I realize that I am inviting criticism of my writing by doing this and I welcome the scrutiny: my claim is that writing adequately is within almost anyone's grasp and that I follow my own advice. Alas, if you find this post boring, confusing or rambling, then I have a problem.
I will confess at the outset that while I make my living writing software, I like to write expository prose. I always have. I like writing speeches, I like writing toasts, I like writing presentations, I like writing white papers. You name an expository prose form and I have probably written at least one of it.
Of course, enjoying pursuing an activity is not a reliable indicator of how competently you pursue that activity. Sad, but true: you can love doing something and still be terrible at it; witness my attempts to play Mario Kart on the Wii with my daughter. How can I be that bad? It is an enduring mystery. As my daughter often asks, "why can I beat you when I can't even drive yet?"
Sadly, unlike a video game, writing often does not provide adequate feedback, mostly because we do such a bad job of soliciting it. (Hint: asking a colleague to review an awesome thing you just wrote awesomely does not provoke honest feedback.)
I am even interested in the teaching writing; I don't it myself but I know many who do and I have had many enjoyable conversations with professionals about the trials and tribulations of teaching writing at various levels.
While I am in a confessional mood, I will admit that I was both an English major and a hardcore computer programming student in college. I am, unsurprisingly, also a big fan of reading. I interested in critical reading, recreational reading, skimming technical documents, serious reading of literature, referring to references and even reading advertising copy.
What I do not generally enjoy reading is expository prose written by engineers of almost any stripe, computer programmers included. My prejudice is shared by all the teachers of writing I have ever queried, from the ardent high school teacher to the burned out English-as-a-second-language coach who had just retired from helping a major American car manufacturer get more-or-less comprehensible prose from foreign automotive engineers.
I am so baffled by the extreme badness of so much engineer process for the following reasons:
- Being a terrible writer takes ambition. You have to go for it, you have to attempt the bold and broad, the complex and the complicated. If you stick to short sentences and use standard vocabulary, you may well be boring, but you won't be cringe-inducingly awful.
- Being a terrible writer requires that you flout the rules, that you go your own way, that you find your own special drummer and follow him or her without regard to where he or she takes you.
- Being a terrible writer usually requires that you ignore your reader and do whatever you want to do, that you make assumptions about what the reader knows, or finds amusing, or finds clever.
When I corner a hapless professional writing teacher at a dinner part and run through my standard rant, the most common explanation offered is the student empowerment movement in American education. Be free of the rules! Express yourself! Be original! Let your natural talent soar! Find your voice!
What twaddle. Most of us have precious little natural talent; fewer have a pleasant writing voice that appeals to most people.
Furthermore, the forms and conventions are very effective. They give your reader a sense of orientation, of familiarity and of confidence that they know what is coming. Do I want to be startled by the originality of a white paper on how to make database calls from a given programming language to a given database management system? No, I do not: I want to acquire the desired information quickly and effectively. I have searched for this kind of information many times before and will do so many times again before I retire: excitement, suspense or high style are neither desired nor required. Just the facts, ma'am.
For example, the Unix "man page" format frees the writer from having to figure out how best to document a given function and instead lets the writer concentrate on writing the actual documentation. On the other end of the equation, the format means that the reader knows what is coming and how best to read the document.
I have been guilty of this desire to run amok myself: the first time I wrote a business plan, I was appalled at how outdated and stupid the classic form seemed to be. I knew that I could do better. I yearned to do better. I grit my teeth and half-heartedly adhered to the form and the plan was not a big hit with the investors and possible recruits at whom it was aimed.
I asked a friend who is in the business of reading business plans for some advice. Instead of undertaking a critique of my plan in particular, he gave me a sense of the audience in general. He said that he had a stack of a couple of hundred business plans on his desk, which he was supposed to quickly whittle down to a dozen or so. That dozen or so were to be passed along to the next, more senior, reviewer, and so on. In order to review hundreds of plans, the plans had to adhere rather strictly to the format: non-standard plans were usually tossed aside immediately; very very very occasionally, the non-standard plans were so awesome that he read them later, retrieving them from the discard pile. But almost always, the non-standard plans were removed as part of the first pass without really being considered.
This underscores a painful lesson I learned early on in my writing career: very few of us have readers who are obligated or deeply motivated to read whatever we write. Most of us have readers who will plow ahead only so long as they are getting more out of the writing than they are putting into it. One of my secondary school writing teachers used to put a red line in the left margin. I asked him why he did that and I will never forget his answer "to mark the point at which I stopped reading."
Sadly, many engineers fail even when the deck is stacked in our favor: we often write documents other people feel obliged to read: manuals, implementation notes, etc. And still we abuse our readers to the point where they give up part through, leaving them to flail with whatever piece of technology the documentation was supposed to illuminate.
There are many good books on writing. There are many tips and tricks. I will not attempt a mini-recap here. Instead, I will beg my fellow engineers to seek honest feedback from readers, to consider readers and to find a set of rules to which they can adhere. Just because we can get away with self-indulgent and awful prose does not mean that we should.