Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Writer with 3 Brains!!! --
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Anything worthy of discussion can be divided into three parts. As a technical communicator who works a lot in collaborative work groups and who serves on several professional committees, I get to see (and participate in) my fair share of technical communicator fights. I'm beginning to understand that the core of many of these conflicts is that technical communicators have 3 parts to their brains, and most of us have a dominant section (one having a disproportionate influence over the other two) or in some cases a subordinant one (two sections in balance and the third just along for the ride). The analogy is very close to right-brain/left-brain scenarios in that the more we can understand what part of our brain dominates us and what parts seem to dominate others, the better we can understand conflicts (within ourselves and among others) and assemble teams that collectively work with "whole-brain" efficiency.

The Parts
To more easily differentiate this metaphor from the right-brain/left-brain model, I'll divide the writer's brain into rear-brain, middle-brain, and front-brain. Each third respectively represents product focus, process focus, and content focus. (By the way, this is strictly metaphorical and is not based in any way on real brain activity--something I have little experience with.)

Product focus (product in the sense of the deliverable we the writers produce) concerns itself with the mechanics of the document and the language. When we are designing templates, editing for consistency, and making sentences obey laws of grammar, we are engaged in rear-brain thinking. I chose the rear of the brain as the analogy because that's where the medulla oblongata is located. It goes its whole day saying things like, "I'm not sure what you are doing right now, but breathing in and out would be a good thing."

Process focus concerns itself with how communication happens. When we architect what channels we will use for specific tasks and users, plan review cycles, write documentation plans, we are using our middle brain.

Content focus concerns itself with what we are writing about. I choose the front of the brain for the analogy because that is where our personality--who we are-- lives, and the content defines who our document is. As in any metaphor, riding that horse too long is sure to put the ship on the rocks and shut down the show. (First hint of the blog: If you wanted to comment on the mixing of metaphors rather than laugh at it, you might have way too much rear-brain action going on.)

An Example
I think I have an underdeveloped rear brain, which any consistent reader of this blog should have realized by now, and a dominant middle brain. I love information design and architecture, I'm largely indifferent to what I'm writing about, and I'm a terrible editor because I don't value things like formats and language rules unless they are in the immediate context of understandability. When a homeless person tells me, "I ain't got no money," I don't correct his grammar because I understand perfectly well what he is telling me.

There is nothing wrong with having a brain imbalance like this but I need to do a couple of things:
  • Realize that when I get in conflicts that the underlying struggle might deal more with focus, i.e., product, process, or content, rather than with logic and rationale. In short, I need to be nicer to and argue less with rear-brainers.
  • When putting teams together, I need to try to surround my middle-brain dominance with front-brainers and rear-brainers. In short, I need to make sure I'm on a team with someone who will actually figure out how the product we're documenting works. And I need a good medulla oblongata there as well, someone who takes care of the necessary mechanics.
Sweeping, Unsupported Generalizations
Hey, what's the good of having a blog if you can't just shoot your mouth off and have some fun with it? Here are some traits (some legitimate, some tongue-in-cheek) that will help you spot brain sector dominance.

Rear Brainers (Good and Bad--you figure out which is which)

  • Like to design templates
  • Worry about presentation issues, e.g., how wide this margin needs to be, how much white space should go above a heading 2, etc.
  • Make good editors
  • Can suck the life out of meaningful discussions by correcting someone's grammar in the middle of it
  • Can bury documentation in mediocrity by insisting that all sections be consistent with the weakest element

Middle Brainers (Good and Bad)

  • Help boost a department's process maturity rating
  • Create efficiencies
  • Like to analyze users and their information needs
  • Lose STC competitions a lot
  • Say "Whatever" to editors

Front Brainers (Good and Bad)

  • Make documents meaningful and useful
  • Do a lot of the heavy lifting on a team project
  • Insist on sharing every nuance and implication of a technical feature (often ad nauseum)
  • Have trouble with deadlines because there is always more to know and say

Conclusion
So where are you on this list? Hopefully and probably everywhere. The point is that we should be more aware of these facets of our thinking and behavior and know when they are helpful and when they are not. Where weak, we should seek to bring the missing factor into the team by recruiting members who are strong in those areas. And when we do, and when we inevitably fight with them, remember we are really externalizing our internal struggles. In other words, I don't fight with my editors because they are too rear-brained; my fight is the result than I am underpowered in that sector. Go ahead and fight, just make sure you fight fair and allow yourself to be influenced by the other.

And don't try to tone down so much if you think you have a dominant sector; rather, work on strengthening your weaker ones.

1 comment:

Laura Lemay said...

Ahaha. Good post. I think I am a unilateral front-brainer, although I have been more balanced in the past. I must contempalte that for a while.