The Art of Technical Writing

Five Letters (and Three Syllables)

small hat no cattle


Paul Cross slumped over his computer, exhausted. He had been typing technical bulletins all day and could not bring himself to touch the keyboard again. Falling back on all his old tricks of aggressive plagiarism, overt cutting and pasting and filling up templates with mind-numbing secondary detail, he was spent, the spark had dimmed...he had nothing left. Denied a simpler fate, he knew it was time to hang it up for the day.

The life of a technical writer is a lonely one; you must remain true to your craft while thousands of desperate thoughts bombard you from all directions. The technical writer, by Paul’s definition, is the essential lynchpin from the uncaring and small-minded product producers to the unmotivated, uneducated purchasing public. The writer must tie all critical product information, usually concentrating on assembly or functionality instruction, into an easy to read (and more importantly, simple to understand) masterpiece which ecumenically salves over all issues and gets the reader to an slightly elevated level of awareness. All too often, there is no formal or effective training anymore as the reliance on self-education has grown due to poor supervisors and the conscious avoidance, by many companies, to take the time to actually teach someone something tangible.

The current assignment was a mind-numbing instructional manual for car wipers. What made this challenge so frustrating was the emphasis on simple pictures versus words. Paul prided himself on the right verb at the right time; sometimes “grasp slot A” was so much more insightful that “take slot A” when dealing with an assembly challenge. However, this wiper job was to combine two dozen iterations of attachment assemblies with one dozen different kinds of wiper posts while placing all the potential instructions on a single six inch by six piece of paper. This piece of literary magic was then to be folded into a much smaller dimension and jammed into each wiper sleeve with little hope and less agenda. However, with the new global economy, it was far easier to draw pictures than invest in a variety of translated instruction packets so somewhere down the line, someone might actually reference first before freelancing the connection themselves.

The request for minimal written instructions always implied eventual international distribution. The reliance on pictures made for easy transitions to other languages and this wiper job had all the markings of a worldwide play. As Paul looked at all the artist renderings, he continued to storyboard the instructions to capture the challenge of the wiper replacement but he didn’t have it. The fatigue of creation was creeping up on him and this was well before his selection of the critical words. His feared writer’s block was raising its ugly head again and he knew he was badly beaten for the day. He knew he had to synchronize the instruction manual to the pictures but the magic wasn’t there. There was a good possibility that all his work would be replaced by a few strategically placed exclamation points but he couldn't let that possibility deter him from making the best possible wiper installation manual possible.

He left promptly at five o’clock and sought the refuge of his local bar, his answer to Dylan Thomas’ White Horse Inn. He slid onto the stool and ordered a drink. This bar was the favorite of many technical writers and when he looked around, he saw many of his contemporaries in various stages of the creative process.

“Helen, I need a drink.”

“Tough day, Paul?”

“One of the worst. I have writer’s block.”

Paul verbalizing the malady said volumes about his current state. Actually using the phrase “writer’s block” within earshot of his contemporaries was similar to shouting “no-hitter” to a pitcher as he walked into a hitless ninth inning and rarely, if ever, uttered. Paul was considered an accomplished technical writer so his use of the phrase was a poorly veiled cry for help.

“Wow,” said Helen. “I think I will make it a double…and on the house.”

“I got it bad,” said Paul. “It has never been this way before; usually I could start noodling ideas around and eventually get un-stuck but there is nothing left in the tank…nothing.”

“That’s too bad,” said the bartender. She had heard it all before; the bar was located near several businesses that relied on technical writers to produce release notes, instructions, manuals and how-to booklets. Although there never is an admitted hierarchy, the how-to writers were usually looked down upon as hacks due to the limitations on their creative license. Freewheeling how-to manuals were rarely, if ever, successful so the how-to's were usually dismissed as curious typists rather than a true writer.  Paul was a solid and consistent writer so Helen was troubled to see him hit the wall. He had made his reputation as an elegant manual writer and was known for his efficient mannerof making the person, already a bit nervous about their new purchase, at ease with the entire process. Many of the folks in the bar gave Paul his props as a “good writer,” the ultimate compliment for a techie who actually wrote something.  After a few stiff drinks, Paul said goodbye to his assembled friends and went home to decompress. He was better than this graphic-heavy install manual and he knew that only he was able to overcome the challenge. He drank several glasses of water to head off the possibility of a hangover and went to bed with every intention of arriving at work early to start fresh with his latest literary challenge. "The magic would come tomorrow" he thought as he laid his head on him pillow, but if not, it had to come very soon.

