Us and Them (was Re: Writers first )

Subject: Us and Them (was Re: Writers first )
From: Betsy Perry <betsyp -at- VNET -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 9 Oct 1996 11:21:18 -0400

------- start of forwarded message -------
Robert Plamondon said, responding to another posting,

> It's much easier for a writer to learn technical
> concepts than for an engineer to produce lucid, organized prose.

I don't believe this for a second. What I *do* believe is that writing
lucid, organized prose requires the desire to improve and a great deal
of practice. Few engineers score even 50% on those requirements. But
engineers are at least as trainable as, say, bears. A few zaps of the
old cattle prod for screwing up, a few treats for shambling through the
dance more or less correctly, and we'd turn them into ballerinas in
no time.

Robert was witty and didn't say anything objectionable. But the
exchange reminded me of something that's been bothering me for some years.

I am responding because I am troubled by technical writers' practice
of praising themselves by demeaning the engineers they work with.
Some of the best writers I know are engineers -- consider William
Horton, an MIT graduate and a registered professional engineer, the
author of *Designing and Writing Online Documentation*, which is
lucid, intelligent, and full of hard-won knowledge. Fred Brooks,
distinguished computer scientist and author of *The Mythical
Man-Month*, has a style that reminds me of E.B. White in its concision
and self-deprecating charm. I would be proud to sharpen either
engineer's pencil (or unstick his DELETE key.)

In the last five years I've worked with three or four software dudes
who could make a living as writers without breaking a sweat. When I
encounter one such, I sing Hallelujah!, give his or her work a very
light edit, and proceed with glee to devote extra time to working with
the less-articulate engineers. I'm not a good technical writer
because my engineers can't write; I'm a good technical writer because
I love writing, and because I do it well. I write better than most
engineers I know; when I encounter an exception to the rule, I am
surprised and delighted, and I do my best to learn what he or she has
to teach.

We're not good because engineers can't write; we're good because we

Humming "The Farmer And The Cowman Should Be Friends",

Betsy Perry
Elizabeth Hanes Perry betsyp -at- vnet -dot- net

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