A Tech Writer’s Inadvertent Memoirs

Years and years ago, I taught technical writing at the University of Tulsa. I wore out my students by telling them again and again that they should aim for voiceless writing. What I meant was writing that didn’t hint at the person behind the writing.  “Imagine yourself as the reader,” I would say. “When you’re trying to follow the instructions to put a gas grill together, you want the manual to be about the gas grill, not the person who wrote the manual.”

It’s sound advice for aspiring tech writers, easy to give but sometimes more difficult to follow. Voiceless, for example, is not the same thing as nonhuman! Consider this gem selected more or less at random from the instructions for IRS Form 1040:

If your economic stimulus payment was directly deposited to a tax-favored account and you withdraw the payment by the due date of your return (including extensions), the amount withdrawn will not be taxed and no additional tax or penalty will apply. For a Coverdell education savings account, the withdrawal can be made by the later of the above date or June 1, 2009. See the instructions for lines 15a and 15b, 21, and 59.

All those passive verbs invite me to imagine faceless drones swarming in a glass and steel hive. For all I know, of course, tax form instructions may really be machine generated. The IRS as The Borg.

At the other extreme, the writer becomes fully visible on the page. I sometimes like it when it’s done deliberately. In a professional journal I edited for several years, the author of a particularly complex article added a footnote about three quarters of the way through that said something like “If you’re still with me here, please let me know and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee!”

The problem I tried to warn my students about, however, was more subtle.  Last Christmas, for example, I was given a new alarm clock that has features the manufacturer is pretty excited about. The writer of the owner’s manual pretty obviously was charged with emphasizing these features, particularly the fact that the clock sets itself. Here’s what the manual says:

We all know how annoying it is to wake up in the morning and see the dreaded flashing “12:00” display on our clocks or clock radios. This means that your power was interrupted some time during the night while you were sleeping and your clock doesn’t know what time it is anymore. Unfortunately, it probably also means that you are late for work, or for school, again.

What do we know about the writer here? I think the story is mostly told in that final again.  The writer is someone who has no chance of waking up on time without an alarm, perhaps as a result of staying up too late. It’s also someone who has tried the “my alarm didn’t go off” excuse a few too many times. When I consider this in combination with the sloppy and abrupt pronoun switch from we to you after the first sentence, I get a pretty clear picture of the writer:  habitually running late, lacking focus, desperately striving to please but unwilling or unable to give the work the final edit it needs.

This is someone I would probably find exhausting to have around, and that’s a thought I shouldn’t be having at all as I read the manual. After all, I’m just trying to figure how to use my new clock! I don’t want to hear about roommate troubles, sleep issues, the saga of a psycho ex, and so on.

And that’s why all those years ago at TU, I used to sound like a broken record: “Get the information on the page, kids. Keep yourself off the page.”

Let Us Now Praise…

The way my home office is set up, the wall across from me is pretty much covered with bookshelves. The books, I confess, are not in good order. Each shelf is a jumble of old textbooks, classic novels, “brain candy” novels, computer references, and so on. When I looked at the shelves this morning, however, my eye for some reason went directly to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the photo-essay classic by James Agee and Walker Evans about sharecroppers in Alabama.

My relationship with the book has always been uneasy, for reasons that have more to do with me than with the book. The copy on my shelf is a paperback edition that I bought in the ’70s for a graduate school seminar at the University of Tulsa. I wasn’t prepared for the effect the book would have on me and didn’t actually read all of it, although I did the best I could. There was something about it that attracted me and repelled me at the same time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

In the seminar session for which the book had been assigned, I had nothing to say. I was always a talker in class, and my silence struck the professor as odd. During the half-time break, he approached me and asked why I wasn’t contributing to the discussion. By this time, however, I had a pretty good idea of what was wrong. It was intensely personal. I told the professor that the class probably wouldn’t benefit from anything I might say, but he wasn’t having any of it. He kept trying to draw me out, and by the end of the break I agreed to say what was on my mind.

Which was this:

James Agee and Walker Evans were a couple of rich boys who set out to display poverty to other Northerners of their kind in such a way that everyone could cluck their tongues sympathetically but no one would have to get their hands dirty.

In 1936, they traveled to Alabama, about a thousand miles from the environs of Harvard University, their alma mater, in order to find the noble poor. As if poverty were a Southern problem, sort of like slavery, a thing that land-owning Southerners did to less fortunate Southerners.

But other things also happened in 1936. My parents got married that year. They lived in rural Maine, about 100 miles north of Harvard. The town of Stow, Maine, was a dirt-poor place where people set each others’ broken bones and pulled each others’ rotten teeth because there was no alternative, a place pretty much in the backyard of Agee and Evans, the concerned poet and photographer who felt they had to travel a thousand miles to get a look at poverty.

My parents lived on $300 for the first full year they were married. They made their home in an unpainted two-room house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Nobody with money gave a damn about them. For me, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was essentially a diorama of my parents’ harsh life as newlyweds, and it made me sad and uncomfortable.

By the time I was done talking, the seminar was effectively over. Perhaps the silence in the room was partly about what I had insinuated about Agee and Evans. But mostly, I think, it was about what I had revealed about myself. In those days at TU, my New England accent was the same thing as money. Money mattered a lot in Tulsa. Everyone in the class, professor included, probably assumed that I came from money and that I naturally identified with Agee and Evans. But I identified with the sharecroppers, and I still do.

There are no photos of my parents’ wedding, by the way. The picture here shows my father, my grandmother, and three of my father’s sisters as they looked in about 1930. The little girl second from the right in the picture is the only one still alive. She is now past 80. No one in the family lives in poverty any more, but that’s where we came from.

I think that if Agee and Evans had grown up the way my father did, they would have produced a very different book.