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Subject:Re: Soapbox Time From:Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET> Date:Mon, 19 Oct 1998 15:00:11 -0700
Robert Maxey lamented:
> I was referring to the basics: Readin, Writin and Rithmetic - the
> three R's. BTW: How come there are 3 Rs in this often quoted
> phrase? Isn't 'Rithmetic' supposed to be Arithmetic? I work
> with people every day that can't use a ruler, can't write a
> sentence that can be understood, can't figure simple percentages
> or even multiply 2 numbers together, and can't be corrected
> without taking it personally, as some sort of racial attack.
Here are a few thoughts.
I have sometimes had to write user's manuals in English for
people in "data sweatshops" who don't know English very well and
come from a wide variety of countries. I just have to replace
taking joy in terse and elegant sentence structure and the most
perfectly appropriate words with joy in choosing words that are
the simplest and least likely to be misunderstood by people who
have only the barest acquaintence with written English. The job
of technical writing is to steer certain people through certain
jobs. You simply have to do whatever it takes to reach those
readers, no matter what you think of the educational system that
left them in such a state of ignorance. I think technical
writing has reached some of its highest achievements in the
completely wordless instructions on things like towel-dispensers
in public bathrooms.
If some of your readers can't use a ruler or can't figure simple
percentages, then you have two options. One is to exclude such
people from the audience, by having a very prominent opening
section that says:
To operate <product>, you must be able to:
- Use a ruler to measure lengths in inches and fractions of
- Figure percentages; for example, you should be able to tell
that 20% of 50 is 10.
There is *always* a minimum level of prior knowledge needed to
read any manual. In fact, usually it's much higher than this. I
often say things like, "You should know your way around Windows 95"
since an explanation of all those basics would bloat the manual,
insult many of the readers, and make the content of the manual
seem much more difficult than it is (because of the increased
size of the manual). The time to include these little
exclusionary notices is when you have reason to think that some
people may pick up the manual and make a mess of things for lack
of certain knowledge. (It's unlikely that someone who didn't
know English at all would do this, so there's no need to say
"You must be able to read English.")
The other option is to include sections in the manual that
explain how to do the tasks that you've discovered some of your
readers need to know but don't. If a lot of your readers don't
know how to measure lengths with a ruler, you might have to
include a section about that. Be sure to include a lot of
About ticking people off, this is just one of those really tricky
subjects. I try to be as diplomatic as possible, but some people
just *will* be ticked off simply because they want to be. For
all reasonable people, though--the vast majority--all you have to
do is avoid affecting any sort of attitude that suggests
disrespect. It's not often said openly or even admitted in the
privacy of the soul, but nearly all people crave basic respect
from others, and hate disrespect more than almost anything else.
If a person is having some difficulties, subtly let on that you
think this reflects on their basic competence as a human being,
their bad attitude, their poor education, their social class,
etc. Talk about causes over which neither of you has any
control, like our woeful educational system and the coming end of
civilization. Treat the person as a symptom of a bigger problem.
If a person is having some difficulties, offer to help out: first
ask them if they're having any problems and could they use
someone or something to help them out; offer to show them how to
do things they're unfamiliar with, on the premise that they can
easily learn; etc. If you think they just can't do the job, then
recommend privately to the appropriate manager that they be
removed from it. If you still have to work with the person, then
make the best of it, never letting them know that you think they
can't do the job. Or in other words, *get the job done with the
materials available*. If that's impossible, then quit.
When you have to correct, then just correct, suggesting nothing
about the person. Say, "20% of 50 is 10, not 20." That's the
respectful way to correct. The disrespectful way is, "When are
you ever going to learn how to calculate even simple
Whatever you do, don't treat people like idiots because they can't do
*your* job (writing comprehensible sentences). That's why they hired you.
One problem that I do not know how to handle well is people
telling me how to do my job who don't know what they're doing.
This ticks me off (and is therefore something to learn from when
understanding how not to tick others off). I recently had
someone insist on using 10-point Arial at about 100 characters
per line because it's "standard" and it "looks nice". <cough>
My current policy is simply to go around people like this--just
interact with someone else, and present these sorts of people
with a fait accompli rather than involving them in the process.
If they won't get out of the way, then I'll just quit. I can
sacrifice lots of small things for a customer who might know
something I don't, but I'm not going to produce anything I'm not
proud of. There are lots of other jobs out there. But still, no
disrespect, and nothing unprofessional. Just go around the
person, or quit. No need to waste your time making enemies. I
had one such bungling clod at whom I was *furious* for months put
me in touch with the best professional opportunity I've ever had.
If I'd told him off in the way I'd fantasized about, that never
would have happened.
Does anyone have any other suggestions about how to handle this
sort of thing?
Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>