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Enshrines mechanics of mediocre technical writing
on April 27, 2007
This book is a mixed bag at best, advocating practices that help keep today's technical writing mired in mediocrity. For example: always use the 2nd person; and for heaven's sake don't try to explain anything to people, just tell them what to do! Much of this reads like tips for helping non-writers get by as technical writers, and for making technical writing into a kind of non-writing.
For devotees of the Jackson Pollock school of tech writing (throw lots of vetted statements at the page till they stick) or of the everything-is-a-numbered-list technique, there's probably much that's heartening in this glossy example of bad desktop publishing. (Jeesh, who decreed that tech writers can't learn typography and basic functional layout, or maybe hire someone that does?)
This book is probably ok for anyone writing product assembly manuals, or documenting GUI interfaces (press this, select that... yup second person actually works pretty well there). But for software? Or for anyone struggling to articulate complex ideas or just write a reasonably compact and self-contained conceptual overview (MIA from most tech writing today), there isn't much help here. Maybe it's time we technical writers focused more on good writing per se, on the things that good technical writing shares with effective prose (clarity, precision, range of useful styles), fiction (point of view) or even poetry (compression, effective use of embedded metaphor).
So, yeah, it turns out there're so many other rich directions and ideas for tech writers to pursue. For starters, there're the old standbys: Strunk and White or Wm Zinsser's Writing Well. And any of the wonderful books on prose style by Richard Lanham or perhaps Mark Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth (which, suprisingly enough, addresses technical writing directly, albeit briefly, offering a number of classical examples). Also just about any of Edward Tufte's books, and by the way, did you catch his 2004 interview in Technical Communications Quarterly? Posted (free) on ET's website. I think it even mentions a time when he consulted with IBM about their tech writing and tried to get them to stop using the second person, and, well...