Re: Techwriter's toolkits and directions for tomorrow (long and deep response) (fwd)
Mandy_Kinne <emeeekay -at- enteract -dot- com>
"TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Mon, 29 Apr 2002 10:27:17 -0500 (CDT)
Bill and I had a bit of offline discussion - I'm posting this on the list
for everyone else as well and will further add to this as time (and my
projects - you know, that work thing) allows.
Team Lead, Documentation and Process
"verba volant, scripta manent
(what is said vanishes; what is written remains)"
courtesy of David Coward's notes in the Oxford World's Classics edition of
Alexanre Duma "La Reine Margot"
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 27 Apr 2002 10:06:18 +1000
From: Bill Hall <bill -dot- hall -at- hotkey -dot- net -dot- au>
To: Mandy_Kinne <emeeekay -at- enteract -dot- com>
Subject: Re: Techwriter's toolkits and directions for tomorrow (long and
Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking response. I'll interpolate
some comments below in square brackets "".
Rhetoric and philosophy are subjects I missed out on in College. We had one
semester of writing in first - which at least introduced the ideas of
denotation and connotation - but the rest has all been learned in the school
of hard knocks, so it is fair to say that I am still an amateur in both
areas. Nevertheless I have developed some opinions...
I would be very happy for you to forward this dialogue on to Techwrl. Your
comments are very good and perceptive. I hope I haven't twisted them in my
responses - which is always a possibility in dealing with subjective issues
like paradigms, perceptions and discourses.
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST
(Zappa - Packard Goose)
----- Original Message -----
From: "Mandy_Kinne" <emeeekay -at- enteract -dot- com>
To: "Bill Hall" <bill -dot- hall -at- hotkey -dot- net -dot- au>
Sent: Saturday, April 27, 2002 4:39 AM
Subject: Re: Techwriter's toolkits and directions for tomorrow (long and
> I have been mulling over your posts (and others on this subject) for about
> a week - while I agree with many of your assertions based on Kuhn's
> concept of paradigns and scientific/technological revolution, something
> about it has been bothering me; nothing I could immediately put my finger
> on, but after a week or so, I wanted to share my thoughts with you
> privately, off-line. If you'd like me to post this to techwrl, I'd be
> happy to - just wanted to give you a preview & make sure that this makes
> some sense to you. Some if it is just knee-jerk reaction and may not
> coalesce with the rest - I'm still digesting it all - but I wanted to give
> you some feedback and hope that you will bear with me here.
> Also, I wanted to thank you for engaging in this level of discussion; it's
> on-level with what I studied in college (Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon) and
> has gotten me thinking and, more important to me, writing about it again.
> My sincere thanks.
> Mandy Kinne
> Team Lead, Documentation and Process
> NeuStar, Inc.
> > The background for the philosophical discussion is my belief that
> > techwriters are the pre-eminent "knowledge workers" and we are in the
> > of fundamental revolutions in the way we capture and manage knowledge.
> > Techwriters have the primary responsibility to distil knowledge that is
> > initially only tacit - in people's heads, or implicit - as embodied in
> > engineering drawings, software or processes.
> Other instructional writers - of textbooks, cookbooks, how-to home
> improvement books, etc. - have the same challenge. I also would not say
> that techwriters are the pre-eminent knowledge workers; I would consider
> other professionals, such as teachers/profs - even lawyers, to be
> knowledge workers as well, and certainly more pre-eminent than tech
[No disagreement here - just that my definition of what constitutes
"technical" writing is probably broader than yours. In my life I have been a
publishing scientist (PhD in evolutionary biology following 3 1/2 years
undergraduate major in physics), a computer literacy educator and writer,
contributor to computer magazines, a software documentor, and currently
someone who mostly writes plans, proposals and presentations. To me all of
this is technical writing - where I am trying to distil, codify and transmit
unorganised factual information into something that can be absorbed as
knowledge by someone else. Not easy, and often not even done successfully,
but I keep trying.]
> So what distinguishes us from other writers/knowledge
> Our goal is the same as that of many other writers - to quote from you "an
> end product something that is coherently organised and codified for easy
> access and understanding by people who need to use the knowledge we
> Where we get "knowledge" - again, quoting from you "knowledge that is
> initially only tacit - in people's heads, or implicit - as embodied in
> engineering drawings, software or processes" - is unique only in that much
> of it comes from someone else and is therefore does not originate from us,
> as I think it does with other writers.
[I would argue that the step that transforms information - which is the
level at which we perceive other peoples' tacit knowledge - to knowledge
that can be transmitted as knowledge to other people is what the techwriter
or good science writer does.]
