Editor’s Note: The following technical writing humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go. Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later.
Boredom: The Secret of Tech Writing
Once, I spent about four hours dinking around with the warning icons for a manual. I tweaked the little stick men so the guy with the flames licking at his heels was a portrait in sheer, abject terror. His little iconic mouth turned down in an expression of unfathomable horror as he looked back on the flames that encroached upon him, his tiny stick arms grasping ahead at whatever solace he might find outside of that horrific red warning triangle. The electrocution guy was, in a way, luckier. In a state of perpetual off-guardedness, he hung suspended by a lightning bolt so powerful and so tangible that his body radiated an electrical glow, right there in mid-air, where, like Schroedinger’s cat, he would remain for all eternity, right smack dab on the property line between life and death. Stupid Customer Service crybaby said they were too scary, so I took them out because I didn’t want him wetting his pants on my account.
Another time, I wrote a series of manuals for the United States Army completely in E-Prime, that wacko crackpot linguistic movement that calls for the complete elimination of the ‘be’ verbs. Those E-Prime guys hate Aristotle. I don’t feel all that strongly one way or the other, but danged if I’m not good at that E-Prime stuff. None of the people I showed the books to could tell that there was anything unusual about them.
Those lucky-duck Army guys also have, as far as I’m aware, the sole remaining copy of my groundbreaking “HaikuProc” software, which generates haiku based on a series of sentence patterns, which parse to lists of words broken down by function and number of syllables. Most of the haiku didn’t make a lot of sense, but one day, it wrote, “The toad remembers/Seeing jackhammer and girl/The girl walks softly.” I like to think that somewhere a soldier far from home–and far from some softly walking girl–is dabbing a single glistening tear from the corner of his eye.
There are only so many ways you can tell someone to enter a command and show them the expected result. I know–from the endless arguments about exactly how to phrase it, you’d think that there were an infinite number of diverse and varying ways to say it, but there aren’t. There are a few ways to say this, and, within reason, they’re all fairly equal in their clarity and effectiveness.
So there. Am I banished now?
Oh, and before you go saying, “Yeah, well, not everyone works in software,” well, neither do I. It’s just as boring in hardware and telco, too. B. O. R. I. N. G. I hear that insurance is a wild romp, though.
Of course, it’s not 100% all of the time boring. Just some of it, on a fairly regular but not intolerable basis. But boring all the same.
And that’s okay, really. It’s nice to have some action and adventure, juggling projects and learning new things, and it’s nice, afterward, to take a little week-long desk vacation, straightening your files, making some new subtly subversive desktop wallpaper, and catching up on important work-related research into the words to 70s television theme songs.
But sometimes, in some jobs, in some places, at various points during the fiscal year, you find that every week starts to look like every other week, every day like every other day. Every graphic of a circuit board like every other one, aside from the fact that the jumpers are over here instead! And you start to relish the crazy antics of the wild, fun-filled attenuation settings that keep changing! The laughter! The tears! The single-digit numbers that move from one column to another every few days! The addition! The subtraction! The graphics of the DIP switches in every possible combination of ON/OFF configurations!
But then, on the way home, maybe you find yourself driving behind a garbage truck, and you think, “That could be me. Living free and easy, my hair blowing in the wind, my lungs filling with the heady aroma of diesel exhaust, my head full of dreams of curbside treasures! Yes, that could beme!”
Maybe you stop somewhere and get a “Mom” tattoo on your arm just like in the cartoons. Maybe you pull over and catch tadpoles in a lake. Maybe you fill out a requisition form for a box of howler monkeys to be delivered to your boss the day after you walk out the door and keep walking, getting smaller and smaller until you’re finally a tiny black dot on the horizon, punctuating your illustrious career with one final cold, hard, full stop.
Or maybe you figure it could be worse, and you go home and rent The Fight Club, drink a beer, and show up the next day, hoping for the best.
At this point in the column, I’d get to the point, maybe just underline the particular piece of wisdom I’d like you to walk away with. The only problem with that is that I guess I don’t really have one. I don’t have a point. I don’t have any particular wisdom. I’m just bored, is all.