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.
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 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.
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…