Re: "It ain't literature, y'know"

Subject: Re: "It ain't literature, y'know"
From: John Gough <gough -at- AUSTIN -dot- ASC -dot- SLB -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 8 Aug 1996 09:26:10 -0500

This post (8/6) bounced; I'm reasonably sure that it won't
double-post now.

<original post asked which if either was correct,
"Using a hammer, pound a nail into the wall," or
"Pound a nail into the wall with a hammer."
Discussion with a colleague about it led to colleague
saying "we ain't writing literature, you know.">

First, let's clear our prejudices a bit. This is
probably not a good/bad issue. There may be reasons
for writing the sentence either way.

Second, why not ease up on the stress level?
You're going to work with your colleague for a while.
Instead of taking the literature comment personally,
just dodge it. Avoid confrontation, or the pissing
contest will take precedence over the issue and
everyone will lose (you, him, reader). I get prickly, too,
when someone tells me that a form I chose deliberately
is "incorrect."

There is a style of training writing that is
oriented toward the style your colleague is using.
It's associated with writing "training by
objectives". What I've seen of materials produced in
this way usually do use the construction:

"Using X, Do Y [to a performance level of Z]"

The better materials break it out into a table.

Step Using Do Specification
---- ----- ---------- -------------
1. Hammer Pound Nail Nail head flush with wall.

2. n/a Hang picture Level

[There's an author who wrote definitive books
on this, and I've read the books, but I can't
pull up his name right now. Vintage mid-60s, I think.]

The order is based on cognitive precedence. That
is, it's good to put the hammer in the user's mind
before the pounding. One rationale is that people
sometimes don't read all the way to the end of the
sentence, and may choose the wrong tool (in cases
less straightforward than nail-pounding, anyway.)

I see this formation a lot in industrial settings,
because the training theory seems to have taken
hold there. I'm not an academic expert, by
the way, but I've seen the style in oilfield
procedures in unaffiliated companies that are on
opposite sides of the globe. It has its merits.

The "cognitive-precedence" issue pops up in s/w
writing, too...some people like

Select X from the Y menu

because it's straightforward. Others prefer

From the Y menu, select X

because it follows the reader's path of
experience...they can't see X until they pull
down the Y menu. Also, some suggest that
the first style results in people having to
read/scan the sentence twice. Whichever you
choose, it's more important to do it consistently.
(I think there was a long thread about this
particular issue recently, I'm just pointing
out the similarity.)

At the level of a single procedure, this whole
discussion sounds nit-picky. It gets a little
more interesting if you are creating the template
for a handbook of 500 procedures, or the procedure
is complex and potentially hazardous ("using the
*brass* wrench, loosen the packing nut"), or English
is not the readership's first language.

You might want to ask your colleague for some background
on why he settled on that style...where he's seen it, or
been taught it. You might warm him up by saying that
you have been rethinking your cast of it as "incorrect"
and are curious about why he likes it.

The crack about literature from your colleague was probably
just defensive. You could just sidestep that by asking him
and yourself what would be easier for the reader.

Good luck,
John Gough gough -at- austin -dot- asc -dot- slb -dot- com
Technical Consultant johngough -at- aol -dot- com
Schlumberger -- Austin Product Center C1.147 -- (512) 331-3656

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