> The tools we use to pass on that knowledge, both the software and our
> writing & design skills, are also similar. The final form of the document
> is certainly unique to our profession (I'm thinking of the specific types
> of documents we produce - user manuals, online help, tech specs ... etc).
> I'd think we'd agree that new tools (structured languages, online help,
> etc) are unique to this professions and that they impact all aspects of
> our work - from the writing process (planning thru completion), the final
> product (whether it's paper or virtual), and delivery of that product to
> the user/reader. They also affect the user/reader, especially if these
> tools improve the quality of our writing and the overall quality of the
> final product.
[Actually, some of the scientific and legal publishers such as Reed Elsevier
are well ahead of techwhirlers iin their adoption and use of structured
technologies. I'll have to check my book to see if this comes through.]
> > As knowledge workers, we unavoidably work immersed in paradigms of what
> > constitutes knowledge and of the document.
> > To discuss what I mean, I am going to start with some fairly deep
> > philosophy, then I'm going to consider Shauna's post - which also
> > some deep insights.
> > A clear understanding of what is meant by the term paradigm is essential
> > this discussion, and I fear that I have still not adequately
> > what this is in my previous posts. Hence a bit of philosophy - theory of
> > knowledge stuff - about paradigms. (I believe this is useful stuff for
> > technical writer - who really needs to understand the paradigms the
> > audience sees the world through.
> For me some of the clarity in your argument is lost in the fuzziness of
> the phenomena you are attempting to describe. Are you trying to account
> for the "revolution" in tools (i.e., the shift from word-processed
> documents to structured documentation) and it's affects on what we think
> of as a document? Or are you simply attempting to explain the hows/whys of
> the holy wars?
> Looking back at your original post, you're asserting that the holy wars
> arise from conflicting/incommensurable paradigms. Logically, even in Kuhn,
> doesn't one of those paradigms "win" over time and the conflict is
> resolved? I think you may be overcomplicating the holy war issue. Again,
> from your original post, "these debates involve differences in document
> paradigms ... we are faced with several competing paradigms, e.g., paper
> vs structured documents, data management vs knowledge management, learning
> vs teaching, etc." Are these conflicts due to battling paradigms
[Paradigms don't "battle". Strictly speaking they are focal points for
affiliation by people. It is the people who adopt competing paradigms who
> or simply
> different perspectives on the same situation or object? Or even
> differences in definitions?
[All of the above. The paradigm concept is a complex issue, even for not so
short posts to a forum. But, I'll try.
Kuhn was looking at science from the point of view of a historian, and was
taking a long-term view. In science there is assumbed to be only one truth,
and scientific theory attempts to describe that truth - so during the period
of "ordinary" science there is only one paradigm for the perceived truth.
However, when this begins to break down, alternative world views may begin
to develop and compete (subliminally) for adoption by people in the
discipline. This process may take a full generation or more, until people
who won't give up the old paradigm die off, but from Kuhn's historical point
of view this is a "revolution".
In technology, there isn't necessarily an underlying "truth" to the way we
do things, hence competing paradigms may have an even longer life than they
do in the sciences. Also, where techwriting is concerned, we are probably
only looking at a 5-10 year point of inflection in a process of
> > To quote and paraphrase from my Knowledge in Knowledge Management draft:
> > In Kuhn's most generic usage, "A paradigm is what the members of a
> > 'scientific community' [or other knowledge-based discipline],
> Is there any discipline that isn't knowledge-based?
[Good point. Of course not - but some disciplines have a much higher
component of codified explicit knowledge than do others - where the learning
is primarily by watching and doing. Kuhn and Karl Popper were focused
primarily on those disciplines which publish knowledge in codified explicit
forms. Michael Polanyi focused much more on uncodifiable "personal"
> > and they alone, share. Conversely it is their possession of a common
> > paradigm that constitutes a scientific community [i.e., discipline] of
> > a group of otherwise disparate men" (1977 pp. 460). Kuhn further notes
> > that the discipline will "to a remarkable extent... have absorbed the
> > same literature and drawn similar lessons from it. Because the
> > attention of different [disciplines] is focussed on different matters,
> > professional communication across [discipline] lines is likely to be
> > arduous, often gives rise to misunderstanding, and may, if pursued,
> > isolate significant disagreement. (pp. 460-461)" [This is the basis
> > of the "incommensurability" of paradigms].
> > [much deleting to save some space ...]
