The World’s Greatest Tech Writers

Since it’s assumed that all tech writers are just waiting for the big creative break to make them famous, this article examines what would happen if the thrust of the writing industry went the other way.

Tech writing is just one of those careers. Some are born with it, some achieve it, and some have technical writing thrust upon them. I fall into the latter category. I stepped into it with the naïve vigour of a child’s first visit to the dairy farm. Quite surprised am I to be called a “writer” knowing some of the verbal sewage that I’ve wiped onto the page in my time. I came across some of my old essays from high school in a box that should have been hidden way more better. My adolescent attempts at meaningful prose should be viewed through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Pretty painful stuff. And it’s not like tech writing is the simplest of the writing arts. The audience for the matter is pretty specific. Really specific. In fact, the fraught user is typically looking for the fruits of your labour when the application is flying into the ground like a dart, or even better, if they’ve totally forgotten how to print. Hey, it happens.

And it seems that tech writers get the short shrift, fame wise anyway. When people think of writers, it’s always the renowned published authors with awards for literary brilliance that come to mind. No one I know, myself included can name a published tech writer let alone one that’s ever won the Booker…and I doubt that’s happened. Public reaction to tech writing is also far from splendid. Schmoozing at a party doesn’t get you too far with this career in your pocket.

“So what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer.”
Really! How fascinating. It must be delightful being able to spin so many beautiful tales. The imagery, the characterization. Have you been published?”
“Uh, actually, I don’t write fiction.”
“Oh, I see. Journalism? Historian? Self help?”
“Sort of self help, I guess.”
“Fascinating! What’s your scope? The inner person? Physical health? New age healing? Feng Shui?”
“I’m a tech writer.”
“Oh. Be a dear and get me some more wine, would you?”

We in IP periodically run these chinwag sessions where we impart some portion of our knowledge to the others in the team. A cerebral Show-and-Tell of sorts. At the most recent of these afternoons, we discussed the importance of addressing the appropriate audience in writing. Ours is quite different from the “regular” forms of writing in that the focus isn’t to be entertaining, or artistic. No one turns to technical manuals for a dandy yarn. They turn to our craft when Excel gets cranky. I don’t think there will ever be a literary course where you’ll open your final exam and see “In Word For Dummies, the author refers to the Esc key throughout the work as a method of egress. What is the suggestion of these instances? Discuss the thematic foundations for the citations with reference to the author’s notion of the ‘active window’.”

So really, why must we be held up to the candle of the “creative” author’s sense of self-righteousness? Why are we always assumed to be biding our techy-time until our big creative break is offered? If our metier is so rudimentary, why don’t the supposed greats have a go at tech writing and see what spills out of their pens?

Well, I did just that. I went and asked some decently well known authors to take a spell in IP and see what they could come up with. Frankly, I’m not feeling to bad about the results. In the same way I don’t expect people to be slamming into to grab a copy of ANY of the manuals we’re writing, I really don’t expect any of these folks work to appear when you hit F1 in the Policy Changes window.

Let’s start things off with Canada’s favourite daughter of an entomologist. She’s got three kids, two cats, and a stack of literary honours. She wrote Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale. Let’s see how Margaret Atwood fares describing why a file can’t be created:

“I thought it over, and turned it this way and that in my mind; and towards the end of this huge process I discovered that all she wanted to do was to store this document once and for all and it taxed me that I could not issue no matter how I tried and it burdened me to see her in this state, as she was restless at night, and had dark circles beneath her eyes, and was oppressed by the burden of her secret. Then she broke down and cried, and said my suspicions were all too true; and the file that she tried to keep would not tuck away for safe keeping and she grew more and more desperate and it was at that point that my sharp eyes detected that what she had wanted was lying before her so plainly that it could not go long undetected. The file was write-protected.”


