Writing isn’t important

      7 Comments on Writing isn’t important

Like most professionals I’m a member of various mailing lists, all of which deal with very similar issues, usually with overlapping people and discussions as well. The field of Technical Communications is wide and varied but there is always one type of query which is guaranteed to get a response… or 50 responses… sometimes more.

They are typically asked innocently enough, and at face value you’d think that most of them can be answered fairly simply and without too much back and forth. But, of course you are discounting one major factor, that holds true in many industries but does seem to be more prevalent in mine. Pedantry.

The vagaries of the English language are well-documented and far-reaching, yet time and again whenever any such question crops up there is an inevitable torrent of replies, most of which offer differing advice. When dealing with such queries, the one consistent recommendation is to pick your own way (of punctuating bulleted lists, or introducing example screenshots) and stick to it, but that is usually lost among the myriad of suggestions and arguments that arise.

Now, the title of this post is misleading because, of course, writing is a huge part of my job and if I couldn’t write properly … well I’d probably be out of a job by now.

However there is a feeling that, whisper it now, most readers aren’t that bothered about HOW we write, just that we write information that is useful and understandable.

You see, whilst a lot of technical writers studied English, more and more people coming into the profession come from a technical background first and foremost. Naturally this doesn’t mean that they can’t write properly but it does mean that the finer nuances and obscure rules of the English language might be lost on them. Or at the very least they might not even KNOW what verb construct they used in a sentence, but they will know that it scans and reads well, and that the user of the documentation will understand it without further explanation.

And yes, I lump myself into this ‘new breed’ of technical writers.

The minute one of those grammar/usage questions is posted on the mailing lists I cringe.

Partly because I know that a lot of terms that I have no knowledge of (nor inclination towards) will be used, and partly because, honestly, I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a middle ground to be found. The best information in the world is useless if you can’t understand it, but equally the best information in the world is useless if it’s buried knee-deep in long, warbling, (if beautifully crafted) prose.

Good technical knowledge does not replace good writing. Similarly good writing does not replace technical knowledge but, within the software industry at least, it does seem like the latter takes precedence.

So, ultimately, writing isn’t that important.

7 thoughts on “Writing isn’t important

  1. Alan

    First off – credentials.

    My job involves a significant number of technical documents, and while I am not a technical writer per se, I do write and contribute to a number of technical and marketing documents covering off (insert my actual area of subject expertise here).

    Ultimately the aim is to communicate, and you can make a good argument that the tedious technical rules of grammar aren’t absolutely essential to do this. It’s perfectly possibly to write well without a tedious anal knowledge of the subjunctive, or primary and subordinate clauses.

    Sometimes it’s useful to know these things, but nine times out of ten it’s not to do with crafting the piece in question but to do with explaining why it’s not working in a formal way.

    Also, I guess the rules change depending on what you write, and who your audience is. I use very different styles depending on if I am looking at something internal, something external aimed at the mass market, and something aimed at the top end of the market. And I know that if I’m going for the top end, then I need to make damn sure by grammer and punctuation and speling are spot on, as they’re far more likely to be a stickler for these things.

    In the end, though, as long as your meaning is clear, 99% of people won’t care.

  2. JaniceG

    This is quite a leap of logic. Just because technical writers like to talk about the more detailed aspects of their profession on mailing lists dedicated to that profession does not mean that the people who care about those details necessarily write long, warbling prose. If the arcana of grammar don’t interest you, skip the discussions about them. But signs of interest from other people don’t also automatically imply that they don’t also care about writing clear, succinct prose. Not knowing minute detail about grammar doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t write. But the more you know about writing as a profession, the better your writing is going to be.

    The comments above basically seem to boil down to “I don’t know or care about it so it’s not important.”

    And I know that if I’m going for the top end, then I need to make damn sure by grammer and punctuation and speling are spot on, as they’re far more likely to be a stickler for these things.

    Yup – and spelling “grammar” and “spelling” correctly are probably going to give you a lot more credibility, too :->

  3. Gordon McLean Post author

    Janice,

    I think you are reading a little too far between the lines. I’m all for professionals discussing things which concern them but can you honestly say that sometimes those discussions don’t go a LITTLE too far?

    I’d also suggest that there is a connection (one I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions) for those with a predominantly studied English background to write overly long ‘prose’. And yes, it is a bit of a leap of logic, I’ll admit to that, it was quite deliberate on my part.

    As I said, there is a middle ground, and that middle ground is quite wide and I’m happy to move about within it, it’s when discussions pass the point of being useful to the majority that I stop reading (and I do). I have learned a LOT about my profession from the mailing list in question, and will continue to do so but, like ANY profession, there are times when the amount of energy spent on a topic passes a healthy level.

    So maybe MY post boils down to “sometimes people just like to hear themselves talk” ? I’ll listen to those people for a while, they are usually pretty smart, but it’s not worth my time to keep on listening beyond a certain point.

    And finally, not knowing or caring about something isn’t what I’m saying. I am a technical writer by trade, I take both words in my job title seriously and try and keep a good balance between them if I can. What I’m trying to suggest is that, recently and in my experience, that balance has been tipping more towards being “more technical” than to “Masters level English”.