> > I follow Kuhn's preferred definition, and emphasise that Kuhn's concept
> > paradigm includes the tacitly accepted a priori beliefs and theory or
> > assumption-laden vocabulary and jargon that members of the discipline
> > more-or-less uncritically along with their exemplars as they learn their
> > trade.
> > The vocabulary used to describe and discuss symbolic generalisations,
> > models and exemplars is often based on unstated assumptions. Like most
> > vocabularies, theory-laden vocabulary is mostly learned tacitly "by
> > as part of the conceptual "world view" or "gestalt" within which the
> > discipline works.
> This is very similar to James Paul Gee's concept of Discourse:
[A new name to me I will obviously have to follow up.]
> "At any moment we are using lanugage we must say or write the right thing
> in the right way while playing the right social role and (appearing) to
> hold the irght values, beleifs, and attitudes. Thus, what is important is
> not language, and surely not grammar, but saying
> (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. These combinations I
> cal "Discourses," with a capital "D" ("discourse" with a little "d," to
> me, means connected stretches of lanugage that make sense, so "discourse"
> is part of "Discourse"). Discourses are ways of being in the world; they
> are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes,
> and social identities ...." (from Journal of Education, Vol. 171 No 1,
> 1989 "Literacy, Discourse, and Linguisitcs: Introduction")
> However, Gee's Discourse is much broader that Kuhn's paradigm and I think
> it might be a better fit for describing what's going on in terms of holy
> wars. Discourses/Discourse communities are fluid, ever changing to adapt
> to external changes (social, technological, political). Could the holy
> wars just be one example of how the techwrl discourse is adapting itself
> to change?
[Based on your snippet, I don't necessarily agree that the concept of
"Discourse" is necessarily broader than what Kuhn has tried to describe - or
at least what I think he was trying to describe - just better written and
expressed! A major problem I have with Kuhn and some of the other
epistemologists, and Polanyi particularly is that they are extraordinarily
bad writers. True, their subjects are complex and ill defined, but hugely
complex and meandering sentences compound the difficulties.]
> > Because paradigms are largely implicit (or even tacit), most people
> > with a technology or science would not be consciously aware that their
> > thinking about their work rested on any such foundation. Consequently,
> > people working in the different paradigms can't talk to each other
> > even when they are using the same words, because the connotations
> > with the words and contexts in which they are used differ. Consequently,
> > different paradigms relating to the same broad subject matter are said
> > "incommensurable".
> I agree with you in this but possibly for different reasons. Tech writing
> is young enough that people have come to it from a host of other
> disciplines. Because of that, they bring different perspectives/Discourses
> - yes, even different paradigms - to the table. I also think there are
> times when words & meanings come into question and those having a
> discussion need to come to an agreement on a definition, but I don't know
> that it always signifies a shift in paradigm.
[Word definition is mainly a symptom. The fundamental difference between
paradigms (at least as I understand them) lies in the different world views
in which the words are articulated. Even if you focus on defining the words,
they still describe differen perceptual worlds - an issue that I think some
people dealing with localization are acutely aware of.]
> > According to Kuhn, scientific (or technological) revolutions may occur
> > new observations/requirements can no longer be adequately explained or
> > with in an existing paradigm (the observations are anomalous), and can
> > be accommodated in theory based on new exemplars, models and/or symbolic
> > generalisations. These changes often require new vocabulary and more
> > alter the meaning, connotation and contexts of existing vocabulary. Even
> > where the same words are used within each of the paradigms, there is
> > no longer a direct logical correspondence in their meanings. In other
> > the world view (created by symbolic generalisations, models, exemplars
> > their associated theory-laden vocabulary) held by practitioners of one
> > paradigm is logically incommensurable with the world view held by users
> > the alternative paradigm. Even when practitioners of different paradigms
> > look at the same data, they see different worlds.
> I would argue that in the context of writing as a whole, a technical
> revolution (or revolutions) has taken place out of a need to inform buyers
> of software/hardware/service of how to use what they've bought. This has
> given rise to a bona fide new genre (the commericial instructional
> manual/document) and a new rhetorical situation (a unique audience, a
> unique communicator, unique mediums, unique goals). Following from that we
> have technological advances in tools (word processing software, publishing
> mediums) and technological advances in our approach to the writing process
> - what we do differently on many levels (cognitive, conceptually) when
> composing in Word vs. Frame vs. on a typewriter or by hand on paper, what
> we do differently when writing for different publishing mediums (hard copy
> vs. virtual vs. both with structured languages/knowledge management).