Keeping it Canadian, let’s look at contemporary Zeitgeistian Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, Microserfs, and Miss Wyoming. We gave him the task of explaining why one would need a style guide. First here’s the way we wrote this particular section in its entirety:

“A style guide maintains all document standards in one place, ensuring a consistent look, feel, sound, and quality for all documentation and online help.”

Short and sweet, eh? Now, here’s Douglas’ first kick at the “Why a Style Guide” cat:

“I was told the story a while ago that Albert Einstein, in an effort to reduce the non-decisions his eldered cranium would have to contend with in a day, supplied his clothes closet with 7 identical jackets, 7 identical pairs of pants, 7 identical shirts and 7 identical pairs of socks. This way his mind would not be saddled with the idle process of apparel selection and would be free to ponder the things that Einstein would invariably become famous for pondering. I assume that he would use the same pair of shoes every day, and thus usher into the 1950s choking on its disposable aerosol canisters and throw-away Swanson’s dinnerware the first of a thousand points of recycling. I picture him there, morning after morning after morning, pulling on the same-yet-not-the-same trousers. I see him dressing in the dithering manner of Professor Frink, knowing that his professorial appearance from the day before continues forward through the wonder of mathematical induction, allowing him to fully come to grips with how the e truly dances with the m and the c2. Though appearing to the naked eye to be the same clothes, he knows them to be completely different. The Nutty Professor playing the home version of ‘The Crying Game’.The colour, style, and size of the Set of 7 Everythings is immaterial. It’s the removal of the creative desire to elevate the function that is the essence of Einstein’s self-enforced style. The tweed jacket dripping with Donald Sutherlandish confidence complementing the non-Dockers. Whatever the custom is that is adopted, it is that, grappled to the corporate identity with hoops of standard fonts and ClipArt. So long as it is etched into firmware somewhere on the LAN, life can continue. A pierced nose could be legislated into the cubicles with the normality of women in India and give the whole office that neo-aesthetic of a lineup outside the forum where Nine Inch Nails will perform in a couple of hours.”

This goes on in a similar vein for about 3 more pages and is being picked up by the Utne Reader.

Here’s Scottish writer and author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh to tell us how to create a mail rule that will remove annoying emails:

“Aye, there y’are. Ye sittin’ there at yer cube n aw, an’ thin th’ email lights up an ye git this shite message fae some bastard company tryin tae git some dosh affa ye, likesay. Get tae Brilliant Luck. Sad bastards. Ye kin git him tae fuck oot a’ yer book right fast, ken. Ye jes’ open yir mailbox properties n aw an’ find the Rules button, likesay. Make yerself a rule that puts aw the shite ye got from the bastard that’s cuntin yous an aw directly intae the fuckin dustbin. Click oan the Apply, likesay, an’ snap! E’s on his bike. Robert’s yer father’s brother. Fuckin brilliant!”

Irvine Welsh: Putting the ‘F’ in F1.

This really wouldn’t be a lame and fabricated experiment if I didn’t include the work of the most famous of famous writers of our time. I close this with William’s attempt to describe how insurance policies are rated:

“And before thou gloat and divinely smile
Upon all of the shelter that thou hast selected
There e’er shall be the time that pass
Where you shall with the speed
Of Mercury’s feet evaluate.
As accurately as God’s own registry
Of the stars you will appraise your material worth
Married within the contract of guardianship.
And for your task one must in all honesty
And truth of soul account for all that is yours
And in detail as minute as the point of plume
With which you scribe cite the very details that
Form the fabric of your appurtenance.
And with this matter answered with an angel’s honour
Flow fairly forward and approach the ingress of rating
Where the very souls of your words are metamorphosed
And reborn into a numeral conformation.
These numerics that once were words shall
Swing and caper swirling and turning evermore
In an instant only to emerge as one. It is the
Consummation of this numeric bacchanal that
You must match in pounds and pence.
And with this payment made each year
Comes the mettle of shelter devoid of fear.”

Todd Van Allen