Writing for geeks

By | January 3, 2007

Writing is not a team activity. Editing is a team activity. Writing never works collectively, because it depends on a large number of threads being held simultaneously in a person’s short-term memory. That’s not something you can share. It’s a waste of time to try. Of course, people try all the time. We can see the results in bad corporate documents, legal boilerplate and technical drivel, and in the endless meetings held to hammer out that bad work.

Often someone says something in a meeting that captures a thought perfectly. It may even seem elegant, like something that everyone knows but that hasn’t been expressed so well until now. Someone will say, “Get that down.” Later, at editing time, it may turn out to make no sense at all. The context has changed, of course: what’s said in a meeting grows out of the experiences of everyone there, complete with unspoken assumptions, agreements and compromises. Text has no context at all. It appears out of nowhere, bearing all of its antecedents within itself. It has no hope of matching the immediacy of a spoken conversation.

Writing has a tense, complicated relationship with speech. Good writing gives the illusion of resembling speech, or being derived from speech. But writing that is transcribed from speech is generally bad writing. It does not feel like real speech. Some writing does feel like real speech; that writing can seem stilted when you read it out loud. The speech writing evokes is imaginary speech, speech that takes place in your mind’s ear.

Don’t write to cover your ass. It won’t work, and if you write well you won’t need it. Writing is not a contract. Diligently including every word that every stakeholder wants in the document is not writing but listing, note-taking, at best. Writing that aims to protect the writer from liability is not good writing, even if it is necessary sometimes. Preserving the ability to say, “Yes, we mentioned that, look right here” is not one of the goals of good writing.

Many technical people have been taught the virtue of brevity. They have been taught too well. Brevity is not any greater a virtue than punctuation. It is necessary, but not sufficient, and much less important than clarity.

Writing is an exercise in empathy. We test our writing by forgetting our own hard-won knowledge, positions and interests and reading our work from the perspective of the stranger. A turn of phrase that’s familiar to us may be baffling to someone who wasn’t in the room when that phrasing emerged. We can only know how baffling if we can suspend the self for a moment and read like someone who has no idea what is going on here. Good writers are able to suspend the self for sustained periods — to be both the stranger and the insider in turn.

3 thoughts on “Writing for geeks

  1. Peter Hogness

    DEAR SIR OR MADAM–

    YOU MAY BE SURPRISED TO RECEIVE THIS COMMUNICATION, AS WE HAVE NOT MET BEFORE, EITHER PERSONALLY OR IN A BUSINESS CONNECTION. MY NAME IS WILLIAM STRUNK (THE SECOND), AND I WOULD LIKE TO PUT A PREPOSITION TO YOU THAT WOULD BE TO OUR MUTUAL ADVANTAGE.

    AFTER CAREFUL STUDY OF THE RELEVANT TECHNICAL DOCUMENTS, THE GOVERNMENT OF OUR COUNTRY HAS CONCLUDED THAT THERE IS SUBSTANTIAL REVENUE POTENTIAL LOCKED UP IN COUNTLESS PREPOSITIONS THAT FIND THEMSELVES TRAPPED AT THE END OF SENTENCES. A MODEST FEE IS ALL THAT IS REQUIRED TO REMOVE THEM TO A MORE SUITABLE LOCATION, YET THIS APPARENTLY SMALL REVENUE MUST BE MULTIPLIED MANY TIMES OVER DUE TO THE MILLIONS OF TECHNICAL DOCUMENTS GENERATED AT AN EVER-EXPANDING PACE IN EACH AND EVERY YEAR.

    I AM CHIEF OF STAFF TO OUR NATION’S MINISTER OF CONSTRUCTION, WHO IS CHARGED WITH IMPLEMENTING THIS PLAN ACCORDING TO ACCEPTED STANDARDS. UNFORTUNATELY, THE MINISTER FOR WHOM I LABOR WOULD NOT KNOW GOOD WRITING IF IT BIT HIM IN THE GERUND. THUS, THE VAST FINANCIAL POTENTIAL OF THIS SCHEME MAY BE IRRETRIEVABLY LOST.

    I SEEK A PARTNER WITH COMPLETE DISCRETION, WHO CANNOT BE CONNECTED WITH ME BY ANY CONJUNCTION OR OTHER LEGAL AUTHORITY, WHO COULD MAKE INDEPENDENT CONTACT WITH POTENTIAL BENEFICIARIES OF THIS SERVICE. I HAVE IT ON GOOD AUTHORITY THAT YOU MAY BE JUST SUCH A PERSON.

    IF THIS POTENTIAL ARRANGEMENT ATTRACTS OR EVEN INTRIGUES YOU, YOU HAVE ONLY TO SEND THE MEMBER NUMBER AND ANY ANCILLARY AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED TO ACCESS YOUR ACCOUNT IN A LOCAL BIODIESEL CO-OP, AS A TOKEN OF YOUR GOOD FAITH. IN THIS WAY, WE MAY TRANSFER FUNDS BETWEEN OURSELVES IN A WAY THAT EXCHANGES ONE FORM OF LIQUIDITY FOR ANOTHER. ONCE THE INITIAL TRANSFER OF FUNDS HAS, AS WE LIKE TO SAY IN MY COUNTRY, “GREASED THE WHEELS,” WE CAN LOOK FORWARD TO DOING FUTURE BUSINESS ON AN EXPANDED SCALE, YET REMAINS TOO SLIPPERY FOR TAXATION AUTHORITIES TO MAKE ANY CHARGES STICK.

    YOURS IN GOOD FAITH,
    M. KALMAN, ESQ.

  2. Peter Hogness

    My post above was sparked by hearing that an earlier comment I’d tried to post got lost in a flood of “comment spam”– a phenomenon I didn’t previously know about.

    What I’d said before, more or less, is that “Writing for geeks” is one of the best things I’ve read about writing in quite a long time. Succinct, thought-provoking, accurate, and in places poetic. I particularly liked:

    “Writing is an exercise in empathy. We test our writing by forgetting our own hard-won knowledge, positions and interests and reading our work from the perspective of the stranger.” That’s not just smart, it’s wise.

    While you wrote these bits & pieces with implicit references to tech writing (“technical drivel,” “what’s said in a meeting” etc.), I think everything you wrote is good advice for writing of all kinds. (“Don’t write to cover your ass,” for instance, is excellent advice for a lot of kinds of writing, including folks like me who work on union newspapers.)

    If you have or develop any more distilled observations like these, I’d encourage you to “get them down.” If they accumulate over a a few years, get them published on actual paper somewhere. I could see them in a slim little volume sold near the register at independent bookstores, for instance.

  3. ted Post author

    Funny! You just tossed that off for my humble blog? I’m honored. I’m going to forward it to some tech writer mailing lists and watch it propagate across the Internet. Geek sports.
    I’m sad that my email spam filter catches all those pitches now, and I don’t get to see them.
    The best one to get through the filter lately: “Deaf girls porn.” (How can you tell?) I should have saved that one.

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