  4. Mahitha

    The criterion for using a word is that it fits snugly in the context and explains exactly what you intended to say. A word should not be used simply because you know the word. And no grammar rule should be exercised simply because it exists. Every word or construct in a sentence has to be justified. So the more words or grammar rules you are familiar with, the better your writing.

    I think you are confusing English with Literature. Masters Level English is still English and not literature. When you talk of pedantry it is about people who use words inappropriately. The words they use are misfits in the sentence and the prose sounds contrived because it is. That is incorrect usage, nothing to do with any kind of level.

    Any writer (technical or otherwise) has to know how to write well-that is -write clearly using the most appropriate words. So the bias towards the technical accuracy of a document as opposed to the document being written well (that you seem to see in today’s writing) maybe imaginary. The ability to write clearly is an instrument that one uses to deliver the technical know-how. So I don’t see how the question of preferring one over the other arises. They are not comparable. Why should they be pitted against each other at all?

  5. Gordon McLean Post author

    I’m not trying to pit anything against anything. Good writing and good technical content go hand in hand, I’m not trying to dispute that. However your thoughts on what construes pedantry (or, rather, my interpretation of it for this post) is what I’m trying to convey.

    Without wanting to quote Strunk & White, I think we agree that every word must be justified, and yes, knowing the rules of grammar is a must-have for a technical writer.

    But, to offer an analogy, I know the highway code well enough to pass the driving test and to drive safely. I cannot quote the highway code though, does that make me a bad driver? No. So I guess that middle ground is where we are all, I think, agreeing we should be. It’s the fringes that bother me, and somewhere out there is a point where knowledge becomes very expensive… ohh more on that thought later!

    I’m not for a minute saying that you are either one or the other, ‘writer’ or ‘engineer’. But, again, I do think the industry (software where I have my experience) is leaning towards those who show tendencies for the latter. I think my main point is being lost though, and I’ll try and address that in another post.

  6. JaniceG

    I have learned a LOT about my profession from the mailing list in question, and will continue to do so but, like ANY profession, there are times when the amount of energy spent on a topic passes a healthy level.

    So maybe MY post boils down to “sometimes people just like to hear themselves talk” ? I’ll listen to those people for a while, they are usually pretty smart, but it’s not worth my time to keep on listening beyond a certain point.

    I think the problem I continue to have with your message is that you seem to be extrapolating from your own reactions to making a generalized statement about the worth of the discussion. You seem to be saying that “a healthy level” or “a certain point” for you is the point at which the discussion becomes pedantic and useless for everyone.

    [t]o offer an analogy, I know the highway code well enough to pass the driving test and to drive safely. I cannot quote the highway code though, does that make me a bad driver?

    It doesn’t make you a bad driver but it does make you a bad police officer! This analogy means that you see yourself as the driver — someone who might be able to drive and sort of knows the rules — as opposed to the person responsible for being knowledgable about the rules and enforcing them.

    I don’t buy the argument that because our readers are willing to accept a much lower level of concise and correct English that we should ourselves not bother to write as well as we possibly can, and understand why and how we are writing what we do. Just because you can slide by knowing just enough about the rules to manage not to smash into a post doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn more of the rules to make you a better driver and to serve as an information source to other drivers who look to you to provide the information about the rules (to strain the analogy to its breaking point :-> )

  7. Gordon McLean Post author

    OK, I picked the wrong analogy..

    I’ll happily admit I have a lower tolerance for lengthy discussions on the infinite variations of grammar rules. I will listen to most arguments for a while, but once I have enough information to make a decision based on them then after that, TO ME, it’s noise. I am not saying that the discussion from that point onwards is invalid, just that, with a business focus, I am no longer gaining ROI.

    As for the ‘not bother to write as well as we possibly can’.. well that’s almost insulting! I think most professionals continue to try and improve EVERY skill they own, constantly. I continue to learn but try and balance (again like most professionals) which skills I need to ‘buff up’. I guess at present I’m reasonably happy with my writing skills and I’m more focussed on technical skills, ohh and as I can only ever talk about my own reactions to things, I do not know how you, or anyone else thinks.. .why did you presume otherwise? 😉

    So let me try and rephrase this discussion.

    You are a hiring TechPubs manager.

    You interview and narrow down the candidates for a new Technical Author position. You have two candidates. From talking to them, see samples of their work, and so on.. you ascertain that one is slightly less experienced when it comes to dealing with heavily technical information (in software land, think APIs), whilst the other has done a lot of work with that level of technology but some of his writing samples, whilst readable and generally ‘OK’, point to the fact he/she may need some coaching to improve the quality of their writing.

    Who do you hire?

    And yes, that’s all the context you need as your answer depends on YOUR current role and industry sector, right? So if I am hiring for a software company I may veer towards the more technically able candidate. If I am hiring for, say, someone to write a help system for an online book store, I may veer towards the other candidate. Horses for courses as they say.

    A final question: If I change the title of this post, and the closing line, and blur the lines a little inbetween, would you agree with ANY of this?

    As I’ve said before, no technical author does ONE thing perfectly as our jobs seem to spill over into so many other areas, be it typography, legalese, information design, illustrations, etc etc etc. So I guess I was deliberately trying to provoke to get some discussion going..

    Worked, huh? 😉

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