The next morning as Paul wandered into work, his head was moderately clear but he was fatigued from his three nocturnal bathroom trips. The extra water easily countered the dehydration fears but it also forced him out of bed three separate times to bladder relief. As he began to assemble the picture boards, he made a point to consider this the first time with hopes that the new day would provide him with some epiphany for elegant windshield wiper insights. His boss loomed over his cubicle, with bugged out eyes and flapping jowls that made him look like the illegitimate son of S.Z. Sakall. He was curious if Paul had made any inroads on the project and although this was the first day of work on the project, his constant drop-in visits were customary due to his own lack of abilities to accomplish anything other than pushing creative people to their brink.

“Hey, Paul.”

“Good morning, John.”

“Have you got any ideas of the alternative wiper installation insert yet?”

“I got a couple but they are all bad."

John laughed the nervous laugh of a energized dilettante and then disappeared from view. He knew he could never make the words sing like Paul so he faded from his work space in hopes that the departure would spur some creative energy.

Nonplussed, Paul got down to work and forced himself into the perspective of the purchaser. There was going to be four pieces within the wiper package: two adapter clips, the folded/inserted instructions and the wiper itself. Paul knew that the standard consumer would rarely look at the wiper he was replacing nor would he take time to determine what the current assembly looked like. Paul knew, and focus groups backed him up, that the traditional purchaser would rip the wiper out of the sealed box, pull the old wiper off the wiper assembly and spend ten minutes trying to figure out how the whole thing was supposed to go together again as they tried to recall the original state. He knew this was his opportunity to make things better for the consumer and he dug deep into his soul to try to find the right verb to make the manual elegantly fall together. It was not exactly Humpty Dumpty but reverse engineering the assembly while relying on memory muscle of thirty seconds ago was also not a good plan.

Older customers would review the current assembly, inventory the new blade (and all the contents) and try to replicate the steps prior to disassembling the old wiper. However, a vast majority of the purchasers were young men with no interest in gathering wisdom; their method was to rip open everything and try to retrofit their theories with the brutal reality of multi-step assembly. In the technical writing game, he was forced to always factor in the foolish and the borderline illiterate and it was beginning to weigh on his internal creative force. As he stood over the story panels, he was interrupted by movement, which he caught on the periphery. The motion was attached to a stranger but he determined quickly that she was a new employee as the shiny orientation folder was prominently displayed within her grasp and her facial expression was one of absorption to the surroundings of the office.

“Hi”

Her perfect voice came out of her cute face and for a moment, Paul was transfixed. He stared back and mustered a grunt of response but he accompanied it with a handshake. He didn’t know where it came from but it did allow himself a moment to collect his thoughts, retract his stomach muscles and follow-up with something somewhat debonair. This distraction was not factored into his creative process so he had no idea where this beautiful deviation was going to send him.

“Hello,” said Paul. It wasn’t exactly the embodiment of vox populi, but it was an attempt to initiate a conversation. He didn't have much to work with in social situations so he always believed in starting off small.

She smiled. Paul had not noticed her before and rarely, if ever, socialized at work but her overall cuteness was something to behold.

“Is this your first day?”

She smiled the smile of a goddess again and said, “Yes. I am sorry to interrupt you but I got lost and went down the wrong aisle.”

“I understand. This is a confusing building; where are you trying to go?”

“Accounts Payable in the Accounting department.”

Ignoring the redundancy, Paul said, “That group is over two aisles in the back, by the big window.” Paul pointed majestically and immediately became embarrassed with the grandiose nature of his directions. He blushed but the mysterious and amazingly cute woman acted as nothing had happened.

"Thank you. If I may be so bold as to ask, what are you doing?”

“I am writing an instruction manual and need to incorporate as many pictures as possible with it. I can’t rely on many words as this thing will likely be used for several languages,” said Paul with an air of international authority.

“Wow! That is fascinating.”

Paul blushed again. It was amazing that vision of cuteness and all that is good could make his job sound so great. His response was an honest one so the blushing, although evident, was contained somewhat by the circumstances.

