"It Ain't Literature, Y'know"

Subject: "It Ain't Literature, Y'know"
From: DIGEST Bruce Byfield <byfield -at- DIRECT -dot- CA>
Date: Tue, 6 Aug 1996 11:57:10 +0800

As a recovering academic, I find this subject irresistable.

My first response is: no, technical writing isn't literature.
It doesn't require any thought about characters, dialogue or
imagery, so it's much easier to write. Therefore, there's less
excuse for poor writing.

My second: the more experience I have, the more I become
convinced that the distinctions between different types of
writing are less important than the similarities. Much of
the composition I used to teach first year students applies
to technical writing, too. Audience awareness, clarity,
precision--these are qualities which benefit both a novel and
a manual. I can't help thinking, too, that George Orwell's
"Politics and the English Language" is as relevant to a
technical writer as to an academic.

I suppose the major difference is that literature is a pure art,
done more for its own sake, while technical writing is a
utilitarian art, done for practical reasons (and rather like
typography). Many readers won't be able to explain why a manual
is lacking, but poor writing will affect their response, all
the same. It may even keep them from reading, or make them dislike
the product. Under these circumstances, there's nothing wrong with
taking a little care, so long as you don't become a compulsive

Bruce Byfield (byfield -at- direct -dot- ca)
Burnaby, B. C., Canada (604) 421-7189
Technical Documentation, Demos & Instruction

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