Fear and Loathing at the Job Site

Subject: Fear and Loathing at the Job Site
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 19:34:45 -0700

I'm a couple of weeks into a long contract. It's a learning experience, but not quite in the way that I expected. I knew I had to learn a lot to learn about the technology (and still do), as well as the labyrinthine complexities of a network that, like most of them, grew without much planning. I also knew that I had to accustom myself to working on site for the first time in over a year.

What I didn't expect was, in doing forensic work, I would come into close contact with the mind of a writer who believes that a technical writer's expertise is only in writing. Hunter S. Thompson at his most gonzo could hardly do justice to the experience. In fact, his trip to Las Vegas was a stroll through Norman Rockwell's America in contrast.

Sifting through the hard drive, I found receipts for training courses on every piece of design software imaginable. I found downloads of tool tips from Adobe, and endless PDFs from STC sites.

At the same time, this writer, with an audience of engineers, thought that mentioning that a slash was used to indicate a command option was worth emphasizing as a tip. The same writer had no idea what a hash mark at the start of a line in a text configuration file meant. Bits and pieces were copied and pasted together with so little senses of continuity that I haven't the slightest doubt that the writer understood practically nothing of the subject, despite having spent over a year on the job.

This same writer is also proof that calling a non-technical writer a font-fondler is off the mark. It's not just that this writer's page design shows not even the vaguest awareness of basic design and simply looks wonky - although I do observe that, if someone is not inclined to learn a technical subject, then there's no reason to suppose that they will learn any other body of expertise, either.

But what really struck me was that the information that the writer chose to put into tips or into sidebars with colored background. It was so erratic that it only emphasized how little command of the subject was behind the design. Today, it struck me very forcibly that, not only can you not write without expertise, but you can't design, either. A large chunk of basic design is knowing what to emphasize; another is know what elements go together. If you don't know the subject, then both these aspects of design become impossible.

Certainly this is the most extreme case of a non-technical writer that I've encountered. But the last couple of weeks have made me wonder. I've always taken Andrew Plato's remarks as three parts hyperbole to one part observation. Now, I feel I have to give him the benefit of the doubt and wonder if, on this subject, he wasn't sticking strictly to the truth. A scary mood, to give Andrew the benefit of the doubt.

Bruce Byfield bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com 604.421.7177

"Hal-an-Tow, jolly rumbelow,
We were out long before the day-o,
For to welcome in the summer time
To welcome in the May-o
Summer is acoming in, and winter's gone away"
- Traditional


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