Re-reading Friday’s post it occurs to me that it could be read as an indictment of my peers and a pat on the back for myself. That certainly wasn’t the intention.

It was provoked, as stated, by some frustration I felt over being given a badly-written document to “fix up.” I was frustrated first of all by the badness of the writing, but since the author does not claim to be a writer I really shouldn’t complain. Perhaps I’m so far in these woods that I expect everyone to be a lumberjack. What really frustrates me, however, was the notion that this dog needs only minimal grooming when in fact it needs a complete rewrite.

This latter frustration hits me on two levels. I resent that some people think editing a sow’s ear into a silk purse is fast and easy. By dismissing it as such, it belittles my effort. More frustrating is that many people don’t recognize the sow’s ear for what it is. Forget about not writing well, what are we to do with these people who don’t even read well? (I’m not talking about people who have literacy problems — I’m talking about people who have critical judgement problems.)

That said, I’m happy to report (if you haven’t noticed already) that I tend to overstate things. In retrospect, while much of what I get to “fix up” is bad, it isn’t all that bad, and the vast majority of it does not come from writers. And if I really think about it, those who tell me it should just take a few minutes to fix up are probably engaging in wishful thinking more than project management. I’m sure it’s often a matter of them not wanting to burden me or whatever, so they slip it to me labelled “easy” and then dive for cover once I’ve accepted it.

Still, the bad writing comments stand, but they really do focus on the bottom wrung writers — those who are either very new to the trade, or simply don’t get it. Or both. The majority of writers I know understand that to wear the hat you have to put in more effort that you do with a letter to Mom or an email to your parole officer. Except for the marketing/PR writers part — most of them suck, and I oughta know because I am one. ;-p

On Not Writing Well…

As I look over yet another badly written semi-technical paper that I’m supposed to “fix up” (which to the hopeful means “proofread” but in reality means “rewrite”), I wonder why so many people, when writing, get trapped in the same pitfalls. As my mind boggles over yet another stinky pile of someone else’s words, I think I may have come up with something.

Most of us learned how to write by composing texts for our teachers. Book reviews, essays on historical figures or events, that sort of thing. We assumed that the teacher knew more about the topic than we did, so the goal of the writing was to show the reader (the teacher) how much we had learned. In other words, the objective was not to instruct the reader, but to gain their approval by telling them stuff that they already knew.

As adults, many of us have barely changed. Low-grade and beginner “alternative” journalists write as if we’ve all attended the same radical vegetarian left-handed weekend retreats for Buddhist nudists. There’s no discourse or useful rhetoric, only the spewing of tribalisms intended to garner a pat on the back for the writer along with a passing grade on their “Alternative” test. Here’s a new lip ring.

At the other end of the spectrum are the hyper-left-brained engineers, the ones who never learned about anything other than their science. You know the type — they assume that non-engineers are necessarily flawed, otherwise they’d be engineers. They write as if the reader is always in a state of full context, with 95% of the world’s engineering knowledge right at their fingertips. If you ask them to explain the difference between (for example) a Windows-based computer and a Macintosh, they’ll mutter “The interface.” That’s it, the whole explanation. They won’t say how the interfaces are different, just that they are different. They assume we can fill in the blanks ourselves.

Then there are the junior and/or untrained technical writers. After 12 years in this business I’ve seen a lot of tech-writer lameness, such as not testing the instructions they write or using bloated and windy language. Often, they regress to childhood mode, as if they were still in grade seven. Their goal is to win the approval of the company’s engineers, so they write their documents to impress that readership. They display a lot of geektalk and esoteric “insider” terminology that makes the company’s engineers nod, but leaves the intended reader completely baffled.

On the other hand, there are the buzzword-laden marketing and PR hacks. Their approach is quite the opposite. They know almost nothing about their subject and they assume the reader knows even less. They drop their fishing lines into the cliché barrel and pull out as many meaningless words and phrases as they can, which they combine with smoke and fog to create a document that bears no resemblance to anything related to the topic. Their defence is that it is “high level,” and success is measured by the extent to which other marketing and PR hacks envy the abundance of buzzwords. Oh, and the font is important too.

Before I completely alienate my friends and colleagues (many of whom are professional writers of one type or another) I should state that I’m talking about the low end of the scale here, certainly not anyone I know. ;-)

That said, if you are a professional writer who has never seriously analyzed your output, and if you have never studied writing and communication methods and process (through classes, seminars, reading, or whatever), and if you just sit down and write this kind of material because you think it’s easy… then maybe I am talking about you.

In the meantime, I go back to this mishmash of someone else’s words that I’m supposed to “fix up.” Somewhere in that tangle of weeds is an idea, and my job is to find it and bring it out into the open so someone somewhere can learn something. Fortunately, my boss understands that there is much more to this that just plunking down the words, and he usually allows me the time to do the job right. So goes the grind…

Why they pay me, part 243

Today I’m editing a white paper written by a hired-gun analyst. Here’s an example:

As telecommunications continues to become a conduit for commerce by delivering content to end users,

As telecommunications takes an increasingly greater role in the delivery of commercial content,

I so rock…

I got feedback tonight from my Creative Nonfiction Workshop friends on my travel piece Shaken and Stirred in Siena. Of course it’s not perfect; in fact it suffers mostly from being two stories trying to fit into one, but the feedback was very, very positive. Most importantly, people told me that I have a gift for describing place, which is my goal – that’s what I want to be good at!

Another excerpt:

Inside the hotel, the man at the desk is formal and erect and could pass for an English butler if not for his accent and indifference. I announce myself and he offers the room key–a large steel skeleton key attached to a heavy pendulum–so I can inspect the room. He shows me to the elevator, not much bigger than a phone booth, but encircled with a helix of stairs, like something out of an old French movie. I go up to the fifth floor and find my room a few doors down the hall. It’s adjacent to the shared bath and toilet, which is damp and stony but seems to be clean and smells reasonably fresh. My room is small, with a single iron bed pushed into a corner and bolted to the floor. There’s an armoire, a sink, a bidet, a television with a screen so small I can cover it with one hand, and a window that I have to climb two marble stairs to see out of. I adore it.