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

Subject: Re: Subject Matters (was English Majors, etc. etc.)
From: Paul Strasser <paul -dot- strasser -at- WINDSOR-TECH -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1999 08:38:53 -0600

I'd like to thank Andrew Plato for his remarks, especially his comments
about writing in the sciences (notably geology).

I've written scientific articles, and the ability to write clearly is only
part of the answer. Instead, what is required is the ability to write
clearly about specific facts and information, presenting them in a logical
manner in order to accurately convey your ideas and conclusions. If you
don't have a knowledge base about the subject, your results are worse than

I have a friend who has written many books about geology, and the most
demanding part of the process is convincing the editors at the publishing
house (who know zip about geology) to NOT make changes in order to have it
"read" better. On one occasion they tried to change "sinter" to
"travertine" for a few dozen pages for the simple reason that he used
"sinter" too much. The peer review process is much easier than getting all
those English majors at the publisher to understand that sinter and
travertine aren't synonymous.

A few folks have written to this group about entering the science writing
field, even though they have no educational background (and, I suspect, no
practical background) in the sciences that are attractive to them. You MUST
have the knowledge, and to get a job you must demonstrate that you have the
knowledge. A degree in the subject matter helps -- it suggests persuasively
that you have at least an academic understanding. If you don't have a
degree, how else can you show proficiency? Writing examples help, as do
published articles. It will take some nifty explaining to get the recruiter
to appreciate how a layperson accumulated the body of knowledge necessary to
write in the sciences.

(It's not impossible. I know several "amateur" scientists -- birders,
astronomers, and geologist/paleontologists -- who have no formal training in
their hobbies yet have written in these disciplines. Sometimes their
writing is superb.)

I think the same applies to just about all technical writing. If you don't
know communications equipment or pollution control software how do you
demonstrate that you can write effectively on the subject? Ignorance about
a subject matter isn't a strong selling point for one's writing talent.
Perhaps the only way around this is something like, "Here's a User's Guide I
wrote about XXX. I knew squat about XXX when I started the project, but
this Guide got rave reviews from the clients and programmers." But how
often does that happen?

Paul Strasser
Windsor Technologies
Louisville CO

-----Original Message-----
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Sunday, February 21, 1999 6:35 PM
Subject: Subject Matters (was English Majors, etc. etc.)

>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.
>Get your free address at
>From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000==

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

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