> Given all of these variables, how many people on the list are actually
> working in the same or similar rhetorical context? Is it any wonder that
> there are holy wars when, even when things were only paper-based, I would
> bet there were disagreements about the writing process, the best tools,
[Here, I think you are focussing on a narrowly focussed market-based concept
of a revolution or paradigm. Probably for the last 15 years of my career I
have been focused on a much broader issue of how do we best carry out the
technical writing task (as I have broadly defined it) to assemble, distil,
manage and process information into knowledge to produce deliverable
products our customers can use as knowledge when and where they need it. In
thinking about these things, there are fundamental differences between paper
documents and structured knowledge.]
> > "Holy wars" arise in a trade or science when more than one
> > paradigmatically-based sub-discipline is competing for the same members.
> > Members of paradigmatically different sub-disciplines can no longer
> > communicate within a single framework of shared beliefs, worldview and
> > vocabulary - and fail to recognize why the other guy remains so totally
> > witless and stupid even when they try to explain in the simplest way how
> > things work.
> I don't know that this is what's going on with the techwrl holy wars, or
> even in most holy wars. How can preference be distinguished from paradigm?
[Good question. I think the primary symptom of a paradigmatic difference is
the degree and nastiness of the ad hominem attacks. When people can no
longer rationally compare the relative merits of preferences without
personally attacking those who hold different views, we have to consider
there may be a more fundamental issue in areas which cannot be expressed as
simple comparisons of features. Some people are naturally nasty, some are
even psychopathic, but in the techwhirl world where we are professional
communicators I think the nastiness is in large part due to fundamental
differences we don't know how to express easily in words.]
> > It is easy to be frustrated with what seems to be obstinant
> > stupidity, and people quickly descend to name-calling and occasionally
> > actions. True communication is possible only if one can step far enough
> > outside of the paradigms to see and discuss in some kind of
> > the normally tacitly accepted assumptions, exemplars and
> > see how these relate to the matter at hand.
> I think the degredation in communication comes from frustration both with
> not being understood by the seemingly obstinate stupid people but also
> from not having the right tools/skills to communicate/argue one's position
> effectively - could it be instinct to revert back to our pre-school mode
> of communication when our socialized skills fail? Maybe. There must be a
> study out there analyzing why people resort to name-calling in failed
> communication and I'd bet it could be found both in psychology (cognitive
> or social) and in language/culture/literacy/rhetoric.
[e.g., paradigmatic differences!]
> > If this all seems esoteric and theoretical, let's consider how all this
> > applies to our profession in the differences between "paper" and
> > "structured" document paradigms in techwriting.
> > Shauna's comments are interesting in reference to the complexity of the
> > paradigmatic conflict within technical writing:
> > "[I]t [is] easier to couch this part as the model by which we operate
> > a context. One thing that seems to foster some of the conflicts between
> > paradigm and another here is the miscommunication, or insufficient
> > identification of context."
> > Here he is referring to what Kuhn called "incommensurability".
> > contexts helps, but the "miscommunication" can result from differences
> > understanding deep in the cognitive structure of different paradigms.
> I agree with both you and Shauna but would like to point out that part of
> it may be deep in the cognitive structure of the human brain.
[Of course! We fear and fight what we cannot express and deal with with our
newfound - at least in an evolutionary sense - language and logic. Because
most of us cannot see and express the incommensurable aspects of
paradigmatic constructs we curse and fight rather than talk and reason.]
> Not having
> analyzed all the old holy war posts for myself, I would also say the
> miscommunication/holy wars are able to happen because of the limits of
> medium in which the communication is taking place (which, I believe, has
> been pointed out in the past). Would you and Andrew still have had a
> heated discussion if you were in a face-to-face meeting?
[Probably not, because the issues really aren't that life-threatening or
psychically fundamental to either of us - where we couldn't agree I am sure
we would agree to disagree. But not too long ago there were 19 otherwise
apparently intelligent people who were mad enough about their holy war to
fly their hijacked jets into buildings packed with fellow humans, and I
believe there is a continuum between the nicely theoretical issues we are
discussing here and the kind of extremism that arises from religious
fundamentalism. By learning about the easy one, perhaps we - as technical
communicators - can perhaps learn something about how to bridge the more
> I'm still mulling over the rest of the discussion as it deals with the
> more concrete issue of what a document is - what a wonderful thesis this
> would be. Also, this email is getting rather long and I should honestly
> just get this out before it sits in my draft mail folder for another
> week. Yikes. Hope you made it this far into the mail ....
[I did, thank you for a very thoughtful and thought provoking dialogue,
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