Re: Knowledge of subject matter

Subject: Re: Knowledge of subject matter
From: Andrew Plato <gilliankitty -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2004 13:16:23 -0800 (PST)

"Edwin Dahlquist" <> wrote ...

> Interesting comment, but "knowledge of the subject matter" is a sticky point.

> Most current university offerings, both graduate and undergraduate, tend to
> emphasize training generalists for TW. The emphasis is on the principles,
> rather than on subject matter, the theory being that TWs represent end users
> more than SMEs and that representation may actually be hindered by an
> of subject matter knowledge. (I am not advocating this view, just stating

Universities are in a sticky position with subject matter - agreed. And while
its impossible to teach every subject a tech writer could know, one of the
principles that universities need to teach is how to work with subject matter
and acquire subject matter expertise.

This is why every tech writing program should require students to take math,
science, and at least 1 logic course. Every student should be required to build
up a set of strong set of critical thinking skills. Moreover, their work should
be ruthlessly analyzed, criticized, and tested. They need to get used to having
their work laid bare and criticized.

Unfortunately, universities don't do this. In fact, they do the exact opposite.
They create these cream-puff programs where people share their feelings all day
and never are forced to think critically about anything. Then they tell the
students they can obsess over fonts, structures, and other nonsense night and
day and be a respected writer. Then they trot in the local STC elders who
reinforce this by showing their award winning documents - which never once had
to undergo any serious analysis.

This has resulted in a whole "sub-culture" of non-technical, technical writers
who have commodity skills and thin skin. It also has produce a whole pack of
wimpy, whiners who cannot tolerate any form of criticism or critical analysis.
When somebody stands up and says "hey, this is wrong" they cry and wail about
how unfair the world is and how dare you question them.

In short - these programs produce soft, untested people who are better suited
to substance abuse counselling then writing documentation.

> In fact, a number of TWs indicate that subject matter expertise hinders their

> ability to write to the level of the end user; my question is usually "what
> the end user is an electrical engineer or a biotechnologist?"

Nonsense. This is the typical "ignorance is an asset" argument. Its *complete*
nonsense. Ignorance is NEVER an asset.

Subject matter expertise NEVER hinders a writer's ability to write to the level
of an end user. In fact, quite the opposite. Subject matter expertise makes a
writer MORE adept at handling the complexities of a technology and allows them
to anticipate issues and problems. Its absurd to think you're doing the reader
a favor by NOT knowing about the subject matter.

> However, I disagree with the idea that subject matter competence is
> for TW, and that writing tasks can easily be accomplished by the average
> manager. The simple truth is that writing skill is far more important; a
> competent writer with an interest in technology can learn the field, while
> average SME (or manager) cannot write competently. (BTW, stringing seven
> together without a hiccup from a spell checker does not qualify as "competent

> writing.")

Sorry, but you're wrong again. Writing is a common skill. Skillful writing is
simply a person who has taken a common skill and become advanced in that common

Everybody, even managers, CAN write. They might not write well, but they CAN
write. Hence, with a little focus, practice, and training, even a manager or
engineer COULD write a useful document.

Subject matter, like biotechnology, systems engineering, or tax law are
uncommon skills. They are known by very few. The whole purpose of technical
writing - its very reason for existence - is to gather "rare" information and
make it more accessible to other people. The reason technical writers exist is
not because they know how to format sentences or use FrameMaker, but because
they take information known by few and transform it into information available
for many. Hence, the tech writer uses a common skill, adeptly, to make
uncommon knowledge more common.

If you're spending the majority of your time worrying about grammar, fonts, and
writing skills, you're essentially ignoring the whole reason your profession
exists. The ability to write skillfully is a given for a writer. Its something
you should possess without question, debate, or interest.

Therefore, the real focus should be subject matter. A poorly organized
paragraph might be hard to read, but if the information is correct and gets the
point accross, then it has at least fulfilled the main purpose of

> The important writing issues are about structure, rather than content, and
> about how humans process information, rather than window dressing with a word

> processor. Just as the JPL Levels of Edit concept is conceptually flawed
> (consider it in relation to the emphasis in science writing in which the
> question is, "does this stuff even make sense?" rather than, "is the grammar
> usage appropriate for the target audience?") so is the concept of "native
> speaker language competency" flawed. The writer may understand well what he
> she intends to say, but not what the reader actually perceives; consider
> anything written about Linux for great examples.

You seem to be assuming that a person who is totally ignorant of a subject
matter can somehow take raw information, apply some Important Theory to that
information, and it will suddenly make sense.

That's nonsense. While methods and structures are helpful tools to help
organize information, if you don't have the correct information, it doesn't
matter how amazing your methods are - you'll still product crap documentation.

Try this test: What would you prefer?

1. An exquisitely packaged, beautifully wrapped, highly organized box of human

2. A disorganized mess of gold bullion.

Some of the most pertinent, valuable, and world-changing documents in history
are poorly organized, poorly written, and in some cases, outright

Thus, subject matter will always be more important than style or structure.
Heck, take a look at the Bible. Its a mess. Confusing sections, contradictions,
terrible information mapping - yet people treat it like its the word of God!
Proving that even God doesn't care about style. As long as you get the point,
you're okay.

> Finally, one of the most important conceptual leaps a TW can make is to
> understand that the "customer" is different from the "end user;" TWs write to

> satisfy the person who pays them to write, not necessarily to illuminate Sam
> Suzy Homemaker about the proper procedure for using a DVD remote. Write for
> customer, not the end user, and most problems disappear.

You are correct here. The target audience for many documents is rarely what
tech writers think it is. This is why this whole "advocate for the user" is
just nonsense. A tech writer is not a "user's advocate." You're job is to
gather information, pound it into shape, and ram it down the reader's throats
as painlessly as possible.

Users don't need advocates, they need writers who know what the hell they're
talking about. And you do those tender users no favors by sitting around and
obsessing which style guide to use.

Andrew Plato

Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! Finance Tax Center - File online. File on time.


ROBOHELP X5 - ALL NEW VERSION. Now with Word 2003 support, Content
Management, Multi-Author support, PDF and XML support and much more!

Now is the best time to buy - special end of month promos, including:
$100 mail-in rebate; Free online orientation on content management
functionality; Huge savings on support and future product releases;
PLUS Great discounts on RoboHelp training. OFFER EXPIRES March 31!
Call 1-800-358-9370 or visit:

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as:
archiver -at- techwr-l -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.

Previous by Author: Re: What's the purpose of this list?
Next by Author: Re: Knowledge of subject matter
Previous by Thread: Re: Re: Knowledge of subject matter
Next by Thread: RE: Re: Knowledge of subject matter

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

Sponsored Ads