11.0121 bad writing

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 19 Jun 1997 23:18:34 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 121.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: "Robert S. Tannenbaum" <rst@pop.uky.edu> (24)
Subject: Re: 11.0111 bad writing, computing &c.

[2] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (38)
Subject: bad writing

Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 08:22:43 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Robert S. Tannenbaum" <rst@pop.uky.edu>
Subject: Re: 11.0111 bad writing, computing &c.

I have often been struck by the "bad" writing in many scientific and
technical pieces. By that I mean the inability of the writer simply and
clearly to convey the meaning of the material. I recently received a
perfect example of this phenomenon from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service:

On the tax increase after the refund, we'll charge the lower
refund rate of interest on the tax instead of the higher
underpayment rate of interest. We'll charge the lower interest
rate on the new tax (up to the amount of the refund) for the
same period of time we paid interest on the overpayment.

It is interesting to me to note their attempt at informality by the use of
"we" and the contraction "we'll." Still, it is almost impossible to
discern what they intend to do with my money. (It was all a mistake on
their part, anyway, They had lost my tax return, but I have the receipts
to prove that I had filed it on time.)

Someone at Microsoft (another organization almost as large as the IRS) has
a sense of humor with regard to bad technical writing, however. They sent
a note to some users recently that read, in part, "We apologize for the
fact that our recent documentation was not up to our usual standards of
obfuscation. We will try to do better in the future."


Robert S. Tannenbaum, Ed.D. 606 / 257 - 2900 office
Director, Academic Computing Services 606 / 323 - 1978 fax
128 McVey Hall rst@pop.uky.edu
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0045

Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:52:01 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: bad writing

Software manuals are often, as we all know, very bad indeed. Apart from the
author's simple incompetence with the written language, many of those I've
seen suffer from a common failure of imagination. Prima facie evidence
suggests very strongly that the authors of these things simply cannot
imagine that their readers do not know what they know. I've picked up many a
manual that never actually says what the software in question is, rather it
launches immediately into details of how to do X, sometimes without saying
what X is either, or why one would want to do it.

Perhaps it is true that the perfect software interface does away with any
need for a manual, but with a package like Excel, for example, I tend to
doubt that the need for written documentation will ever wither away. The job
in question is simply too complex. In any case, the interface, as a kind of
implicit manual, is another area where failures of imagination are not
uncommon. Those of us who teach beginners for a living, or whose technically
ignorant partners or mates suddenly develop the yearning to know which
buttons to push, are well aware of how misleading the claim for an
"intuitive" interface is. I find it very salutory indeed to be reminded, and
more to be forced to strive for the kind of understanding and communicative
skills that teaching the beginner requires.

When I took first-year chemistry at Berkeley, in the mid 60s -- the year
xenon tetraflouride was first synthesized in labs there; I saw the first
sample -- the professor (may his name be blessed, though I cannot remember
it!) had such skills in such abundance that I doubt any of us, among the 500
or so in the lecture theatre, were not moved to a love of the subject, even
if only for a moment. Such stories I could tell, but won't. He was chair of
the department and a distinguished chemist, as I recall. Taught first year
chemistry like a master.

It's so easy to be an expert, be more correct than anyone about Y, so long
as Y is sufficiently specialised; it's so difficult to communicate why
anyone should care. It seems to me that if we're going to understand what
humanities computing is, we need to be stuck with (blessed by being stuck
with) teaching it.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk