There's more to it than grammar

Subject: There's more to it than grammar
From: John Wilson <jwilson -at- AMADEUS -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 10 Mar 1999 17:25:28 +0100

I think a number of misconceptions about our business are widespread in our

1. Grammar. As already pointed out on this list, grammar is not an add-on,
or a set of arbitrary rules. Some usage is arbitrary, but grammar is a
method of ensuring that discourse is coherent. Grammar is to a large extent
hard-wired in our brains. Stephen Pinker ("The Language Instinct") and
others have written books on this topic. Yes, some usages (like its and
it's) are unpredictable and we just have to learn them.

2. Style Guides. Style guides often attempt to ensure a number of things
which in my view are quite distinct from each other:
(a) that company documents all look similar, to reassure the reader
(b) that the terminology used is relatively consistent so the reader
doesn't have to guess when window=screen=box, for example
(c) that the non-technical words used are understandable by the reader
("that is" instead of "i.e." for example)

But there is a lot more to it than style. A style guide will not instruct
writers in general word use, or in the analysis of a problem.

3. Technical writers themselves (and many books which are allegedly about
technical communication) spend time discussing grammar, style and usage
rather than analysis, logical sequence of information and other vital
elements. I think this is because it takes a lot less thought and effort to
spot grammatical errors on a page than it does to check for usability
errors in a product, or structural errors in a manual. (Just as employers
use lists of software tools, rather than writing ability, to select writers
- it's easier.)

4. Grammar and style are necessary but (as already pointed out on the list)
a long way from being sufficient for producing good manuals. What else is
required? This is the question which a few people have asked (what do
technical writers do?) but which almost nobody has tried to answer.

In my view, our lack of clarity on this question is a large part of the
reason for the low status that many writers complain of. "Perception is all
there is" - whatever you may actually be doing, if all you draw attention
to is grammar, engineers and managers will perceive you as a grammar
checker. However if you ask questions about what the product is for, what
the user's expertise and motivations are and so on, you might be perceived
as something more. But this indispensable part of a technical writing or
communication project - analysis and specification like in any other
engineering work - gets little attention in this list.

So to start the discussion (I hope), here is the beginning of a definition.
A technical writer does not just write manuals. The job title is
established by usage and should not be taken literally. A technical writer
in this day and age must be someone who tries to make a product usable.
Manuals may or may not be a means of doing this. How does the writer go
about making the product usable? What service are you offering? What do
technical writers do?



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