Professional Writing

I’ve been thinking about the use of social media and technology recently. We’ve known for years that people want the information they need to get on with things, whether it’s installing the new Blue-ray player or completing the vacation form for work. No one wants to read an 80 page document, complete with cross references and footnotes. Life is short and full of other things.

Alan Pringle (one of my personal heroes) has a new blog post that caught my eye. His main point is that “good” writing, for our users, may be indistinguishable from “good enough” writing. And I think I’m agreeing with him.

Close enough may be good enough

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to understand that actual people wrote the stories I loved reading. I married a writer. I teach writing. I read like a crazy person. I write creative non-fiction. I’m very pro lovely prose.

But, do our users care that we labored over that paragraph for 3 weeks to make sure it read beautifully? I’m thinking not. Especially now that social media really is opening up ways for users to support each other.

For example, I bought a wireless repeater for my home network a few years ago. Because this is a 60 year old house, while it’s not giant, it has some challenges. Including walls full of metal piping and odd corners and areas that I’d like internet availability. I’d like to sit on my patio in the spring and fall and work on my computer.

The instructions for setting up the repeater didn’t work. Just flat didn’t work. I did an internet search, thinking I could not be the only person with this issue. Sure enough, someone posted on a list how to actually install this repeater. And the steps worked.

Were the user-provided instructions lovely and complete? No. Were they good enough for me to figure out the rest? Yes. I was up and running in less than 30 minutes. The informal instructions were good enough.

So what now, if we’re not the Keepers of the Well Written Information?

In the world of professional writing, the writing part is really a small subset of what we do. We design information, analyze audience, organize content, and anticipate user needs, to name a few. Clear writing is important but it’s not important enough to define what we do.

When I teach Introduction to Tech Comm, I teach a lot about a third writing, a third managing your projects, and a third “this is what we do all day”. So, clearly decent writing is important.

But if you can’t deliver on deadline, the writing doesn’t matter that much. If you deliver incomprehensible writing on deadline, it also doesn’t matter much. There is a middle area that’s the sweet spot for all of us.

Including our users.

By Sharon Burton