Three Components of Writing Skill?

Tom Johnson recently blogged on What Does It Mean to Know How to Write? Protesting the notion that “everyone can write”, Tom proposed a linear scale of increasing writing skill. Lively discussion followed and Ellis Pratt responded with a blog post Assessing writing skills – a response to “What Does It Mean to Know How to Write?” which proposed that writing skills might be plotted on a two dimensional grid. Ever one to jump on a trend, I am going to propose a three dimensional model. No doubt a proposal in four dimensions can’t be far behind, but for now…

I think there are three components to writing skill. Many people may be able to get by with two out of three, but the greats have all three. These components are: grammatical skill, compositional skill, and domain knowledge.

Grammatical skill

By grammatical skill, I don’t mean the ability to remember schoolbook grammar rules. I mean the ability to construct meaningful sentences. It is the ability to construct sentences, not the ability to diagram them, which is necessary for writing. We all have a basic degree of grammatical skill. We could not communicate without it. When people say that everyone can write, I suspect that they mean simply that everyone can construct meaningful sentences and record them on paper. Not quite everyone qualifies to this standard, but in the developed world, most people do.

You can, of course, develop and posses a much higher level of grammatical skill than mere literacy requires. Some people can construct complex and beautiful sentences with ease. A certain elegance, fluidity, and grace in the construction of a sentence is one of the hallmarks of a good writer in all fields.

Compositional skill

Compositional skill is the ability to organize words to produce an effect. Storytelling is a compositional skill. A compelling lecture or blog post displays compositional skill.

Isn’t compositional skill just an extension of grammatical skill? I don’t think so. In his book, Story, scriptwriting guru Robert McKee writes about his time as a script reader for a movie studio. All day long he would read scripts with beautiful prose and no story. Sometimes, however, he would find something that was terribly written, but told a wonderful story. Did those go on the reject pile? No. As McKee said, if he had gone to his boss and said, this script has a great story but we can’t use it because the prose is bad, he would have been fired on the spot. Prose can be fixed, but a great story is hard to find. And, McKee insists, the ability to write beautiful prose is common; the ability to tell a compelling story is rare, and those who have it can’t always write beautiful prose.

And indeed, if we consult our own experience, I’m sure we will all remember a great raconteur or someone who was wonderful at teaching you how to do something, but who would blanch at the very idea of putting pen to paper. Add to this that there are people on the fiction best seller lists whose prose is adequate at best and stilted at worse,but whose storytelling sells millions of books.

Compositional skill is not an extension of grammatical skill. It is a separate skill.

Domain knowledge

Many technical writers would vehemently deny that domain knowledge is a component of writing skill. Some even go so far as to suggest that ignorance of the subject domain is an asset, that it allows them to appreciate the perspective of the user. Yet I am quite sure I have never heard anyone praise a book by saying, “This book is great because it is quite clear that the author knows nothing about the subject.” Indeed, what people tend to say of the great works of popular exposition on any subject is: “it is clear that the author knows their subject extremely well.”

But domain knowledge is important for other reasons than knowledge of the subject matter, as important as that may be. Every decent writer will acknowledge that it is important to know your reader. Technical writers often go to great lengths to collect data on their audience, to construct personas so that they have a model of who they are writing for. But there is a great shortcut to knowing your reader, and that is to know the domain in which your reader works. Personas give you a map of the reader’s footsteps; knowing the domain means you have walked the path in their shoes; you know the reader not from collected data but from lived experience.

And there is still another component to domain knowledge. Every domain has its communication conventions. This is in part its language, its jargon, but it goes beyond this. Particular domains have compositional conventions that guide how communications in the field are structured.

Take the humble recipe for example. In the domain of cooking, the compositional convention for cooking instructions for a particular dish is well known. All recipes are composed in basically the same way. You will very occasionally see a recipe that is written out as prose with no list of ingredients and no separate steps, but such things are rare. You will virtually never see one published this way — they are almost always family recipes being passed on by people with no general interest in cooking. Anyone who is interested in cooking knows how to compose a recipe because recipes have a well known template.

This has an important consequence: you can write a bestselling cookbook with no compositional skill at all, and only minimal grammatical skill.

The same is true in other fields as well. An API reference, for instance, follows a pattern that every programmer knows. You don’t need compositional skill to write an API reference. You just need to know the template that is part of the domain knowledge of the field. If your grammatical skills are sub-par, the result may horrify an editor, but it may none the less be adequate to inform another programmer.

The existence of these compositional conventions in different domains has two important consequences for our consideration of what constitutes writing skill. The first is that knowledge of the domain combined with sufficient grammatical skill can allow many people to write successfully for others within their domain. The second is that writers from outside the domain, even if they are possessed of great compositional skills, will often fail to communicate in the domain because they don’t know its compositional conventions. What they write might be brilliantly composed, but it will confuse the reader because it does not conform the the conventions they are used to.

