Incorrectly read instructions - by us humans

Subject: Incorrectly read instructions - by us humans
From: Peter Collins <peter -dot- collins -at- BIGFOOT -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 13 Sep 1998 08:47:04 +1000

Dear Maurice King,
Summary first - for those who don't use the scroll bars:

You write (in a tone of understandable frustration) that:
>We are in the business of writing instructions for others,
>but we don't take them so well ...

Q: Why don't we? - I too ask. Well, why, indeed?
A: It's because even though we are writers we remain mere humans, and
thus we get things wrong more often than not, we are too busy with too
much else to do, we are too impatient, too over-confident, too sloppy
in our reading - indeed too sloppy in most of what we do. Mere Humans.

Now comes the hard part. What can you do, what can all of us writers
do, to solve the 'sloppy reading' problem when we write?

Shakespeare had the answer: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our
stars, but in ourselves" or, as the 'pocket trainer' reminder card
puts it: "If the pupil hasn't learnt, the trainer hasn't taught".

If we write punchier, get the attention, focus on the key points, use
visual aids, recap - why, then, we might just get the material across
in one reading. But don't bet your life on it.

Any school teacher knows that even in a WILLING class you have to put
each new point at least three times, and have the pupils rehearse it
at least four, to get it understood, let alone remembered long enough
to do some good..

This applies even more so to adults. Who has not carefully read a
manual but still had to go back to it later to look up specific

Recently Geoff Hart, Robert Maxey and Smokey Bare wrote to TECHWR-L
about what they are driven to do, so that the written word gets off
the document and into changed behaviour. Sometimes, at least.

I'm retired now, after a lifetime of management, consulting,
presentations and, of course, writing. At the start of my career I was
taught "you may come up with the ideal solution for you client, but if
it isn't fully and properly implemented you must count yourself a
failure". On that basis I had more than my share of successes, but
failures too, and they still hurt, because they cost many people's
jobs. Nobody blames me - the Directors were the ones who made the
mistakes - but decades later I still remember my frustration at not
being able to persuade them off their self-destructive policies into
practices that did work for those who adopted them.

As the years went by I lowered my sights from the impossible idealism
of youth, when I expected every word to count (though it does, of
course). Now I consider it shows great skill on the part of any writer
who can in one session get even ONE significant change of thinking
into the head of the typical reader.

People see what they expect to see. If they are UNIX buffs they may
assume UNIX and ignore where you define your OS. If they are used to
Ctrl-R to send a reply they may ignore your asking them to click your
other address. To tweak them away from their pre-conceptions you have
to use tricks. That's what our craft is all about. It's a life work.

You can't solve this one - you're a human too! But please, don't be
dismayed. Whatever you write, count yourself lucky if even SOME of
your readers take even SOME of your points to heart.

"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a
beautiful world. Strive to be happy."
Peter Collins, VIVID Management Pty Ltd,
26 Bradleys Head Road, MOSMAN 2088, Australia
+61 2 9968 3308, fax +61 2 9968 3026, mobile +61 (0)18 419 571
Management Consultants and Technical Writers
email: peter -dot- collins -at- bigfoot -dot- com ICQ#: 10981283
web pages:

From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000=

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