She looked at her cute watch that adorned her cute wrist and said, “Oh! I am late. I will see you around.” Before Paul could respond, she turned quickly and scooted away with a charming wave of the hand followed by a wonderful half-spin. As his muse disappeared, Paul looked back at the storyboard and inspiration hit him. He finally realized that the only written notation that he could use was an exclamation point and began numbering the panels in the order that most people would approach the problem. He quickly sketched several new cartoons that were missing from the instruction and within ten minutes, he had it all organized. He had added two exclamation points (choosing the right adapter: implying importance and clicking the adapter onto the wiper arm: the sound of the 'click' signifying completeness). The new cartoon panels would have magnified detail, using a magnifying glass graphic to make the need to review the nuances of the wiper arm more dramatic. Paul made the simplified assumption that all cultures in need of new car wipers would also have low-tech magnifying glasses lying around for reference but it didn’t matter: the writer’s block was history and he knew it was because of the cutest woman in the world.

He surveyed the work and knew that it was done. A few tweaks would occur during the review and final editing process but he could chalk this one up into his list of accomplishments: it was perfect, elegant and complete but most of all, it was finished.

Paul woke up the next morning energized. Usually, he would linger in bed for fifteen minutes, taking stock of his life and review the upcoming activities but today was different. A mixture of adrenaline for yesterday’s accomplishments combined with a growing fascination the new girl. The day’s plan was to get a new assignment, something more literary, and to find the girl and chat her up. Her infectious energy was all he thought about and he needed to connect again. Immediately after waking up, he hopped out of bed, ate breakfast, got dressed with some of his newer, cleaner clothes and left for the office strangely early as he did not know when she would appear but he wanted to give himself every opportunity to impress her with some of his other worldly observations.

He got there with the official early birds. Paul had not been to the office this early in his entire career. He didn’t know where the light switches were located in his area and he was completely mystified with his surroundings including on how to start either the coffee or copy machines. He wandered around until other people arrived and made a mental note of their paths because this was likely not going to be the only time he got there early.

The Accounting Department was dark as well and Paul thought it might be worth a quick walk through the area to try to find the new employee. He assumed that her cubicle would be relatively bare with a minimum amount of displayed and her nameplate, if available, would proclaim some incredibly cute name such as “Amanda” or “Wendy" or "Nicole.” He looked around but was burdened by the lack of light. He had no hope of finding the Accounting light switches so he returned to his area and reviewed the potential list of projects that might be his to manage.

The list was moderately long but there was some hope of actual composing of written thoughts. If he could concentrate on the written word, he stood an excellent chance of wooing the mysterious and beautiful accountant. He picked the project he wanted and went over to John’s office to lobby for the gig because he was in a great position to bargain. There was no doubt that John had already heard that he knocked one out of the metaphorical technical writer’s park and would likely be in a charitable mood. The job he coveted would be the thermostat manual: that type of prose was easily within his journalistic wheelhouse and he was confident it would be his job soon. Due to all the moving parts and nuances, people were afraid to touch thermostat manuals but not John; he was the perfect man for such a challenge.

John was drinking his coffee when he arrived. He fought the urge to ask how the coffee was created because he needed to make his play.

“Wow, you are in here early today. Everything all right?” said John.

“Everything is fine. Did you hear about my wiper triumph yesterday?” said Paul.

“I heard from the editors that you had come up with a very impressive story board and they were confident that nothing significant would have to be changed before finishing the galleys. Good job.”

“Thanks. I was coming over here to ask you if I could take on the Thermostat project.”

“You want it? It is a tough one.”

“I want it. I want to sharpen my writing chops.”

“It’s yours,” said John, “but it is both a real high priority and equally high profile assignment. You will need to start on it right away and be proactive in your rewrites. The engineers will have to sign off on it.”

The fact that a bunch of small minded and unlettered engineers would enjoy editorial discretion on his project would usually have cause Paul a fair amount of frustration. He was not afraid as he knew that this thermostat manual was going to be the method for him to rise up and win over this yet-to-be-named cutie pie with his literary stylings.

“That is fine. I will begin working on it immediately. In fact, all I can say is 'bring it on' but be aware that I said that in lowercase.”

Paul walked away and John began to wonder what had gotten into him. Paul was a talented technical writer but he had never, ever taken the initiative on job assignments. He decided to monitor the situation from a distance because he really didn’t care what was Paul’s motivating driver if he could deliver on time.

