Good Writing Requires Empathy Always

Posted on April 22, 2015
Filed Under Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

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The craft of writing, technical or otherwise, is a demanding one – surely you’ve heard that?

Stephen Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, discusses that reality in a Wall Street Journal post. Only he attributes the difficulty to the wrong source, or at least doesn’t go deeply enough into the problem.

It’s not so much that writing is so much a demanding exercise as a somewhat deluding one. You’ve gotten those words onto paper, they flow before your eyes, so they must be the delightful outcome of a trying process. Oh, really?

The difficulty in writing well – so that your output isn’t opaque or appear as next-to-gibberish to someone else – is that you, the writer, may be lacking in a sense of empathy. Relax, that’s not fatal, but it takes awareness to correct. Empathy is best defined as walking in someone else’s shoes or, in this case, reading with someone else’s eyes. How am I coming across not to myself, but to my readers, should be every writer’s question, constantly.

Forget the recognition you may have justly earned for your accomplishments. When a page with your words on it is put before someone else, all that matters at that moment, besides the basic accuracy of your expression, is how well it connects with the reader, how well it informs or inspires others.

Pinker discusses bad writing in terms of the “bamboozlement theory” of written expression. “Pseudo intellectuals,” poor writers who consider themselves good ones, let themselves off the hook too easily – if they even realize that they’re on a hook.

“The curse of knowledge,” he writes, “is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”

In other words, he or she (sex doesn’t matter when prideful creation is underway) doesn’t empathize enough with the reader. “How am I coming across?,” “Am I being understood about what I’m trying to get across?” should be his or her recurring thought.

Walk in another’s shoes while writing and you may get to a different place than you intended, but you’ll have others with you. And it’s always great to have company, real companions, not simply assumed ones. – Doug Bedell

Technical Writing’s For Real, Steph

Posted on April 9, 2015
Filed Under Communication, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

We were browsing for an Insights post and came upon Technical Writing World, an interesting-looking “social network for technical communicators”. Yet, there it was, in the very latest post, by one Steph Hepner to Lia Pi, apparently a member of a college class somewhere:

“Hi, this is my experience. I didn’t watch my grammar or composition, so please don’t think I’m a bad tech writer – I was just lazy and in a hurry! You may contact me if you have any questions or I answered yours incorrectly…”

tw101Well, thank you, Steph, for the antithesis of good technical writing. We learn sometimes, don’t we, by going to extremes? Well. the extreme for good, orderly technical writing is 1) Being lazy, 2) Being in a hurry and 3) Leaving the reader guessing, puzzled or confused.

You couldn’t boil the craft down to a more succinct core than that.

Maybe technical writing, though, doesn’t belong on a gossipy, we’d presume, social network like this one. Yet Technical Writing World appears to be devoted to the craft itself. Or, maybe we’re missing the difference between conversation and a craft. To be kindly, we’d allow that that’s what occurred here.

The trouble is that technical writing is pretty demanding, even in its “social mode”. What if, under pressure, a technical writer should lapse into his or her social media guise? That wouldn’t be good for him, her, the craft, or the enterprise involved, would it? Or is there a difference between the standing of the craft and given practitioners thereof? We’d hope not.

The heart of what we’re trying to suggest is that good writing is a discipline, one that’s practiced whenever fingers touch upon a keyboard. Suppose a concert pianist began doodling “in public,” which, after all, is what writing on a social network amounts to – conversing in written form in public.

No, Steph, we don’t think you’re necessarily a bad technical writer, just a reckless one when it comes to communicating outside your cubicle. Or were you in yours when you wrote this post? If so, shame. You don’t need to be stuffy, just careful, orderly and certainly not in a hurry. – Doug Bedell

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