Second-hand knowledge

Subject: Second-hand knowledge
From: "Ben Kovitz" <bkovitz -at- nethere -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 29 Jun 2002 09:16:40 -0700

Charles Vermette wrote:

> To my fellow Americans: If you haven't seen the third world for
> yourself, you have no idea what you're talking about -and it's
> blatantly obvious. Get a passport, go see the town where my
> grew up in the Philippines, see what she became, and then we'll
> about "relative skill levels" and third world/first world
> interaction. If you haven't done this, your comments are the
> equivalent of an eight year old lecturing on world peace
> - and valued as such.
> Technical writing tie in? I hope some of these posters
> software, networking, jet engines, etc. better than they
> this topic. If not, I'm sure their writing reflects it.

Actually, I think this ties in to technical writing in a very
way. As a professional technical writer, you have to write with
authority about things that you might have no prior knowledge of
when the project starts. That's one of the great joys of the job:
you're essentially paid to learn.

Ideally, you would get first-hand knowledge of everything you
about. You'd assemble the widget yourself to learn what can go
wrong, you'd set up the database schema yourself, etc. That's the
only way that you *really* know what you're writing about. It's
also the only way to find the most valuable sorts of information:
direct interaction with the reality you're describing. SMEs
never tell you the juicy stuff that only hands-on interaction can
tell you.

But the economics of the job often requires that you write things
that you only know second-hand. A lot of the time, you have to
on a subject-matter expert, not simply to guide you to places
you can mess around and learn for yourself, but to tell you things
that you accept second-hand and merely convey to your readers.
Sometimes you've got to write about the third world even though
there's no time to go to the Philippines. (And of course your
readers are always in this position until they've gotten
experience of their own.)

Does anyone have ideas about getting the most out of this
second-hand kind of knowledge? When to insist on first-hand and
when to settle for second-hand? How can you avoid becoming an
eight-year-old lecturing on world peace--mouthing a bunching of
useless, naive, or just plain wrong stuff because you ain't been


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A brief comment from an American...: From: Charles E Vermette

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