Paul stopped off in the Engineering Department and grabbed a bunch of test and specification (spec) manuals. He signed them out and dumped them on his now-well lit work area and began pouring over the tomes. He began taking notes on key phrases when he sensed a person nearby. He looked up and saw her again. Her entire being was actually shining in the sun; her position was effectively back lit thanks to the sunrise and her cuteness actually morphed into a surreal image of someone emitting some mysterious ecumenical energy driven by the internal fuel of pure energetic beauty. As he saw her smiling at him, he immediately wrote the entire manual in his head. The language and final diagrams were burned into his subconscious and it was going to be only a small matter of time for him to complete this huge project: it was going to write itself.

The realization that the manual was immediately written in his head made him aware that both times when he was struck with divine inspiration from this beautiful accountant, his new muse. The liberation resulting in this epiphany made him sit down, amongst his technical manuals and Venn diagrams and ride this small but impressive out-of-body experience. From his sitting position, he could still see her shiny hair moving horizontally down one of the corridors at an unknown but still attractive, speed.

Jack was walking by to get coffee and poked his head in. “Hello, did you get the latest spec sheet revisions?”

Paul nodded confidently and pointed blankly at the pile of paper on his work surface.

Jack gave a thumbs-up sign and did not break stride on his primary mission of acquiring his first cup of free morning coffee.

Paul weakly returned the thumbs-up sign and sat back down. This new power was a bit overwhelming; upon her presence as he was becoming a portal to the pure white light of journalistic excellence. Although he was truly humbled by this new enlightenment, he was becoming very curious about how this power was being channeled through living embodiment of pulchritude. It confused him: she was so bright and beautiful but he had known beautiful women before in his life. But her presence was like the fist of God coming down from the heavens and sending his skills skyward. This realization forced him to turn away from the cubicle opening and begin work.

Writing instruction thermostat manuals are always considered a high-risk proposition and any attempted creativity is viewed in the same light as covertly working flatulent synonyms into texts of canon law. Usually ignored by the homeowner until they are frantic due to a temperature crisis, they are only reviewed in times of great stress where time and comprehension are at opposite sides of an illogical spectrum. People are extremely cold or hot and want to use the thermostat as the tool to resolve all issues temperate. Although they haven’t thought of the thermostat for years or even pondered its functionality, the manual will be thrown open with the reader demanding immediate and complete understanding of its contents. A tough room by anyone’s standards but what made this chore different is that he already saw the entire manual, diagrams, helpful tips and all other components of a successful handbook in his head. He felt like a composer; he saw the music notate itself while it played in the background ... laying down elegantly per his firm, but heartfelt, direction.

The only variable from his rapid rise from literary dregs to the lofty rafters of the written word was the introduction of the cutest woman since the dawn of measurable time. This discovery placed a large burden on a relationship that so far consisted of one hundred and seventeen words and two head nods. He was placing the entire literary existence of all things mundane in his total and complete pre-occupation of a beautiful and energetic woman. He had no idea of her martial status (he forgot to look for a ring) or whether or not she would consider seeing him socially so the idea of placing her inside his pocket for inspiration and energy was likely to be considered slightly premature.

That realization placed him back on his heels and he decided to take the gift that this beautiful muse gave him and begin working on the thermostat manual. It was apparent immediately that he was in the zone; the words were gems and the concepts were presented pristinely with genuine regard for the overheated or frigid customer. Paul Cross was guaranteeing his place in the technical writing hall of fame due to the work that was coming to life in front of him. To the uninitiated, the guide looked like one of dozens of technical instruction books but even a cursory read would both delight and amaze the reader with its logical layout of functionality and purpose and the ability to quickly drill down within the manual and find exactly one was looking for with an intuitive ease.

As he looked lovingly down at his work in progress, the woman of his dreams stuck her head in and said, “Hello, Paul!” Now, with their relationship heading towards the magic one hundred and twenty-word mark, Paul decided to make his move.

“Good morning to you. And, since you know my name, I want to know yours.” She remained pleasant but silent so Paul filled the void with additional pre-planned banter. "Do you want me to guess?"

“You have a nameplate so it was easy for me to figure out your name.”

“Did you get your name prior to being your nameplate?”

She giggled like an angel, “I don’t have a nameplate yet but my name is Bonita Monson.”

“Good morning, Bo-nita." He playfully emphasized the syllable but did it in a respective manner.

