Active Ownership

Subject: Active Ownership
From: George Grider <grider -at- TECHWRITER -dot- ORG>
Date: Wed, 7 Jul 1999 11:00:46 -0500


Somewhat lengthy.

Chris Kowalchuk's points out that the proactive SME interview mode
advised by Andrew Plato might not apply to writers working outside an
R&D department. According to Chris:

"The other writers seemed perfectly happy to bang away at whatever the
SMEs provided them, without even looking at the technology or ever
leaving their desks. When I inquired, I found that they always worked
this way, and made a pretty good living at it to boot. I couldn't even
understand what it was that they were doing. I guess they were

Chris's comments are well taken, and most useful for they call into
question the legitimacy of the technical writing profession.

I'm coming to learn, having worked in this trade for a long time, that
technical documentation falls into two distinct areas: documents that
are meant to be read and those that aren't. Those that are read must
withstand the impatient demands of the consumer or the repair tech, and
they had better be good. Forget the English. The content is what counts.
I enjoy assembling those do-it-yourself bookcases and barbecues, because
they demonstrate how easy it is for the writer to leave something out.
(Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that there are a million ways to screw up a
good joke.) When this happens, when I put the wrong bolt in place and it
won't come out again because no one put in a note warning me of this, or
when the list of hardware tells me I have too many even if I don't, I
complain. The botched writing job is costing the company and they hear
about it. I'm talking about the failures here, but most of the manuals
you get are pretty well written. (I also send notes of appreciation.)

Here is where the company must meet the test of natural selection, and
their writers are the ones I believe Andrew Plato was talking about.

Writers I believe Chris Kowalchuk had in mind mostly write documents
intended _not_ to be read. Such manuals are written for a variety of
purposes. The ones I've heard about recently are meant to soothe
management's fears of an ISO audit. These are not read so much as
pointed to. ("See. Sez right here.") Back in the early years of the
environmental consulting industry (early 1970s) the federally mandated
environmental impact statements were written practically in code. Mile
long sentences that made you forget your name. Content describing the
power plant or mining project under consideration required next to zero
thought. It was the politically sensitive content which the client
didn't want revealed that mattered most. To dilute the damage, the
reports tended toward the thick and heavy. Today's HR procedures are
written with an eye on a possible lawsuit. ("You didn't read paragraph
31.2?") In a positive light, even if the document hasn't been worked and
reworked to reach the readable stage, the mere task of requesting the
information from engineering does at least stimulate thought. I can't
recall where I've seen this, but here's wisdom in the adage that any job
really worth doing is worth doing wrong.

The trouble comes when supervisors possessing experience only in the
"weigh 'em don't read 'em" method of doc production believe they've
acquired the skills to write for readers. They're the ones who expect
that a single draft from the engineer is all it takes. If you want to
make a point, you might try instituting a method of document beta
testing. If the readers you would write for don't exist, there's no need
to worry. You can always use the time sharpening your tools and building
your corporate acumen--the very skills needed to land your next job.

George Grider
Technical writer

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