Re: craft vs. science vs. art

Subject: Re: craft vs. science vs. art
From: "Doc" <dlettvin -at- attbi -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 26 Jun 2002 13:34:20 -0400

It has been a long time since I posted regularly to this list. I appreciate
the positive comments I received for my first comment in years. I'm sorry
that this one may make me some enemies.

I love language. I have studied linguistics, semiology and non-verbal
communications. I write poetry and short stories. I read voraciously. I
appreciate the art of writing. I am even something of a book collector,
specializing in the witty and complex authorial pyrotechnics of James Branch
Cabell, Anatole France, Pierre Louys and Thomas Burnett Swann. The newest
prize of my collection is a copy of the Cabell's "The Silver Stallion" with
the bookplate proclaiming it to be from the library of Susan and Harpo Marx.

My job, however, does not call for art. It calls for craftsmanship.

I think that technical writing is the original form of communication. What
would drive the Cro-magnons to develop language? Would their first words
more likely be "I love you," or "I'm so depressed," or "RUN!!!" "HIDE!!!"

When I write as an artist I choose words with layers of meaning, with
emotional and evocative subtexts. When I write as a technical writer I
reduce my palette removing symbolism, wordplay and ambiguity. The text I
produce as a technical writer is not a thing to be admired and interpreted,
it is a tool with a purpose that must be transparent in its purpose.

Toolmakers have always been unsatisfied with utilitarianism. They always
want to add the distinctive flourishes that comprise a kind of signature. In
earlier times that was acceptable. When you built a tool it was for one
person or for one community but that is no longer the case.

On my shelf is a wood plane. It is a solid block of mahogany with engraved
brass fittings and the original owners initials carved into the toe. The
plane was made by a toolsmith in 1807 and it has been used by generations of
carpenters, cabinetmakers and now a woodcarver. The embellishments are
distinctive and artistic in their own way. But this is a durable tool, one
that passes from hand to hand. Its purpose is clear and forthright and does
not change from day to day.

I write documentation for software. Software is the most ephemeral of tools.
Unlike the woodplane with its single purpose undiminished and unconfused,
software changes rapidly. New features appear, others are superseded or
removed. Unlike the plane, purpose is piled on purpose until the original
intent can almost disappear from view. Documentation is the tool that lets
you use the tool. Should we embellish? Add layers of meaning? I think not. I
think that it is our job to cut away all the extraneous mumbo jumbo and
provide the user with the most transparent information we can.

Is that art? Again, I think not. It is a kind of Shaker craftsmanship,
paring the information down to the point that there is no question how the
thing is to work. It is our job to take the baroque meanderings of the new
toolsmiths and make them accesible to mere mortals.

I will admit that the type of documentation that I do flavors this attitude.
My usual job is to create documentation that can be stored and reused,
documentation that can be easily translated into many languages and used for
multiple purposes. This is requisite in a global marketplace. I use the term
technical writing in a very restricted way and it affects the way I think
about it.

Art does not translate easily. Art is depth and hidden meanings. As an
example, one of the most beautifully written treatises in science is D'Arcy
Thompson's "On Growth and Form." It is a literate and beatifully written
explanation of how things grow into their shapes. If any of my readers speak
a second language, think how you would translate the following:

"Time out of mind it has been by way of the 'final cause', by the
teleological concept of end, of purpose or of 'design', in one of its many
forms (for its moods are many), that men have been chiefly wont to explain
the phenomena of the living world; and it will be so while men have eyes to
see and ears to hear withal. With Galen, as with Aristotle, it was the
physician's way; with John Ray, as with Aristotle, it was the naturalist's
way; with Kant as with Aristotle it was the philosopher's way. It was the
old Hebrew way, and has its splendid setting in the story that God made
'every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the
field before it grew' . It is a common way, and a great way; for it brings
with it a great vision, and it lies deep as the love of nature in the hearts
of men."

As a technical writer I would transform this into:
People tend to see any live thing as having a purpose. They believe that
this purpose defines the thing's design.

Who is the artist? Is it Thompson or is it me?
Whose text is more usable?
Whose is more translatable?

Art should inspire reflection it should touch the emotions.
Technical writing is direct.

G.K. Chesterton said, "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who
appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are
necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we
can do nothing to his head but hit it."

I've dithered on too long, but knowing the highly opinionated folks on this
list, I thought I'd give you a big target. :-})


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