After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Will Shakespeare at the Ready

Posted on December 27, 2013
Filed Under The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

We’ve got a new technical writing colleague with us this morning, guys and gals. His name is William Shakespeare, and he has a really authoritative way with words. Will’s presence today is especially welcome because the question of avoiding “his” or “her” in technical writing has come up.

imgresThe English language and usage StackExchange site seems a trifle confused on this. But it refers us to Wikipedia, the web’s collegial font of all wisdom, and, lo, they, too, think highly of Will Shakespeare. Which makes us doubly proud to have him on hand.

So, what do you do, asks a StackExchange user, to avoid a limiting, in this case, male, gender in a sentence like, “The user attempts to maximize his own capacity.” Well, says Will Shakespeare when we turn to him (via Wikipedia), “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” (That’s from Will’s rollicking play The Comedy of Errors.)

It turns out, adds Wikipedia, that “their can be understood equally well as referring to each man considered one at a time, or to all of them collectively.” That’s known, by golly, as the epicene their, meaning of indeterminate gender. And here, via Wikipedia, we have William Thackeray, another English authority, chiming in via his Rosalind saying in Vanity FairA person can’t help their birth.”

All of which proves that, should a technical writer’s boss raise questions about his or her usage (“their” simply doesn’t seem to work here, Will), it’s advisable to have a shelf of English classics at hand, assuming you’ve already read them, of course. Have a nice day, Will, and thanks. – Doug Bedell

Writing to Negotiate Challenging Settings Safely

Posted on December 16, 2013
Filed Under Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

In this season of giving, Michelle Nijhuis provides a paen to science writing, “The Science and Art of Science Writing,” on The New York Times Opinionator blog. Since science writing is the parent tree of technical writing, the sentiments here are worth sharing. “I blame a rattlesnake for my career,” Michelle begins.

imagesShe what? Well, experiences are where you find them and Michelle one night found herself hiking through Arizona desert country when her party came upon a coiled rattlesnake. “The snake was gorgeous, even regal in its growing annoyance,” Michelle recalls, “but I found myself paying more attention to the scientists around it. What had brought them to this particular place and this very odd hobby?…The snake, I realized, was interesting. The people, dubious habits and all, were fascinating.”

Just so. Technical writing becomes science writing in the service of helping people, real people making their rounds in actual enterprises – or even fussing with, say, a home computer – more adept at what they’re doing. Your text helps them solve a problem or run a mechanism. It’s the form of writing, perhaps, with the most immediate return, one of direct service and demonstrable results.

Industrial plants and other mechanisms can be terribly complex. To unlock them, to help make them efficiently functional and achieve appropriate results is to provide directions to an immediate end. That’s what technical writing does – there’s little time for pondering, but a great need for following efficiently laid out directions.

Hiking in the Arizona desert at night, you probably wouldn’t have a manual on hand for how to treat a rattlesnake (though you might). But, in Michelle Nijhus’ case, to observe smart people avoiding harm from the encounter was to decide to help other colleagues by providing clear insights and directions to the pathways of science. That’s not technical writing, as such, but it’s awfully close, as close as you might want to get to a rattlesnake without knowing clearly and carefully what you’re doing there. – Doug Bedell

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