Of course, if you have both compositional skill and domain knowledge, this will allow you to exploit and refine the conventions of the domain to achieve a higher degree of communication.

But there is an important caveat to the ability of domain knowledge to compensate for the lack of compositional skill. Domain knowledge, with its attendant knowledge of the compositional forms of the domain, may allow those with little compositional skill to write successfully within their domain, but it does not suffice for communicating outside the domain.

Outside the domain, the compositional conventions of the domain are not known. (Give a non-cook a recipe and see how soon they get stuck.) Worse, the author is likely to suffer from what Chip and Dan Heath (Made to Stick) call “the curse of knowledge”. Someone steeped in a domain loses the ability to imagine what it is like not to live and work in that domain. They simply can’t fathom that other people don’t know things that are so familiar to them they don’t even think of them as specialized knowledge. (Half the jokes on The Big Bang Theory are based on the curse of knowledge.)

The ability to overcome the curse of knowledge is one of the foundational elements of compositional skill. It is something you need in order to communicate successfully between domains. We should be clear, here, that most technical communication does not take place between domains, but within them. Nonetheless, for those whose task it is to communicate the knowledge of a domain to those outside of it, grammatical skill, compositional skill, and domain knowledge are all essential to true mastery of the craft.

Unless, of course, there is a fourth dimension that I have overlooked…

 

10 Responses to Three Components of Writing Skill?

  1. Ellis Pratt 2011/09/16 at 02:56 #

    I think we’re almost saying the same thing with our posts. My suggestion of using a radar diagram means you can plot up to 7 or so different factors (= similar to your 3 dimensions).

    I looked at some of the measures used elsewhere to measure writing ability and they tended to be:

    Expression or style (not a key factor in technical writing),
    Adequacy of content
    Cohesion of information
    Compositional or organisation
    Mechanical (grammatical) accuracy.

    I believe that’s very similar to your three: composition, grammar and domain.

    I think it’s important to point out that we’re looking at writing skills only, and a Technical Writers skill set is more than that: planning, tools knowledge, domain knowledge etc. These would need to be assessed/mapped on a separate graph.

    • Mark Baker 2011/09/16 at 07:50 #

      Hi Ellis,
      You are right, you don’t need three dimensions to map three independent factors, at least, not if the factors can themselves be expressed as a linear graph. Whether these skills can be mapped on a linear graph is certainly questionable. I think any such graph would be a simplification. The question would be, would it be a useful simplification?
      I think we get a taste for this kind of linear graphing of skills from the education system. But when the education system reduces student attainment to a single number, they are not really expressing their mastery of the subject itself, but their mastery of the curriculum of the subject, which is itself an artificial linearization of the domain.
      I think I agree with you that the business/production skills a technical writer needs should be mapped separately.

  2. Marcia Johnston 2011/09/16 at 13:11 #

    Well said, Mark. I propose “awareness of audience needs” as the fourth dimension. Without a connection with a reader who can draw value from the words, writing is just scribbling.

    • Mark Baker 2011/09/17 at 23:31 #

      Hi Marcia,
      Thanks for the comment.
      Actually, think I would place awareness of audience needs under composition skills. Composition skills are about making prose serve a purpose, and you can’t do that without considering the reader. Actually, it may fit under two of my categories: composition skills involve knowing that you have to be aware of the audience needs; domain knowledge is where the knowledge of those needs actually comes from.
      Of course, all such systems of classification are artificial, and a system that made audience awareness a separate dimension could be equally valid (and as a didactic tool, perhaps more effective.)

  3. Tom Johnson 2011/09/19 at 11:50 #

    I think your post is somewhat brilliant here. You nailed it. In thinking back on my original post, I was really trying to answer why so many people feel they can write when they really can’t. And I can see that many people possess grammatical skill but lack the other skills. I added an update at the end of my post linking to this one. You took this to the next level.

  4. Bill Albing (@BillAlbing) 2011/10/11 at 13:47 #

    The fourth dimension has something to do with intentionality or business value. This communication is not a thing in itself, though academics are prone to study it and teach it that way. Technical communication, much like the orders to the light brigade, are for a business purpose and the intention of a communication should be clear. What is the call to action? What is the decision to make or the action to take? How is this action furthering the mission of the enterprise? Writing must include this essential dimension.

    • Mark Baker 2011/10/11 at 14:08 #

      Thanks Bill,

      I think you are absolutely right. We write for a reason, and understanding the reason for the communication is vital to writing successfully. One of my mantras is that the goal of all communication is to change behavior. Unless you know whose behavior you are trying to change, what you are trying to change it to, and what you can say that will motivate the desired change, you can’t write the words that will achieve your objective. For technical writing, which is a commerical activity, that means understanding the business context and the business needs that drive your employer to hire you to write for them.

      This is clearly an independent dimension, not an aspect of any of the three I listed. So, the fourth dimension of writing skill is: understanding the business context.

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