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Sometimes playing dumb makes things work better

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Sometimes playing dumb makes things work better.

A few years back, I coined the phrase “professional idiot” to describe what I do for a living. The professional part is easy enough to understand: it means that I get paid for the work, in addition to doing it because I love it, which is the true definition of an amateur. But more importantly, it means that I’m good at it. The idiot part takes a little more explanation, though perhaps you’ll have an idea of what I mean when I say that I work primarily as a technical editor.

When you think of editing, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the image of fixing typos, stamping out split infinitives (whatever those are), and imposing tyrannical, centuries-old rules of grammar. I do the first as a matter of course, pretty much ignore the second (since that “rule” never made much sense in English grammar), and use the third (with some sensitivity to changing usage patterns) as one of my tools of the trade, but not one to be used slavishly.

What you probably don’t think of is idiocy, even though that’s almost certainly the most important aspect of my job: I’ve learned how to forget for a period of time that I know almost as much as my authors about their subject, and this lets me play dumb and trip over things that the author’s peers and I could both figure out with a little work—or a lot of work, occasionally. Once I understand why I tripped over a particular wording, I can figure out how to fix it so that nobody else, even if they really were as idiotic as I sometimes pretend to be—and they usually aren’t—will ever trip over it. The result is writing that’s much easier to read and understand, even if the original wasn’t an outright failure.

What does this mean to you? It means that if you’re like most highly trained professionals, you’ve long since forgotten what it means to be ignorant of the basic knowledge of your profession, and the longer you’ve been doing the work, the harder it is to remember that. Sadly, that’s as true of technical writers as it is of engineers and programmers. To you, the phrase “I’m going to RAID the data warehouse tonight” doesn’t mean that you’re going to pick up a few floppies on the way home for a midnight snack. It may not mean that either to your colleagues outside MIS, but they might just be thinking that for a moment. The problem is one of appropriate language: you’ve learned a whole vocabulary (a jargon, in fact) that’s wholly or largely alien to the people who benefit daily from your knowledge.

[A look back from 2005: Speaking of jargon, RAID is short for "redundant array of inexpensive disks", which is a technique for dividing data among several smaller disks to create one huge disk; MIS is short for "Management Information Services", also called the IT ("in trouble") department.—GH]

The solution is easy to state, but considerably more challenging to implement: you have to develop a sensitivity for which words and phrases speak volumes to you, but say nothing to people who don’t know the subject matter nearly as well as you do. How can you do this? It’s easier than you think. The next time you’re reading a computer magazine, pause between articles and pick up a newspaper, People magazine, or a novel, and browse a few pages. In fact, if you really want to experience cognitive dissonance, read all three. Pay attention to the differences in the writing style: don’t worry about the grammar or the intellectual merits of the writing; instead, concentrate on how it feels. “Feel” how People affects your state of mind differently from the computer magazine. Notice how certain words never appear. Now pay attention to that feeling, because if you can remember it, you can learn to recreate it on demand, and that gives you a precious skill: the ability to change your way of thinking enough to communicate effectively with your audience.

If that makes you a professional idiot too, then it’s probably the only time you can legitimately feel good about feeling stupid. After all, your readers are professionals too—they just don’t speak the same language you speak, or speak it as fluently—when it comes to computers or other technical subjects.

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