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Subject:Re: Not Wanted--Technical Writers From:Richard Yanowitz <ryanowit -at- NYCT -dot- NET> Date:Tue, 16 Dec 1997 13:59:53 -0500
A curmudgeonly voice of dissonance and dissent:
It's hard to criticize one's own industry lest one be made a pariah, viewed
as an uppity traitor, or boycotted.
While there's validity to many specific points raised by rebuttals of
put-downs of our profession, I want to suggest that there's also a lot of
An awful lot of tech writing, even that done by us professionals, is pretty
awful--inflated, muddy, hard to use, and so on.
It has long been my contention (and I've been in the business nearly 20
years) that good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre, and
principles applicable to one area are transferable to another. Thinking
procedurally and holistically, doing research, empathizing, being creative,
teaching (presenting information clearly and simply), and so on, require
the same fundamental skills and thinking ability no matter what kind of
writing we're doing.
Sure there are a lot of specific techniques we can apply to technical
documents we write--white space, tables, font variation, bullets, and on
and on; this grafting is what turns us into professionals in our field. (I
wonder if somewhere within our profession is a John Barth who will create a
great novel in the form of a user guide.) But all the "special" techniques
are in the service of clear, simple, straightforward expression, which will
ultimately be based on any good writing techniques we were lucky or
diligent enough to have learned before we ever became tech writers.
Having technical aptitude is certainly specially valuable for tech writing,
but it's not what makes us good writers--a necessary (or at least
desirable) but not sufficient condition.
I find some tendency in our profession to mystify what we do. I am
thinking, for ex., of information mapping, the goals and many techniques of
which are laudable, but which zealously lumbers itself with a
"methodology." (Nothing I learned in the i.m. class I took a couple of
years ago was different in principle from what I already knew--but the
techniques applied to the "method" were often very useful and creative.)
Then there are measures (O Blessed Quantification) like the scale (the name
of which I've mercifully forgotten) that passes judgment by contrasting
sums of words according to their number of syllables. Or consider the
arcane debates on this list about stylistic and grammar minutiae. (There's
of course nothing wrong with such debates for those interested in them--but
they're not a sign or measure of tech writing effectiveness or even
[Your own example goes here: ___________________________________
There are no magic formulas, and there's no magic to what we do. We may
need to pretend otherwise when we're marketing our wares to potential
clients, but I fear that many of us actually believe what we sell.
That stressed, I of course can only agree with some of the attitudes that
prompt the defensiveness and sour grapes I detect in the face of some
criticisms of our profession: writing is indeed a special skill that should
be entrusted to those who are specially capable (whether through training,
experience or natural genius), and effective tech writing is much more than
stringing together any old words in any form to explain something. And to
the extent that the sour grapes are (is?) about young whippernsnappers
taking our jobs for less money (sounds a lot like universities hiring TAs
and adjuncts and young, non-tenure-track people...), I am in sympathy
(though even this concern is scarcely limited to our own profession--a good
reason, by the by, why we should view ourselves in solidarity with other
Let's be honest about one more thing. Or rather, let me be honest about
it, and let others resonate or not. I'm not a tech writer because I think
it's a wonderful thing to do or because it's a terrific genre I love
sinking my teeth into. I have many other things, including many other
kinds of writing, I would much rather do and which have much more value to
me and to the world. I do tech writing because I'm extremely good at it,
get paid well when I work, and it's the easiest way I have of paying the
bills. I'm a tech writer by default, unable to make it in a more worthy
genre or field. This doesn't stop me from being a professional who seeks
to do the best I can for my clients. But it does allow me to retain sanity
in this furshlugginer business--knowing that what I'm doing really isn't
very important to anybody else, and that it's not a crucial abrogation of
moral rectitude when, failing to get agreement from a client on a point I
know I'm right about, I go ahead and do it the worse way.
That's my version of sour grapes.
Or to put it another way: were I of a religious bent, I would not be
planning to demonstrate my value to my maker or his/her deputy by whipping
out my (copious) tech writing resume.
Richard Yanowitz, NYC mailto:ryanowitz -at- bigfoot -dot- com
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