Writing for a living

Subject: Writing for a living
From: Jim Purcell <jimpur -at- MICROSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 28 Feb 1997 11:14:22 -0800

Carolyn Haley philosophizes:

>>Finally, I've never understood why "content" is more important than grammar
>>and spelling. Some misspellings can be catastrophic (especially in
>>chemistry), as can poorly constructed sentences that might direct a user
>>consulting a manual to do a wrong or dangerous thing. And why is any
>>technical subject inherently more important than language? A lousy program
>>is a lousy program, just as a poorly built engine is a poorly built engine,
>>and a sloppy document is a sloppy document. It astounds me that people
>>calling themselves professional writers can have such disdain for the tools
>>of their trade.

Is it disdain for the tools of the trade to suggest that the product you
create is more important than the tools you use?

This post is much scarier than insisting on a perfect resume. I hope
Carolyn doesn't really believe this, and I hope her boss isn't reading
over her shoulder. Technical content is what we do. Grammar and spelling
are a couple of things, among many others, we use to generate that
technical content. We are in the technical content business; we aren't
writing poetry. Our employers do not hire us to be defenders of the
language. Just as important, our readers (remember them?) care about our
language only to the extent that it helps or hinders them in
understanding the technical content so they can get their work done.
Readers will far more readily forgive a comma splice than a technical
error. They will forgive a misspelling if they don't have to flip to
three different sections of a manual to find the information they want.
They will forgive a graceless phrase if it doesn't introduce ambiguity.

I am neither advocating nor defending poor or careless writing. We don't
want to leave the readers with any of these problems, but even the best
writers will let a few things slip through. We are professional writers,
not hobbyists. We are craftsmen, not artists. We cannot afford
perfection, because this is a business. If we are good writers and we
have time, good editors, stable betas, and prompt and thorough technical
reviews, we'll turn out excellent work most of the time. If we have none
of these things, we have to apply our efforts where they will do the
most good. In that case, I will sacrifice everything that I have to for
accuracy and usability, even proofreading and copyediting if it comes to
that. A manager who would insist otherwise does not have her eye on the
ball.

The reason I have gone on at such length on this topic is as I stated in
an earlier post. Technical writers are always complaining about being
treated like glorified secretaries. We are always complaining about
being the first to go when budget cuts come down. We bring these
problems on ourselves when we place the greatest premium on the parts of
our job that our employers and our readers value least. Being a great
speller, writing polished prose--these are important writerly tasks, but
they are only means to an end. Making our products and technologies
easier to use and more marketable, keeping product support costs down,
making technology available to users--that is what our companies pay us
to do, and we focus elsewhere at our peril.

Jim Purcell
jimpur -at- microsoft -dot- com
My opinions, not Microsoft's

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