I'd rather teach an engineer to write than a writer to engineer

Subject: I'd rather teach an engineer to write than a writer to engineer
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 11:21:00 PDT

Someone wrote:

>I once heard a saying that it's easier to teach a good writer how to be
>technical than it is to teach a technical person who lacks writing skills to
>be a good writer.

>I think this remains true.

As a recovering engineer, I say this conceit is false. My experience with
both sides of the problem is this:

The problem in teaching "technical" folks to write well is getting them to
understand the importance of writing well. Once they are convinced that
writing is a craft worth learning it is fairly easy to teach them how to
avoid the most common causes of poor writing. Once they accept the notion
that writing is a structured process, technical folks are comfortable with
the concepts of grammar (equivalent to engineering thumbrules) and even
style (which is related to economy and elegance in design).

The very hard cases have usually (a) never been exposed to any technical
writing that is worth emulating and (b) never observed good writing get any
rewards. But technical folks are rarely unteachable. Unmotivated, yes.
Unteachable, no. When placed in situations where clear writing is important
and given basic instruction on writing, most technical people acquit
themselves rather well.

The problem in teaching "good writers" to "be technical" is the problem of
superficial knowledge versus understanding. I've known several recovering
English teachers who "sound" as technical as all-get-out -- but whose
understanding is shallow and limited. Their faculty with English and innate
verbal skills make them excellent conversational chameleons. They pick up
lingo quickly and accurately and are skilled at finding chances to drop a
phrase or ask a question that creates an impression of greater comprehension
than they actually possess. More power to them--until you actually take up
the challenge of teaching them "how to be technical" or rely on them to
solve a new technical problem where faculty with words is unimportant to the
solution of the problem.

Obviously these remarks are limited to the practice of technical writing. I
don't have any experience teaching anyone to write artistically--but then,
that's probably a pretty fair stab at the difference between the craft of
technical writing and the art of writing: Craftspeople can be taught,
artists teach themselves. So I make no claim to be able to help "technical
people" be good writers in that respect. But if "good writer" in the
context of this discussion means "able to write clearly and concisely about
technical matters" then I think the person charged with turning writers into
"technical people" has the far more difficult task.

There are, no doubt, exceptions. And I'd guess a number of those exceptions
might frequent this list. So I want to say that I'm not doubting anyone's
technical competence. If you are an English Lit major who designs with the
best of them, more power to you. These remarks are necessarily
generalizations in response to a generalization and are not intended to
offend anyone.
John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The trouble about fighting for human freedom is that you have
to spend so much of your life defending sons of bitches; for
oppressive laws are always aimed at them originally, and
oppression must be stopped in the beginning if it is to be
stopped at all.
-- H.L. Menken


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