Whenever he sends e-mails, my colleague and frequent Certification Magazine contributor David Garrett includes the following quote from Peter De Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Every writer I know of (including yours truly) can relate to that sentiment, as the idea of exhausting documentation and convoluted sets of guidelines and regulations is anathema to us. Apparently, IT pros can sympathize with us on this now more than ever, if a recent study conducted by business writing training provider BackDRAFT is any indication.
The company’s poll of thousands of workers in the United States and Canada shows that the typical technical engineer is writing 37 percent of the day, which is higher than any other sector: financial, real estate, hospitality, and even the military and government. That amount has risen by about a third in just the past five years. “I think we have massive amounts of technical documentation that needed to be written, which didn’t have to be written before,” said Brian Hanington, CEO of BackDRAFT. “In a world with an appetite for digital products, there’s a great burden of customer service, call center response and technical assistance, which will overwhelm any company that doesn’t have good technical documentation.”
This might not be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that most tech professionals—well, let’s just say that IT pros don’t have many Shakespeares, Miltons, Thoreaus or Dickinsons in their midst. This isn’t all their fault, though. For one thing, IT technologies, tools and concepts don’t really lend themselves to good writing, Hanington said. “The material is so much harder to articulate than in most other disciplines, not only because it’s technical in nature, but also the novelty of the technology means that there aren’t easy phrases and ways to describe what the technology is and what the implications will be for the end user community,” he said. “Not only do you have to write brilliantly, concisely and clearly, but you also have to figure out what the heck it is. That’s pretty specific to the technological community.”
Also, the communications systems frequently used—e-mail and instant messenger—often produce written correspondences that are sloppy, hurried, inconsistent, confusing and ungrammatical. “One CEO actually said, ‘Our engineers have lost the ability to pass an idea from one person to another because of e-mail,’” Hanington said. However, he added that while this skill has vanished, that doesn’t mean it can’t be found again. “Writing is a respect for the machinery of language. You can teach someone to write like you can teach them to tune up an automobile engine.”
Both technical professionals and their employers can take steps to ensure that writing in their organization is of a high caliber. “The first thing an organization can do is decide what its style is,” Hanington said. “A house style is a critical element that writers need to reduce the amount of time they spend wondering if the company spells ‘program’ as ‘programme’ when a piece goes to England, or whether or not the company president has a capital ‘P’ in the title all the time. They should be housed in a manual of style, which is usually in a searchable PDF format these days, but it can be a book on someone’s desk. The judgement it takes to figure those things out can make writing twice as long as it should be.”
For individuals, make sure to have your writing reviewed by associates whose opinions you trust and respect. “Always submit your stuff to someone you trust and ask for feedback,” Hanington said. “Then, do the second draft yourself. Never allow your corporation to make you do a first draft that gets handed off and you never see again. That would be like writing exams your whole life and never getting a mark. You’ll never know if you were any good.”
Here’s another piece of advice from me on the subject: If you want to be an effective writer (or speaker), then read, read and read some more.
For more information, see http://www.backdraft.org.