Yes, We Can Learn from Experience

by John L. McCreery

Report of January 11 meeting, Larry Brouhard presentation. Lessons from a long career in technical documentation: Omit unnecessary words. Follow William K. Zinsser’s advice in On Writing Well, “There is no sentence too short in the eyes of God.”

Like all great teachers, Larry Brouhard is also a great performer, with a gift for translating his expertise into a memorable show-and-tell exercise. For those who missed his presentation on January 11, it is summarized below.

Hearing this documentation guru and translation industry veteran reminisce about his experiences was a trip down memory lane, a chance to revisit those good old days when the documentation for a single mainframe computer could run to 80,000 pages and an enterprising translator could build a company by translating technical Japanese into reasonably readable English, even if the original text were Greek from the translator’s viewpoint. For those of us old enough to remember those days, it was also a chance to recall when CP/M® and WordStar® running on an 8-bit personal computer with eight-inch-wide floppy disks were the hottest things in town and a welcome reminder that, despite everything that has happened since, writing, editing, and translating remain learnable crafts.

Brouhard began by drawing a vital distinction between “writers” and those who write for a living. Writers are people who write things and then try to sell them. Sometimes a path to fame, writing is rarely a path to fortune. People who write for a living as journalists, ad copywriters, technical writers, or technical editors, on the other hand, may toil in obscurity but can, if they are good at what they do, make a decent living. Brouhard described himself as one who writes for a living and directed his remarks to those in the field.

The Early Years

In sharing his background, Brouhard highlighted the impact of tennis, music, and the United States Air Force. He would have loved to play at Wimbledon, but other careers appeared more feasible. He would have loved to play the trombone with Louis Prima; that love took him into the Air Force and a brief career with the Air Force Jazz Band, but then the Air Force decided to train him as an electronics technician. That training did more than familiarize him with electronics technology; it became, Brouhard said, the model for training and documentation that guided the creation of his company.

After leaving the Air Force, Brouhard took a brief detour into academia, attending Sophia University and considering a Ph.D. in sociology. But the call of business was too strong. Like many of us, he ran a business on the side to make money while studying. Unlike many of us, he built a thriving company. How was he able to achieve this? The slides he showed focused on seven points:

“Sure, I can. What?” When asked if he could do a job, Larry always said yes and then asked what the client wanted.

“Fix English documents.” This is precisely where many of us started.

“Build digital electronic trainers.” This is not something that most of us can do.

“Write software and courseware.” These are learnable but still relatively rare skills, and were especially so in the early 1980s.

“Develop slide and video training materials.” This request would now more likely be for Web sites or interactive CDs/DVDs.

“Do brain surgery.” This means staying one step ahead of the client and its needs.

“Learn to say, ‘I’m sorry’ a thousand ways.” A company president learns to apologize for the mistakes that others in the company make.

During the 1970s, Japan began to shift from selling products to selling systems abroad, creating huge demand for the documentation that systems require. Brouhard thus established ICCS to meet that demand. But while the systems were sophisticated, the documentation was not. For the translators who translated Japanese engineers’ handwritten Japanese, pencil and paper were state-of-the-art equipment. Making the change to typewriters was an early management challenge. Even after the change to typewriters, producing documentation remained labor intensive. Typists typed on IBM Selectric typewriters. Graphic artists drew illustrations by hand. Typesetters created proportionally spaced text and sometimes placed letters upside down. Paste-up artists manually glued text and graphics together to create the camera-ready copy delivered to printing companies.

Then the computers we now reminisce about became available. Brands like Digital, Wang, and CPT entered the market and subsequently disappeared. The Macintosh pointed the way to the desktop publishing future. For a brief period, there was good money to be made programming filters to move text and graphics between different pieces of hardware and their software programs. Now, however, that far fewer people are required to do the jobs for which a large staff was once required, and documentation has become more sophisticated and Japanese manufacturers more cost-conscious, the days of huge and hugely lucrative documentation projects appear to have gone forever.

How have Brouhard and the ICCS Group survived? In the final part of his presentation, Brouhard offered a number of survival tips. First, learn the craft of editing and writing. For Brouhard, the basics are contained in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Fowler’s The King’s English (early editions of both, he noted, can now be accessed on the Web). Follow the advice of Clear Technical Writing by John Brogan: write in the active voice as much as possible. Think of writing as baking a cake: your recipe should include informative words, position/direction/condition words, glue words to hold everything together, and just a few sweetening adjectives and adverbs for flavor. Omit unnecessary words. Follow William K. Zinsser’s advice in On Writing Well, “There is no sentence too short in the eyes of God.”

Second, when translating from Japanese to English, learn to reverse-engineer. Break the text into small pieces, analyze it, and put it back together with a topic sentence. Treat original writing as a process of analysis, design, writing, testing, production, and revision. Work from an outline, write topic sentences, and then fill in the details. Test what you have written by asking others to read it.

Third, revise and let it go. Do not waste time agonizing, especially past deadlines. Note, too, that once you have finished, you may be able to revise what you have written and sell it elsewhere.

Fourth, one vital point is not only to know what you have done but also to be able to explain it. No skill is more vital in dealing with clients.

Fifth, use technology and use it well. Learn to type fast and well, but do not use a word processor as if it were merely a typewriter. Learn the rudiments of basic graphics programs; providing graphics as well as text increases the value of your product. Do not use Excel or PowerPoint as a word processing program.

Sixth, make a point of being easy to work with. Prima donnas and whiners both lose business.

Finally, learn something new every day and remember to keep what you do in perspective. People who write for a living have to live with the fact that most of their work is ephemeral. The pages labored over so hard may finally be used to wrap fish.

The words on Larry’s final slide were “Thank You” and “Happy Writing.” SWET can only express its gratitude by saying the same to him.