Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking?

Subject: Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 28 May 2003 09:54:18 -0400

Michael West wondered: <<Can writing be both "perfectly intelligible" and
"ambiguous and potentially misleading" at the same time?>>

Emphatically yes, and it can also be quite accurate at the same time. Ever
read any legislation? Lawyers will tell you that legal writing is designed
to exclude the possibility of ambiguity. <Fe> Undoubtedly that's why
contract disputes are more common than dandelions in spring and why judges
often rely more on jurisprudence than on actually reading the "unambiguous"
legal wording and deciding thereupon. </Fe>

Much less facetiously, it's quite possible to describe something clearly but
be entirely wrong; I could tell you in perfectly comprehensible, even
elegant, prose why the Earth is flat and Darwin was wrong--but I'd be
misleading you quite badly in both cases. Similarly, it's easy to describe
an interface incorrectly without being sloppy or intending to deceive; that
happened to me a while back when I described what the software was doing on
my computer, not knowing that the developers had changed the underlying code
without sending me the revised version of the software.

<<it is often very easy to spot a writer who doesn't have his facts
straight, and to recognize this deficiency ON STYLE

The first part echoes Andrew Plato's very sensible position that if you
don't understand something, you can't describe it to someone else. The
second part is less clear. Though some styles are so clearly pretentious and
designed to camouflage the writer's ignorance or lack of "due diligence"
that you can tell this just by reading how the words are constructed, that's
not inevitably the case and it's not the more important point: style and
correctness are largely unrelated. For example:

<<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.>>

Sometimes the author knows exactly what they're doing and is using their
intimate knowledge of the subject to direct the reader's attention away from
a problem. After all, one goal of (unethical) advertising is to conceal a
product's flaws by writing your way around them, ignoring them, or focusing
attention on other aspects of the product.

<<Someone very smart once said, "to write a clear sentence you must first
have a clear thought.">>

Emphatically yes. One of my biggest criticisms of the modern educational
system (at least hereabouts) is that it doesn't teach students to get the
facts straight and assemble them into a coherent argument. While this bodes
well for my job security as an editor, it's a sad and alarming state for

<<I am always astounded when someone posts a statement here to the effect
that a technical document can be both perfectly written and completely

You shouldn't be astounded, since there's a long history of this. My
favorite example is a marvelous book by a fellow named Ignatius Donnelly,
the last of the great "catastrophists". In "Ragnarok: the age of fire and
gravel" (see for instance), Donnelly wrote a
fascinating argument that attempted to tie scientific evidence on the global
distribution of certain geological deposits to anthropological evidence
(largely mythology) to demonstrate that cometary impacts on Earth were the
cause of the distribution of the geological deposits.

It's been a while since I read this, but my recollection is that the book
was very well written, and did a good job of coming to a logical and
scientifically defensible conclusion based on the "known facts" of the day
(ca. 1880). Unfortunately, Donnelly wasn't aware of the concept of plate
tectonics (an idea that came along some 50+ years later), and thus was
entirely wrong in his hypothesis about the source of the gravel. Except, of
course, that he was also entirely right in the notion that comets and
asteroids do occasionally strike our planet. So he was both wrong and right.

<<Why do some here... 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?>>

My take on this? It's because it's easier to paint the world in shades of
black and white than it is to acknowledge and deal with the complexity of
shades of grey. The best writers are both skilled writers and know their
subject. Neither is inherently and inevitably more important than the other.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"Wisdom is one of the few things that look bigger the further away it
is."--Terry Pratchett


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