Knowledge of subject matter

Subject: Knowledge of subject matter
From: Edwin Dahlquist <Edwin -dot- Dahlquist -at- asu -dot- edu>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 23 Mar 2004 09:23:15 -0700 (MST)

Andrew Plato wrote:
"The measure of a good writer is how well they can capture information and
communicate it effectively. Tools assist in that process, but tools are a small
factor. Knowledge of the subject matter has an overwhelmingly more significant
impact on the quality of the material than any tool ever cool.

Furthermore, you're boss absolutely can do what you do. It might not be as
high-quality, but they can do it. As such, you might want to pull back on the
attitude, as the next thing your boss does say to you is "we're letting

Interesting comment, but "knowledge of the subject matter" is a sticky point.
Most current university offerings, both graduate and undergraduate, tend to
emphasize training generalists for TW. The emphasis is on the principles,
rather than on subject matter, the theory being that TWs represent end users
more than SMEs and that representation may actually be hindered by an abundance
of subject matter knowledge. (I am not advocating this view, just stating it).
In fact, a number of TWs indicate that subject matter expertise hinders their
ability to write to the level of the end user; my question is usually "what if
the end user is an electrical engineer or a biotechnologist?"

In short, I agree with Andrew--I think the emphasis should be on "technical"
rather than "writer," and that there are only so many jobs available to write
assembly instructions for exercycles, or whatever. From that perspective, a BS
in Biology or Biotech is almost a mandatory minimal credential for writing in
those fields, just as a BS in CSc or CIS is a big help in documenting software
and other computer related activities

However, I disagree with the idea that subject matter competence is sufficient
for TW, and that writing tasks can easily be accomplished by the average
manager. The simple truth is that writing skill is far more important; a
competent writer with an interest in technology can learn the field, while the
average SME (or manager) cannot write competently. (BTW, stringing seven words
together without a hiccup from a spell checker does not qualify as "competent

The important writing issues are about structure, rather than content, and
about how humans process information, rather than window dressing with a word
processor. Just as the JPL Levels of Edit concept is conceptually flawed
(consider it in relation to the emphasis in science writing in which the first
question is, "does this stuff even make sense?" rather than, "is the grammar
usage appropriate for the target audience?") so is the concept of "native
speaker language competency" flawed. The writer may understand well what he or
she intends to say, but not what the reader actually perceives; consider almost
anything written about Linux for great examples.

Finally, one of the most important conceptual leaps a TW can make is to
understand that the "customer" is different from the "end user;" TWs write to
satisfy the person who pays them to write, not necessarily to illuminate Sam or
Suzy Homemaker about the proper procedure for using a DVD remote. Write for the
customer, not the end user, and most problems disappear.


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