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Subject:Poetic Justice, or Tech Writing from Bad to Verse From:Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- FS -dot- COM -dot- AU> Date:Tue, 23 Dec 1997 22:00:25 +0800
Adding Reason to the Rhyme
At Stickler & Associates, They're Sending in the Pros
to Tackle the Poetry
By Art Farr-Artsake
Special to techwr-l
Moe Juste is part of the 'old wave' of technical writers who are
bringing poetry to a wider audience. It's his job to turn some of
the most obscure verse in the English language into understandable
"As a technical writer, it's in my nature to want to help people
understand. We 'uncouple the couplets' and put them back together
in a more clear and friendly way."
The "we" in this case is Stickler & Associates, a firm that takes
reams of unreadable -- and therefore largely unread -- poetry and
fables and puts them in plain English.
Stickler & Associates founder T. Walter Stickler has a quote above
his desk. It's a fragment from 'The Love Song of Saint Sebastian':
". . . concatenated words from which the sense had gone."
"Poets tend to be good with words," he says, "to the extent that
they ignore other channels for passing on information. We think
poets would make more sense if they used fewer, better words, and
followed some basic principles of information design."
But layout tricks and reference aids aren't enough by themselves.
"In 'The Waste Land', T.S. Eliot used chapter headings and supplied
seven pages of footnotes. But the text is still pretty cryptic."
"Internationalisation is another thing poets have been slow to
grasp. When Robert Burns wrote:
My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June
. . . he excluded, whether deliberately or carelessly, the half of
the globe for whom June is the dead of winter. We changed 'June'
to 'Summer' (and removed one of the redundant 'reds') and so gave
the poem instant appeal to a huge new audience of southern
The firm has achieved notable successes on some high-profile, high-
risk assignments, such as cutting 'The Thousand Nights and a Night'
down to a mere sixty-two nights, and turning boring old Beowulf
into an inspirational self-help pamphlet, 'Be the Best Wulf You Can
Be'. And Stickler's 'can do' approach to the Pisan Cantos earned
them a Best of Category award at this year's STC conference.
"Many poets simply churn out verse without considering the needs of
the people who have to read it. Poetry lovers struggle to extract
pleasurable images from this plethora of inferior work."
"It's like sucking golf balls from a garden hose," says Stickler.
But problems create opportunity. With so many people poetasting,
Stickler has found a fertile niche in poem-aiming.
By way of example, he picks out some lines by Yeats. 'Things fall
apart. . . the centre cannot hold. . . What rough beast. . .
slouches toward Bethlehem. . .'
"Our staff asked themselves 'What things? The centre of what?
What can't it hold, and why not?' And indeed, 'What rough beast?
Why is it slouching toward Bethlehem?'"
"After a thorough audience analysis we put together a 40-page
reference manual describing how to stop things falling apart.
There's a series of cutaway diagrams showing a detailed view of
'the centre', plus a laminated 'Rough Beast' field identification
guide and a map of the Bethlehem area. While the old version has
its charms, I think you'll agree the new documentation set is much
more useful and user-focussed."
Stickler has put together an eclectic staff, rather than relying
on poets, who he said were too self-absorbed and inexperienced.
"They have the disease of insularity. They don't know enough.
Many of them haven't been anywhere except school since the age of
six, so it's no surprise their work is often obscure and self-
referential. Instead, the firm turned to technical writers.
"We look for people who are very creative," Stickler said. "Part
of it is you have to write, but you also have to see things other
people don't see." Many of his writers have backgrounds in
journalism, programming, science, English and engineering.
Other technical writers have degrees in political science, foreign
service, French, Russian, English literature and economics. Many
of them have artistic sidelines -- fiction writing, composing,
painting and singing in a rock band, to name a few.
IN ENGLISH, PLEASE
Here is an example of how Stickler & Associates simplified language
found in some well-known poems.
John Clare ('I Am')
I am, yet what I am none cares or knows
My friends forsake me like a memory lost
I am the self-consumer of my woes
They rise and vanish in oblivious host
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am and live--like vapours tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise
Into the living sea of waking dreams
Where there is neither sense of life or joys
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie
The grass below, above the vaulted sky
I'm really depressed.
My friends are strange.
God I'm so depressed. And tired.
I think I'll have a nap on the grass here.
T.S. Eliot ('Mr Eliot's Sunday Morning Service')
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes
In the beginning was the Word
("We just chopped the lot," laughs Stickler. "No-one noticed.")
Copyright 1997 Stuart Burnfield
Merry Christmas to all techwhirlers, and best wishes for 1998.
Stuart Burnfield "Fun, fun, fun
Functional Software Pty Ltd In the sun, sun, sun. . ." mailto:slb -at- fs -dot- com -dot- au