Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking

Subject: Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking
From: Michael West <mbwest -at- bigpond -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 28 May 2003 21:03:38 +1000

Bruce wrote:
> [...] I have had several contracts in which I cleaned up after
> another writer. Writing ability was not the problem in any of these
> cases. All were written in perfectly intelligible English. However, all
> of them suffered a lack of understanding of the subject. This lack was
> evident not only in the obsolete and unverified information, but in the
> turns of phrasing and ambiguous, potentially misleading statements that
> were made.

Now here's something that interests me. Can writing
be both "perfectly intelligible" and "ambiguous and
potentially misleading" at the same time?

I don't mean to be nitpicking Bruce's perfectly
intelligible comments -- really I don't. What I want
to call attention to is the fact that it is often very
easy to spot a writer who doesn't have his facts
straight, and to recognize this deficiency ON STYLE
GROUNDS ALONE. A writer who is unsure of his
facts will usually give himself away through
imprecise, ambiguous writing -- as happened in
the material Bruce was called in to fix. The "real"
problem, I submit, is not what the tech writer
knew or didn't know. It's WHAT HE DIDN'T
whatever reason -- it doesn't matter.

When I read a technical document that makes me
stumble over indirection, ambiguity, imprecision,
sloppy phraseology, what I suspect is that the writer
has not done his research and analysis. As an editor, I
often find that shoring up flaccid prose is as much
an exercise in fact-checking as it is a language exercise.
The prose is flaccid because the facts aren't there.
Why couldn't he write that paragraph more clearly?
Because he didn't know the facts, and was trying to
skate around them. Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking.

Someone very smart once said, "to write a clear
sentence you must first have a clear thought." The
more you think about that, the more you realize that
a disciplined writing style and a disciplined approach
to audience analysis, fact-gathering and fact-checking
go hand-in-hand. Here's a common example: overuse
of the passive voice. Why? Because when you use the
passive voice you don't have to specify by what agency
something gets done. Great! No phone call, no walk
down the hall to lodge a query. Just say "it gets done"
without specifying how, when, where, or by whom--
and you can go home early. Sloppy thinking, sloppy

And this, dear long-suffering colleagues, is why I
am always astounded when someone posts a statement
here to the effect that a technical document can be
both perfectly written and completely wrong (that isn't
at all what Bruce said, of course -- this is something that
has been stated here in many, many artificially-constructed
rhetorical oppositions between "technical skills" and "writing

I don't doubt that such a thing might come to pass through
a deliberate act of deception. That is, someone could
*intentionally* write a load of codswallop in perfectly
constructed expository prose just to prove a point of
some kind. But outside of politics, advertising, academia,
and a few other nests of vipers, such deliberate deception
would be rare. What *does* happen every day is that the
tech writer who can't be bothered to get his ducks in a row
semantically and grammatically is the same lamer who can't
get his facts straight. And the converse is true, too (is it not?)
The writer who works his butt off making sure his prose is
tight, fat-free, unambiguous, and well-organized, is NOT the
writer who will risk ruining everything by skimping on technical
accuracy and completeness. The two go together. Sloppy
writing, sloppy thinking.

Why do some here (NOT Bruce, I say one last time!)
keep trying to convince us that good tech-writing craft
can exist without *both* technical accuracy and clarity
of expression? Is it because it is easier to pretend that
good, honest craftsmanship is not nearly as important as
guruhood? Sometimes you gotta wonder.

Michael West
Melbourne, Australia


Robohelp X3, from eHelp, lets you quickly and easily create
professional Help systems for all your Windows and Web-based
applications, including Net.

Order RoboHelp X3 in May and receive a $100 mail-in rebate, PLUS
free RoboScreenCapture and WebHelp Merge Module.

Order RoboHelp today:

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as:
archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Re: You're SUPPOSED to have good communication skills if you're a tech writer: From: Jan Henning
Re: You're SUPPOSED to have good communication skills if you're a tech writer: From: Bruce Byfield

Previous by Author: Re: Certification List
Next by Author: Re: Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking
Previous by Thread: Re: You're SUPPOSED to have good communication skills if you're a tech writer
Next by Thread: Re: Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads