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On the scene: The professional idiots and user advocates: an interview with Geoff Hart

by Ivana Djeric and Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Djeric, I. 2001. On the scene: The professional idiots and user advocates. An interview with Geoff Hart. Coastlines, May/June:4–5.

Geoff Hart, writes columns for Intercom and “User’s Advocate” on www.techwr-l.com. He lives and works in Montreal.

Coastlines: Tell us about Montreal’s TW scene.

Hart: It seems quite lively these days, with work available from companies small to large (e.g., Nortel) and an active STC chapter.

Coastlines: How did you choose technical writing?

Hart: I fell into it accidentally. After completing research for a Master’s thesis in tree ecophysiology, I accepted an editorial position with the Canadian Forest Service.

Coastlines: Are you a print or online writer?

Hart: I edit and translate research reports for the forest industry, but we’re increasingly developing non-print products: CD-ROMs, slide presentations, online help. But regardless of the presentation, I work with anything to do with words—including interface design.

Coastlines: What’s your tool of choice?

Hart: I live in Word 97, but also use about a dozen other tools. The more my work broadens, the more I lack time to master new skills to support that work, so I settle for basic competence. Technical communicators must be able to quickly learn the basics of new tools on very short notice. Still, I don’t believe that tool skills represent our value.

Coastlines: What does?

Hart: We’re hired because we can act as user advocates in documenting and improving our products. That requires empathy and the ability to become what I call a “professional idiot”.

Coastlines: You use this term often.

Hart: The whole “professional idiot” concept arose from frustration over how stupid documentation often made me feel. I invented the term in response to some colleagues who thought that editing only involved correcting typos. Professional means that I get paid, and I’m good at it. Idiot means that I’ve learned to misunderstand even writing the reader might figure out eventually. I can then prevent the misunderstanding by identifying it at the source. Jon Shear, a local film-maker, echoed my sentiments: "I vowed if I complained about things more than three times, I had to do something about it." Solving a variety of communications problems is like exercise for the brain: it broadens the mind, keeps it flexible, and provides insights into your own work.

Coastlines: You are known both as the user’s advocate and as a writer who always shares his knowledge, freely and fully.

Hart: I’ve been passionate about teaching since I began tutoring high school science and writing, plus I feel a responsibility to repay the mentors who helped me along the way by teaching others what I’ve learned.

Coastlines: Speaking of learning, are STC conferences worth the cost?

Hart: They’re a great place to reinvigorate yourself even if you can’t get your employer to pay your way. Their true value lies in meeting interesting, intelligent people and talking about your mutual interests. If you expect to interact with and learn from people, you’ll benefit immensely; expect to be spoon-fed, and you’ll be disappointed.

Coastlines: As a published columnist, can you offer any advice to novices?

Hart: Write about something that really interests you; it shows. If it’s relevant to what an editor publishes, they’ll find room for it. Luck also helps. My Computerworld Canada column came from a friend’s report that they were seeking columnists. The more I write, the easier it becomes to publish. I’m closing fast on 200 publication credits. But I also read voraciously—STC stuff, science, business, and cognitive psychology.

Coastlines: Could you recommend any TW publications or sites?

Hart: Apart from STC’s stuff, techwr–l is becoming a great resource. About.com (http://freelancewrite.about.com/od/technicalwriting/) also looks promising. [A look back from 2005: Not so much anymore!—GH]

Coastlines: Is technical writing in danger?

Hart: I predicted the infamous “dotbomb” implosion a year ago, but fortunately, the Internet economy doesn’t represent technical communication’s only future. The more products people develop, the greater the need for us. Literacy is decreasing, and that increases the value of anyone who can communicate clearly. Canada is slowly becoming an “information economy”, and that strengthens our future.


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