Thursday, June 18, 2009

You're wrong, and I must warn the others

I took a pretty intense course during my doctoral studies that explored different ways we can study our interactions in groups. I learned a lot about myself, and the title of my blog today is the title of the reflective report I wrote. It was the defining characteristic I had discovered about myself that was making the wheels come off in some of my key interactions.

I still have the problem, but I am more aware of it and hopefully self-regulate faster and better when I fall back into it. For example, I corrected my wife last night when she referred to that thing I use to propel my kayak as an "oar." "No, honey, it's called a paddle." I knew what she meant, so why sidetrack a perfectly good conversation? At least it was just the two of us--sometimes I stop the flow of a meeting or presentation to make a similarly useless point. Hopefully not as much as I used to.

Why am I blogging about this?

Technical communicators, as a breed, suffer from a similar hang-up, perhaps more accurately described as "I must copy-edit every document and conversation I touch." Perhaps the worst offenders are The Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), who actually go as far as to deface historical artifacts they feel have been punctuated incorrectly. But there is a little TEAL in all of us.

What's wrong with taking a stand for correct language?

First, by who's definition? I am notorious for getting as much use out of a document as possible, so I get to see myself edited on what is essentially the same article by multiple editors. Trust me, folks, there is not a consensus even among top editors about the best way to turn a phrase. What I change to suit one I must put back to suit another.

Second, it's often idiosyncratic. It's not that what the original person has said is wrong, it's just not how the person correcting it would have said it. Fine, get in on the act when the page is blank and you get to say it exactly as you would like.

Third (and most important) it gets in the way of the conversation and shifts the focus from substance to style. Sure, edit away at a user assistance file that's going out to the public, but we can keep quiet about the typo in the e-mail or worse yet what a person says in conversation.

Here are some questions I am going to try to ask myself more before I say, "Shouldn't that be...?"
  • Is it worth the speed bump I am about to insert in the conversation or the process?
  • Will it make a real difference in meaning or am I just spraying the bushes to put my scent on them?
  • If it's OK with my peers, can it be so bad that I need to intervene?

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Those are all great "perspective" questions, Mike. I agree that we Tech Writers (especially those of us who have a stint as an editor in our experience) have to shift to a bigger-picture perspective when we're not working on the final product that customers are going to use.

In early, internal iterations of development, we can let the nits go by to allow the creative discussions and design progress to flow unhindered by editorial interruptions. I'm not ready to work with someone's txtmsg-format notes, but I try to cheerfully appreciate useful information about a product in whatever form others are willing to share with me.

More information, even if it is fragmented or incomplete, is better than receiving no information, because the dev group is afraid an editor will make fun of their writing.