Verbally Voldemort: Writing Unspeakably

verbalkint-oralcareYou don’t have to be pedantic to be a technical writer. (35% of the Whirlers who read that sentence just said to themselves, “One doesn’t have to be pedantic…” (17% of the Whirlers who read that correction just said to themselves, “One shouldn’t use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence.”)) I could go on all day with nested parentheses like some crazed middle-school math teacher, but the point is, I do recognize that technical writing is a profession and not a personality disorder. Not all of us are obsessed by these details. Having said that, I want to make the case for precision, if not pedantry.

Even if I have to use sentence fragments to do it.

For me, the difference between “verbal” and “oral” is a fine example. If a supervisor were to ask me to present my ideas verbally, I would never be so pedantic as to correct her. But if it were my initiative, I would always offer to make an oral presentation. Yes, “verbal” is usually understood as “oral” when the context is right, but the latter is more precise. We write precisely, we speak precisely, at least when it comes to technical details. So in my particular industry, validation, verification, and qualification are distinct activities; a reworked device is never the same as a refurbished one.

Precision alone won’t pay the bills; not with deadlines howling at the door. When someone e-mails you ten pages of incoherent burble and asks you to “tighten it up,” they almost never say, “… and feel free to take all day with it.” Would your client rather have it (a) just okay and right on time or (b) a whole lot better and a little bit late? Yeah, join the club. But as long as I’m right on time, I can be as precise as I want, and nothing gets refurbished unless it’s really supposed to be.

To the extent that your office is a family, this is a reasonable role for the tech writer to play. To paraphrase Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit wonky, and there’s nothing wrong with your informal family title being Word Wonk. And in a small office, if someone needs to pick up a new skill (I know, some of you are coders already), it only makes sense to rely on the person who craves precision – and won’t sacrifice a deadline to get it.

Dan Goldstein

Dan Goldstein was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, known to its denizens as “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In tenth grade, Sylvia Mintz taught him everything he knows about writing. Years later (thirtieth grade, approximately), Neil Churgin taught him everything he knows about technical writing. Since 2002, Dan has specialized in Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance for medical devices, which is actually a lot of fun.

Read more articles from Dan Goldstein