The Web continues to invent new places for tech writers to rehash old arguments. Recently I have been seeing a number of reiterations of the old debate about technical knowledge vs. writing skill on various LinkedIn forums, and apparently Techwr-l has recently been debating yet again whether it is easier to teach tech to a writer or writing to an engineer. I am convinced that both sides in these endless debates are missing the point: the key to successful communication isn’t knowledge or writing skill, it’s interest.
Both knowledge and literacy play some role, of course, but if you look at them alone, you will miss the big picture. What really matters, to achieve successful communication, is interest, specifically these four interests:
- An interest in the subject matter
- An interest in the audience
- An interest in explaining the subject matter to the audience
- An interest on the part of the reader in learning the subject
Both engineers and writers may succeed or fail at communication depending on whether they possess each of these interests.
An interest in the subject matter
A writer can research any subject, and thus gain knowledge of the subject, without actually being interested in it. But this researched knowledge is usually not enough to communicate successfully, because the writer’s mind never engages with the subject for its own sake, and thus never starts to pull and prod at the subject in a way that will enable them to see it as someone actually engaged in the subject and its tasks would be engaged. Without interest in the subject, they don’t see the gotchas, the ambiguities, the algorithms of the subject. They don’t ask the what-if questions that reveal hidden traps for the user. They don’t see the subject, and its challenges, as the reader sees it.
This deficit of research-based writing is easy enough to see when you read a newspaper or magazine (or an undergraduate essay). All that is said seems plausible and well-founded until you get to a passage on a subject that you are interested and know well, and then suddenly you see that the writer has not really understood the subject at all. They have dug up a set of facts, but have not understood their significance or their connectedness. (At this point, you may perhaps start to question what you think you know about all those other subjects that you have read about but are not deeply interested in.)
Engineers are usually interested in the subject matter, though this is not always the case. For example, engineers who make tools are not always terribly interested in the specific ways those tools get used. (They probably should be, but often they are not.) It is on interest in the subject matter that writers often fall down. Many confidently assert that they can research and write about any subject, but when you actually try to use the documentation they write, you usually find it is full of gaps, misconceptions, and things not explained properly. The writer has the facts, but not the significance or the connectedness. Such docs may be easy to read and navigate, but they don’t actually enable you do get your work done.
An interest in the audience
Communication is always about bridging a gap. That gap may be large or it may be small, but in order to bridge it, you have to be interested enough in the person you are communicating with to understand their background, their viewpoint, their work environment, and their tasks. Again, research alone is not sufficient. If you are not interested in their circumstances and their challenges, you won’t really get it based on research alone.
Interest in the audience is usually where engineers fall down, unless they are engineers in the subject field. Often, engineers are very good at communicating with their peers, but completely unable to communicate with anyone else. The reason is that they are simply not interested in anyone other than their peers, and so they have no idea what to say to them, and no interest in figuring it out.
But writers often fail in this area as well. Many are more interested in writing as a craft than they are in people who practice other crafts. Often, writers are interested mainly in the opinion of other writers. (These are the folks who live for the annual STC competitions, where their work will be judged by their writing peers rather than by a public that does not know a semicolon from a semiconductor. )
An interest in explaining the subject matter to the audience
Being interested in the audience is not necessarily sufficient by itself. You may have an interest in the audience for social or commercial or anthropological reasons without having any desire to explain a technical subject to them. (Conversely, you may have the desire to explain a technical subject to them without having any real interest in them.)
Engineers may be interested in the audience but have no interest in explaining things to them. They can often get very frustrated that people don’t get things that they consider obvious. A person interested in communication is interested in the gaps and the blind alleys and the preconceptions that hinder people from reaching comprehension. These are often subtle and take some time and patience to understand and work through, and if someone is not interested in this process, they will quickly give up on the attempt to communicate.
This is probably the strongest argument for the employment of tech writers: that many engineers are not sufficiently interested in the process of communication to do it well. But not every writer is interested in navigating the muddy waters of comprehension either. Many are more interested in the art of composition, or even of graphics and book production. And many lack the level of interest in the audience, or in the subject matter, to be successful in explaining things properly.
An interest on the part of the reader in learning the subject
Finally, the audience must actually be interested in learning the subject. Even if an engineer or writer is interested in the subject, and in the audience, and in explaining the subject to the audience, the audience may not be interested in listening. (This is the definition of a bore: someone who is interested in explaining things to you even when you are not interested in listening.)
One of the mistakes that it is easy for a tech writer to make it to assume that the reader is as interested in learning as they are in teaching. This is very often not the case. The reader is often not interested in understanding what they are trying to do; they just want to get it done because it is in the way of them doing what they really want to do. There are all kinds of setup, configuration, and admin tasks that people have to do, but which they are not inherently interested in. They don’t expect to do these tasks on a regular basis, and so they don’t want to understand them or remember them, they just want to get them out of the way with the least amount of cognitive burden.
A writer with a genuine interest in the audience will recognize when the reader is likely to be disinterested in the task, and just want to be led through it blindly, and when the reader is likely to be genuinely interested in the task and open to learning and understanding more about it. (This, by the way, is why experts generally want more documentation than novices — only the expert is interested in actually learning anything.)
Conclusion: the best communicator is usually the one with the most appropriate set of interests
Good grammar and style can definitely help smooth the path to understanding, and deep technical knowledge can certainly inform that path, but, given basic literacy and adequate information, the best communicator in any situation is going to be the person with the right combination of interests. Effective communication can take place in the presence of grammar and style issues that would make Strunk and White rend their garments and foam at the mouth. It can also take place when he-who-has-just-learned-it-yesterday speaks to she-who-has-just-asked-the-question-today. I know this to be true, for I have many times found the help I needed in forums and mailing lists where the content was of just this caliber. It spoke neither with grace nor authority, but it spoke out of lively interest in the specific problem at hand, informed by recent specific experience, and an earnest desire to help out a fellow traveler. I also know that many times I have found no help at all in the most impeccably produced manuals from the most authoritative sources.
What then must we do, who think of ourselves as professional writers? These things at least:
- Cultivate the right set of interests (or, better still, go where our natural interests lie)
- Stop carping at those whose writing craft may not equal ours, but who communicate successfully because they have the right set of interests
- Remind the powers that be, when they are making assignments, that no communication task is ever done well by someone who is not interested in that task in all its aspects