Anarchy in the USA!

Subject: Anarchy in the USA!
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1999 11:24:54 -0700 (PDT)

Someone asked in me private email if I was so vehemently against standards and
processes how I get any work done. This person commented that "Anarchy may
work for you since you're an experienced writer, but those of us who are
relatively new to the profession need the guidance and support of standards."

A solid point, but flawed.

I think I ran off with the crazy sister on one point, which is causing some
consternation. This whole creativity vs. standards thing.

My point regarding creativity was that you cannot institutionalize it. You
cannot build a process, template, or procedure that will guarantee creativity.
Processes do not beget creativity.

Standards are tools. Like hammers, screwdrivers, and drunk guys in bars, you
can take advantage of them. A standard can be leveraged to compliment an
individual's creativity.

Much in the same way Stradivarius (as one poster mentioned) used standards to
create great violins - you can use a standard to create great documents.
However, I doubt people will covet them in the same way. And Strativarius did
not obsess over his process, he obsessed over his product. He and his
appretices had extensive knowledge of wood, tones, and other technologies used
in the manufacture of the violins.

So the real issue is this notion that standards actually help creativity. Yes,
they do - but in an indirect way. Anything can help creativity. When I am in
a creative rage I often drink a lot of coffee. Does that mean that coffee is
the key for creativity? No, it is merely a tool I use to assist my creativity.

What gets my panties in a bunch is the cart before the horse thing. Developing
standards and assuming they will make writers more creative. In many ways,
rigid standards will stifle creativity because they cannot be adapted to
personal taste. I don't care what all these consulting companies say, there is
no such thing as a purely rational and effective process.

Processes and standards are only as good as the people using them.

Therefore, before your organization spends one more dime on another moronic,
process obsessed consultant - why not education the writers with something that
is truly useful.

I close with a little story:

I am currently re-writing a rather complex technical manual for a very large
network security company in the Bay Area. I was the original author of this
manual in 1996, then it fell into the hands of a series of "process lovin'
writers" who spent weeks and weeks making sure this document conformed to the
latest standards. But the information in the document was ridiculously
incorrect. Features that had long since been removed from the product were
still described. Basically these writer kept massaging my words into their
style. After three iterations of that, the document was practically

Desperate for improvement, the client returns to the scene of the crime and
hires me to make it all better. I ripped the document to shreds and begin
writing from the ground up. The tech pubs manager keeps barking at me about the
styles and crap - and I use them but don't pay much attention to them. One
thing I spent hours doing is redrawing all the images and explaining networking
issues that are relevant to the product (like how Frame Relay connections
handle congestion notices and SNMP traps ? exciting stuff.) At one point I
described how the product handles security issues among different network

During the last review, the engineers commented that this security section was
outstanding. They were not even aware of these issues and options with their
product. Ultimately, I had written something that fundamentally changed how
the engineers perceived the product. (Don't worry, I still can't get a date so
I am not that amazing. Humility is never too far off.)

Now - did a style, a process, or some Rational Tanker Master Consumables
process get me to this breakthrough? Of course not. I got there because I
understand how the product works and I have extensive experience with
networking. In many ways I knew how the product worked better than the
engineers because I have a lot of experience with networking products.

All the standards in the world are no replacement for solid technology
experience. If you know how something works at an intimate and detailed level,
you will have enormous creative reservoirs because you can begin to see things
for what they really are and not what some insensitive, waddling engineers
tells you. Knowledge is the ultimate source of creativity.

Standards come and go along the way. Before you spend too much time worrying
about the style guide or the process - why not become and expert with whatever
it is you are documenting.

Lastly, I think this is the break point between the "lazy" writers and the
superstars. Superstars are informational hogs. They will suck up knowledge
like a 50 gallon shop vac. The lazy ones would rather fondle their fonts

So to wrap all this back around to the originally email - standards are not
anarchy. Ignorance is anarchy. Obsessing over fonts, procedures, and style
guides at the expense of training and education is a sure fire recipe for low
quality. You want a team that produces great documents and is highly creative
- train them on technologies first and throw a style guide together later If
you're a newbie and you want to be a good writer - stop taking stupid ass tech
writing courses and take a Java or C++ course. Learn about some technologies
so when you ARE writing documents, you can actually put some intelligence
behind all those standards and processes. If you want to write about medical
stuff - go take a human anatomy or physiology class. Know the subject matter -
because none of your readers will care if you have swell looking fonts if your
text is meaningless.

Speaking of fondling fonts, I better get back to this client of mine. I am
sure I forgot to do something in the document.

Stop eating hamsters
Andrew Plato


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