to your company maintaining a system that produces garbage.

> For the past week or so, this board has been, um, "treated" to a series of
> posts that purported to say > something about technical writing but in fact
> were meant to convey that no one was a writer except for > a small coterie of

> whom the author might approve. The rest of us were challenged to either "live

> up" to >this, er, "standard" or confess ourselves defeated and inadequate.

You can see it this way. Many people enjoy casting this whole discussion as
some class struggle. In general, I think these same people are having to deal
with the uncomfortable reality that they were fed a lie for many years. I also
think some of those same people are more interested in portraying themselves as
a writer than actually doing any writing.

There has been a great campaign of deception in the technical writing
profession and many people have subscribed completely to its lies. The base lie
is that you don't need to understand content. You can be blissfully ignorant of
the content issues and still become an accomplished technical communicator. If
you work really hard to master tools and English, you can apply those skills
universally to all topics, all information, and all industries.

That simply is not true. You cannot, under any circumstances, produce
intelligent and useful documentation if you don't understand the content.
Doesn't matter how skilled you are with tools or got to
understand the content.

> Fortunately, I think that most respondents have realized that however
> entertaining these letters might >be, rather in the vein of a scene
> from "Alice in Wonderland," they had little to do with who we are or >what we

> do.

One of the reasons technical writers are taking it so hard during this
recession is because so few writers are able to offer their employer a great
deal of value. Sorry, but the ability to apply styles and fix comma splices
just doesn't make you an indispensable resource. But a writer who was extremely
well versed in the company's products and services and helped sell more
products (by writing great docs), would be an invaluable resource and therefore
far less likely to be laid off.

Andrew Plato

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