Re: Background

Subject: Re: Background
From: "Doug, Data Librarian at Ext 4225" <engstromdd -at- PHIBRED -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 2 Nov 1994 12:41:36 -0600

James Inman wrote:

What do you find is the best combination between technical knowledge and
composition experience? In other words, should an aspiring technical
writer/educator strive to be more versed on computer science fundamentals or
advanced grammar?

Technical writers must be well-versed in learning things, period. One of
the things about this field that will either keep you coming to work
happily every morning for years or eventually make you crazy is the fact
that you are *constantly* standing at the foot of a tall learning curve
(maybe more like a learning cliff). The general task description for a
tech writer is "Figure this stuff out, then figure out the best way to tell
somebody else about it, then do it." What we bring to the party is analysis
and presentation skills, and maybe an outsider's perspective on the

Usually, the information you're trying to find is scattered, disorganized,
or doesn't even exist. Background can be helpful in getting started, but each
project has its own needs. Sure, the fundamentals of computer science are a
good thing to know, if you plan to work for a publisher of system software
or application-development tools. On the other hand, a reasonable working
knowledge of geology, plant genetics, communications, finance, insurance
law, marketing, statistics, nutrition, or industrial control systems would
open some doors, too.

I think the problem with the STC classification of technical writers in the
"computer industry" is that it lumps the toolmakers at places like
Microsoft and Borland (who really need to understand computer science) with
application vendors who need only a passing understanding of their system,
but require intimate knowledge of their customer's business. When I worked
for a small agricultural software company, better knowledge of COBOL
wouldn't have done me a bit of good; understanding swine finishing
operations was crucial.

As for "advanced grammar," I think it's overrated. Basic grammar is
important; you can't have subject-verb disagreements and errors in tense
and expect to maintain credibility. However, I've never seen a sentence
that required truly encyclopedic knowledge of English grammar to construct
correctly that wasn't also such a lousy sentence that it should have been
thrown out and replaced with something simpler.

More important than grammar is clarity and organization. Of those two,
organization is more important. Unless a paragraph is incredibly bad, a
reader should be able to extract information from it. However, a paragraph
of perfect prose is useless if the reader can't find it when it's needed.
Also, it's usually pretty easy for an editor or fellow writer to suggest a
clearer statement of your concept; but often, only you have the experience
to judge whether you've organized the document correctly.

All opinions expressed are purely personal,

Doug "There are no small projects,
ENGSTROMDD -at- phibred -dot- com just incredibly bad initial

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