Paul had never heard the name “Bonita” before but it fit her like a glove. The onomatopoeic nature of the name fell lightly and elegantly off his tongue.

“This gal was something else,” thought Paul but he decided to not drop to his knees and ask for her hand in marriage. That would have to wait for a different time. She waved enthusiastically and left as quickly as she appeared. Paul waved back to an open door and decided this dynamic was too powerful to be understood at this time so back to work he went with a large shit-eating grin across his face. For the first time, he looked down at his piles of technical manuals, stock photography and scribbled spec sheets and laughed to himself: all thermostats would soon learn to fear him as he was now the technical creator of worlds.

He was roused from his daydream by the sound of a faucet from the women’s bathroom next door. It was an odd architectural design of the company that sent a cacophony of cascading water when the faucet was being used but no other sounds ever emitted from the room. In the old days, that type of thought would pre-occupy him for days but he had no room in his head for trivial observations anymore, his mind had switched to hyperdrive speed as task solutions would align themselves in his mind while his usual contemplative time was almost non-existent. He didn’t have to think was he was going to say and how it was going to be said: it was just happening.

He sensed motion and he looked to see Bonita stroll past the office area; she was not only beautiful, it appeared that she embraced standard hygiene practices. He watched her hair, not encumbered by man-made restrictions, flow efficiently about her face. She failed to acknowledge him again but he found no anxiety from the lack of further engagement; she appeared busy and pre-occupied which was his usual demeanor when composing technical prose. While he would have rather have shown up at her undoubtedly darling little dwelling armed with just Roget’s Thesaurus and a jeroboam, he knew that the plan needed more time and opportunity before it would see the evening dusk. His motivations, while not officially prurient, were taking on some of their own momentum and it was going to be dealt with ideally sooner than later for his own good. While the idea of compromising his newfound skills was anathema to his journalistic energy, he needed to determine how her muse was feeding his internal writing machine. Paul did not want to put this new dynamic at risk but as most curious humans, he felt compelled, to at least try, to benignly dissect the cause and effect of the last two days.

But as he pondered the issue of his heart, his bosses’ nasal bleating invaded his consciousness. He snapped out of his daydream to see the jowly little man in front of his work area. Luckily, Paul was just deep in thought, surrounded by genuine props of a man in deep contemplation. His boss had always been a misanthrope; whether it based in jealously or a feral upbringing, he grew tired of the never-ending outcomes of abuse.

“Oh, Paul? Hello? Earth to Paul?”

“Sorry, John, I was thinking.”

“Thinking about the wonderful world of thermostats?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good, will you have the galleys to me within two weeks as promised?"

Paul estimated to himself that he had about two hours of work left on them, at the most, and when done, they would be perfect.

“Yes, you will get them no later than two weeks, I promise.”

“Great!” said John as he waddled away.

Faced with approximately nine days and six hours of free time, Paul decided it was time to put together his plan to woo this woman.

“What an idiot,” he muttered to himself when compartmentalizing John for further eventual thought.

At that moment, the use of the word “idiot” fell into his consciousness. This three syllable word was only five letters long; such a dense word for being so brief and then he decided to reassign the word “jerk” to all thoughts related to the undeserving John going forward and assign the deserving Bonita the word “exquisite” until something better came along. And by Paul’s most pessimistic estimates, that time frame was going to close very quickly and the thought of her giving her three appropriate syllables that she richly deserved made him smile. As he closed his notebook and grabbed a blank expense report, he headed to the accounting department with full confidence that Bonita was going to smell wonderful and he had every intention to confirming that theory that day. He had to come up with some generic questions for her to field but he had every confidence that he would be able to think on his feet, as he had done many times before.

Genius comes from two dependent sources: initial enlightenment and the avoidance of stupid people. These people, motivated by the fear of someone (or some thing) that upsets the apple cart of warm mediocrity, will do anything to impede the pursuit of good ideas and solutions that may not factor in the feelings of the ignorant. I am going to take a shot at this idea (by using a technical writer and his supposed muse as motivation) and run with it. In the meantime, if you have a choice of coming up with the next big thing or idiot avoidance, take the latter. I always have wanted to use the phrase, "the former and the latter," and I could finally drag it out a portion of it. The coolest use of the phrase goes to Ernest Lawrence Thayer with the line: “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, and the former was a lulu and the latter was a fake.”

That cat nailed it. Play ball.

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