Monday, June 2, 2008

Type Hard, Baby

I am a writer. I wrangle words for a living and have done it for 25 years. Dang ... does that make me old? Nah. In the writing world, you can have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel and still be kicking out the jams with your words.

I've grown beyond feeling embarrassed when I tell people that I'm a writer. It always sounded so pretentious to me.

"Wow! You're really a writer? Have you been published?"

"Um, no. I'm not that kind of writer. What kind am I? Well, I guess you could call me a business writer."

Yeah, I'm a business writer: I'm in the business of writing. I have written more resumes than I care to remember. I've written procedures, manuals, brochures, Web pages, medical and scientific reports, ads and advertorials (what a freakish creature that one was!), newsletters, and on and on. Yeah, I'm a writer.

An acquaintance of mine believes that people in my line of work will be out of work in the not-too-distant future. She believes that all the techies (like chemists, engineers, computer-heads, etc., etc.) are perfectly able to write their own "stuff." She believes that people in my field are really not that different than "the girls in the steno pool." (Anyone remember that phrase? Anyone remember steno pads? Ugh.)

First, my hat is off to the bajillions of overworked, underpaid, and rarely recognized support people out there. They used to be called secretaries, stenographers, data entry personnel, and the like. Hey, those are tough jobs, and anyone who'd argue that point most likely has never had to answer phones, type, make coffee, run errands, and do it all with a smile plastered on his or her face.

OK, I'm getting off track here. So, are my skills unneeded? You tell me.
  • When was the last time you read an installation manual or "quick-start" guide and found it easy to understand?

  • When was the last time you heard a coworker say, "I must-a did that" or "That one is my-in" or "Where did you park your car at?" Do any of those statements make you want to do business with the person who said them?

  • What do you think of a sentence like this: "We work hard to insure your satisfaction." Really? Wow! I didn't know that I could take out a policy on my satisfaction. Yeah, baby! Sign me up for that right now!

  • How about this sign, which was in the front window of a well-known nonprofit organization: "Only 29 day's to go." Ouch. I may have pulled something in my brain there.

  • Or this: "Be sure to cut the yellow, red and blue wires only, or you'll die a horrible death." Um ... so are you going to cut three wires (1. yellow, 2. red, 3. blue) or two wires (1. yellow, 2. red and blue)? Are you willing to bet your life on it?

  • Or this: "Common household chemicals must be mixed together, especially if you are cleaning a windowless room." OK, this one is a bit over the top, but if a critical word like "not" is missed in a sentence like this, you can kiss at least a few of your customers goodbye ... forever.
I'm not saying that only English majors can write well or communicate clearly. What I am saying (or writing, if you want to be picky about it) is that communication is important, no matter what business you're in. Most of us don't have time to waste trying to figure out what something means. We won't hang around a Web site that's poorly written or hard to navigate. And we'll definitely think twice before parting with our cash when the person with his hand out can't seem to string together a coherent sentence.

I love what I do, I really do. There's something about crafting sentences that mean exactly what they say and do it clearly, concisely, and with no room for interpretation that gives me an adrenaline rush. Yeah, I'm a word nerd.

I also love helping other people improve their own writing. I'll share every bit of knowledge I have if I think it'll help. Hey, if I could work myself out of a job, I'd do it ... because even if everyone in the world was able to write well, not all of them would have the time to do it for themselves. And that's where I come in.

Illustration by the marvelous Natalie Dee.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, sister. Technical Writers unite! I love the reaction I get when I tell people what I do. The most common is "Oh. That sounds really boring." It always makes me laugh because I love what I do and don't find it boring at all!