John's recollections of Mr. Chapline

Subject: John's recollections of Mr. Chapline
From: "Blount, Patricia A" <Patricia -dot- Blount -at- ca -dot- com>
To: <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2008 15:00:32 -0500


It was with a chuckle that I read your post about Mr. Chapline's
opinions regarding which is better: hiring a writer to write techie or
hiring a techie to do the writing...

I had a similar experience several years back in my role as manager of a
TW group. Executive leadership was planning to cut heads so my managers,
in a very impressive display of humanity, scooped up half a dozen of
those slated for termination and gave them to me with this directive:
"Make 'em writers!"

After I'd picked myself up off the floor, I explained to my managers
that teaching someone to write well is not something I can do in the
length of our typical project cycle. They blinked at me a few times and
shrugged. "How hard could it be? Everyone can write. We learned it in

And therein lies the problem.

Too many people believe that writing is something you learn in
elementary school. While grammar and syntax are certainly taught in
schools, not every student excels in these subjects, which is why many
do not go on to become "real writers". Just because you graduated high
school does not mean you can write professionally, any more than having
a driver's license means you can drive for NASCAR.

While it's true that most non-writers are quite capable of discerning
nouns from verbs, my experience 'making 'em writers' taught me that
non-writers tend to rely on what "sounds right" rather than on what
actually is right. Whenever I pointed out the hilarity in their dangling
modifiers, the ineffectiveness in their use of active voice, the
challenges of trying to understand personified software features, or the
inelegance of lists written out of parallel, I received eye rolls and
shrugs in response. Their perception was that "stuff" was all
meaningless. Who cares?

The argument was settled when the editing effort was quantified. When I
pushed back and said, "What do you mean here - A, B or C? I can't tell."
That's when a few of these folks understood that writing well means
writing without ambiguity so that readers are not left scratching their
heads in wonder. Writing well means using the rules of syntax and
grammar they should have learned in school PLUS a host of advanced
writing skills they would have learned in vocational education.

Those that grasped this went on to become rather capable tech writers.

Patricia Blount


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