Subject Matters (was English Majors, etc. etc.)

Subject: Subject Matters (was English Majors, etc. etc.)
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 16:35:30 -0800

WARNING: This message contains unpopular opinions about technical

See comments below...

> I feel that my
> degree(s) has given me the ability to think clearly, form opinions
based on
> research, and logically communicate my conclusions. In other words,
I have
> been trained to read material then present and support my
evaluations of
> that material to my peers and teachers. In order to do this
effectively, I
> have been taught to research a subject, determine an hypothesis,
> an argument, test the hypothesis, and communicate my conclusion.
> This generic formula allows me to communicate on a wide variety of
> subjects, regardless of my knowledge. You don't need be an expert
in the
> subject; you just need to know the steps of constructing logical

I kind of disagree. Your liberal arts training gets you about half
way in "good" technical writing. Knowing how to write and think is
important. It gives you a bedrock from which to grow.

Yet to truly communicate complex technical issues and ideas
effectively you must have intimate, hands-on knowledge of how those
ideas and issues are used in real life. For example, if you are
writing a manual about services in Windows NT, you need hands-on,
intimate knowledge of those services. You need to know how they work,
what they do, and how they are designed.

Otherwise, you're just blowing smoke. Anyone with good writing skills
can blather about nothing. Hell, 3/4 of my essays I wrote in college
were endless streams of utter nonsense. I was just bullshi**ing the
teacher so I could graduate.

I'll demonstrate. I know absolutely nothing about geology, but I can
sound like I do:

"The deep strata formations of this area are quite impressive. There
are numerous layers of varying densities. Some date as far back as
150 million years. A core sample of these strata reveal layers of
interconnected deposits of sandstone and shale."

See, with a little critical thinking and a little creativity, I can
sound brilliant. The fact is, I have no idea what I am writing about.
Sure, most people would think what I wrote sounds pretty impressive.
However, to a geologist, I sound like a total moron. My ability to put
words together in an intelligent manner might make me a decent writer,
but it does not make me a good communicator.

Thus, no matter how good a writer you are, no matter how expansive
your knowledge, there is no substitute for someone who has been out
there hammering the rocks, so to speak.

> This is precisely what technical writing is all about.
> We research, assume, test, and communicate. We do this over a
broad range
> of industries.

Technical writing is communicating technical and scientific concepts,
ideas, and designs clearly and concisely to facilitate maximum
transference of information between media (book, article, web page,
etc.) and reader.

Tech writing is not a timeless art of knowing swanky new word
processors and the tender concerns of delicate users. It is ramming
information down people's throats as quickly and as painlessly as
possible. Nobody reads a computer manual because they WANT to. They
read it to get information, the quicker the better.

Your job is to ensure that you shove as much knowledge through
documents as necessary and possible. Researching, assuming, and
testing are merely tools to get you to that end. Saying tech writing
is "researching, assuming, and testing" is like saying plumbing is
using a wrench, banging on pipes, and exposing your butt-crack. I
think most plumbers would say their job is quite a bit more.

> The larger business consulting firms know this. (Take a look at who
> are recruiting. I also seem to remember articles to this effect in
> business magazines of late.) They hire consultants with broad
> degrees such as MBAs, not necessarily specific degrees such as
> or sales. There has been a lot of writing in recent years about
> not wanting a person trained in one job aspect, but many.
> over a life-time of work most people will have several careers. So
> a liberal education serves as a firm foundation.

Most companies will hire anyone they can who acts like they can get
the job done. MBAs are good candidates because they have been run
through the ringer of getting an MBA and thus are usually hard
workers. However, MBA is not a guarantee for success. I know plenty
of masters holders who are not much more than talking plankton.

Liberal education is a foundation - but not as an end product. Nobody
would disagree that "cross-discipline" experience is good. It helps
mature perspective and critical thinking skills. Yet this is merely
the beginning of excellence, not the end.

> A final thought on English and Technical Writing. If there are
> (and I know there are) on this list, the field of English students
is ripe
> for the picking in terms of recruitment as Technical Writers.

Generally, English and liberal arts people are excellent candidates
for being tech writers - as well as bus drivers, pencil pushers,
burger flippers, and insolent park rangers.

In my experience, people who like technology (or whatever subject
matter they are documenting) and like to learn new things make the
best tech writers. There are plenty of fantastic writers with no
college degree or completely unrelated degrees (like mathematics).
What they lack in education they easily make up for in curiosity and

If you do not like or understand your subject matter, then it is
impossible to write about it in a truly intelligent manner.

Of course that is just my opinion.

Andrew Plato
President / Principal Insolent Park Ranger
Anitian Consulting, Inc.

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