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.