In the field of technical communication, “good enough” documentation is becoming the norm. For me as an INFJ writer, this is a difficult concept to master. I want documentation to be as good as it can be. As an NF, I’m passionate about effective communication. As a judging type, I want to see style rules applied consistently. So when you tell me that my task as an editor is to make the document “good enough,” I go into stress mode. For an INFJ, this means the inferior sensing function surfaces. I may avoid the task by indulging in an activity that engages the senses, like getting a snack or playing Scramble on my iPod. If I try to edit, I may become obsessed with mundane details. Every sentence sounds wrong.
It used to be that working as an editor meant proofreading and ensuring consistency. It meant helping writers to better organize the material and to identify sentences that could be better written. Those things seem like a luxury now. Two technological developments have changed the role of the editor, perhaps forever:
- Economic conditions dictate that we must publish faster—because technology allows us to do so.
- Easy-to-use blogging software allows people to publish content even if they lack writing skills.
Our customers have become desensitized to bad writing because it’s everywhere. What does that mean for editors? Do they no longer have a place?
I believe that good writing still has value. The problem is, in some contexts, companies can’t afford to pay for it. So we must shed our current notion of what constitutes good writing, and find a more economically viable one.
In my department at work, we’ve so far come to consensus on the following points:
- If the meaning is unclear, then it’s not good enough.
- If the meaning is clear, then maybe it is good enough.
That maybe is still to be defined.
In certain contexts, I’m willing to let style issues go if they don’t affect meaning. Here are some examples:
- omitting serial commas
- using numerals for numbers under ten, rather than spelling them out
- using an apostrophe to form the plural of a number (for example, 1950’s instead of 1950s)
At this point, I’m not willing to accept grammar errors (because I’m pretty sure it would lead to the collapse of civilization):
- dangling participles
- subject-verb disagreement
- using an adverb instead of an adjective after a linking verb (no, you don’t feel badly, even if you think you do)
On some other points, I struggle. A good example is the practice called telescoping—the omission of articles before nouns, when the article would normally be used in speech. Articles seem like little, throwaway words. But an article is a sure sign that a noun is coming. If the noun in question can also serve as a verb, then in some contexts, omission of the article can make the sentence ambiguous. Consider the following:
Align the mounting plate and bolt to the baseplate.
This could mean either of the following:
- Align the mounting plate and the bolt to the baseplate.
- Align the mounting plate and bolt it to the baseplate.
Further, if a translator misunderstands the English text, the translation won’t be ambiguous—it’ll be wrong. So I consider a, an, and the to be three of the most important words in the English language.
When it comes to the economic viability of good writing, I haven’t lost all hope. If technology has created the problem, I think technology also offers the solution. Controlled authoring software like acrolinx IQ automates tasks such as identifying missing articles and serial commas, so editors can focus on more important things. Content management systems allow us to write once and reuse many times. If technology helps us write and edit faster, then we may have time to write and edit well.
I don’t think the time has come for professional communicators to stop caring about good writing. I do think it’s important for technical communicators to carefully consider the business needs of their companies or clients. There won’t be a single definition of good writing. The definition will be context-specific. In some cases—like writing technical material for translation, or writing instructions for products that pose potential hazards to the customer if used improperly—writers must still be meticulous. For promotional material or web copy, a more casual approach might be appropriate.
Maybe it’s time for technical communication to follow the journalism model. The newbies serve as copyeditors (proofreaders), and the more experienced writers create the copy (content). At the top of the chain are the editors (content managers), who control how it all fits together. In the context of “good enough” documentation, asking a grammar maven to copyedit the work of a new writer who doesn’t know a gerund from a gerbil is not a good use of the editor’s skills. Such editors are forced to rubber stamp material they know is wrong, because they don’t have time to fix it. They don’t have time to mentor new writers. In short, they don’t have time to do the things that made them want to be editors in the first place.
As the role of the technical communicator continues to evolve, practitioners will continue to debate the importance of good writing. I think the debate is healthy, because it shows we’re not complacent. We’re responding to changing technology and changing economic conditions. In an age when technology and communication are both experiencing explosive growth, technical communicators are well-positioned to take advantage of changing times.