Re: Creativity AND Standards?

Subject: Re: Creativity AND Standards?
From: "Graham Wyatt" <graham -at- gpwyatt -dot- co -dot- uk>
To: "TECHWR-L, a list for all technical communication issues" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 14:20:06 +0100

> What we do is not rocket science. In fact, it is not even a science. I
> could no more tell you the things I go through and the thoughts I have
> I start to write doc, than I could build an airplane. I go through some
> creative process (excuse the word) and come up with doc.

I agree absolutely. Technical writing is not a science. Perhaps the
difficulty with the introduction of standards is that it seems to be an
attempt to pretend that it is.

If we are to have rules, then we need to be sure that they are based on
something real. My feeling is that a standard based on what we know to work,
reliably, repeatedly and in all circumstances would be pathetically thin.

In mathematics and science Pythagoras' theorem is not just assumed to work,
it is supported by a rigorous mathematical proof and has been tried and
tested thousands, if not millions, of times. We don't have anything that
remotely approaches that, and it is possible that it is inherent in what we
do that we never will.

An example:

Mr Anonymous mentioned research that indicated that using type set in all
caps is a bad thing. I've not seen the actual paper, but Karen Schriver
mentions it in Dynamics in Document Design. What she actually says is that
reading speed is reduced by 13 to 20 percent. That fits in with my personal
experience and I have no argument with that, but do we really know if that
is a good or a bad thing? Is reading speed a measure of retention or
understanding, or of any other factor that might be important? Could it be
that sometimes we might want our readers to slow down? Could the use of all
caps be a useful way of adding emphasis, precisely because it does make
things a little awkward for the reader? We just don't know.

Personally, I don't use all caps because I think it looks ugly. That is a
completely subjective judgement, based on my intuition and my social and
cultural perspective, and (apart from the above mentioned research) I have
no objective evidence to support it at all. I just happen to think that, at
the moment at least, my intuition, judgement, whatever you want to call it,
is the best guide that I have available.

Of course, the problem comes when you meet a client that thinks that all
caps is the most wonderful thing, and should be used at every opportunity.
Its awkward, because the argument then seems to come down to a matter of
taste. The only real defence I have is to argue that, by virtue of my long
experience and the work that I have done in the past, my judgement in these
areas is pretty sound. If that fails, the only other option is to think
about whether or not to walk away from the job - not a nice position to be

In these situations it would be nice - really nice - to be able to pull out
the documentation standards manual and point to the section where it says
"Thou shalt not use all caps". But we can't just wish that situation in to
being. The research has yet to be done.

When it is, I suspect that we will find that we are in a situation similar
to weather forecasters - those other dealers in chaos. There will be some
things that we can say with quite high confidence, but there will be also be
huge areas where we know that we don't know. That's where the creativity and
intuition will come in, and I think that it will be just as important then
as it is now.

Graham Wyatt

GP Wyatt Technical Services Ltd
Training and Product Documentation Specialists
mail: graham -at- gpwyatt -dot- co -dot- uk
Brochure at:

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