RE: Rhetoric And Technical Writing?

Subject: RE: Rhetoric And Technical Writing?
From: "Nuckols, Kenneth M" <Kenneth -dot- Nuckols -at- mybrighthouse -dot- com>
To: "Me Too" <klhra -at- yahoo -dot- com>, <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2006 13:39:09 -0500

Me Too said...

> The blanket statement "tech docs are boring" is not
> quite right. There is a wide variety of things that
> fall under the label "technical document." You can
> make interesting technical documents, but only in the
> right situation. Making a document both technically
> useful and humanly interesting requires two conditions
> be met: the subject has to be "fuzzier," and the
> audience has to be less focused.

This brings up two books that I read in college that were taught in the
Technical Writing curriculum. One is a book that has been referenced on
this list before, a modern metaphysical travelogue called "Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. Pirsig does have some
sections where he talks about him and his friend doing roadside
maintenance on their bikes as they ride across the country. But that's
not the sole focus of the book.

I daresay I wouldn't want to use Pirsig's book as a model for good
technical documentation. He writes nice prose, but he has a rather
languid style and rambles a bit, which would slow down the audience in
reaching the information it needs to achieve its immediate goal of
finding the answer, solving the problem, or completing the process.

The other book is a literary classic: Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."
Regardless of whether one believes the narrative to be a good story or
not, when that is stripped away you are still left with about a 200 -
300 page instruction manual for how to run a 19th-century whaling ship.
That manual includes detailed instructions on how to locate, track,
hunt, kill, and process the creature to extract all the useful products
for which whales were hunted.

Melville's style certainly makes for more interesting reading than the
manual to program your DVD player, but of course because of the time and
technology gap it's not a very useful (or necessary) guide to anyone
other than literary students or history buffs. But I'm not sure I would
want to use Melville's style to write a technical manual either.
Melville is quite vividly descriptive, and that annoyed user someone
mentioned earlier in this thread would get pretty impatient wading
through 80-word sentences and multiple compound clauses, regardless of
how carefully constructed, to find the answer.

"'Aha!' cried the technician, and reached for the two green quick
release buttons on either side of the paper tray cover; but maddened by
the half-processed pages jammed deep in its paper path--between the
page-inverter roller and the fusing drum--the laser printer alarm tone
screeched as though combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell
from heaven."

More interesting than standard technical documentation? Perhaps. More
useful? Not so much. Most of us don't have the luxury of writing our
documentation for a general-interest audience with time on their hands.
Our readers have a job to do or a task to complete, and they need us to
give them the clearest, simplest, and most _effective_ instructions we
can. We're writing for their needs, not for our own enjoyment.

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