30 July 2012

Colourless green ideas

One of the reasons I enjoy writing and training is because I enjoy words. The way vocabulary can either flutter past or dive-bomb the awareness of an audience is a constant source of both amusement and stimulation. Today we are going to use colour based metaphors to explore the way writing sometimes works. The vocabulary of a writer is the palette from which he creates; just as one would probably not paint an office in byzantine paint, or a disco in battleship grey, the way in which we use vocabulary when writing correlates strongly with the context of the writing.

Many readers at this point, especially my friends who write “creatively” will be thinking that they are doing the byzantine, or even polka-dot neon writing whilst “technical authors” are limited to battleship grey, with possibly a little magnolia thrown in for good measure. I’m afraid to say that you’re only partially right; technical authors are not into psychedelic writing, but nor does monochrome really work. Whilst the creative writer can allow for departures from reality and the occasional moment of deus ex machina, for the technical author, reality is our linchpin and the devil really is in the details. A creative writer may forget to have a character reload once within a half hour long fire-fight especially if the weapon system is sufficiently futuristic, whereas the technical writer will need to explain exactly how reloading happens, or how the fanciful futuristic firearm functions (try saying that fast!) in a way that’s both accessible to end users and the purchasing authority responsible for materiel* supplies.

If we then return to our metaphor of colour we find that technical authoring has “word schemes” the way a wedding will have a “colour scheme”, and that we will write within the confines of those word schemes to exact and powerful effect. At least within the work I’ve been doing recently the majority colour scheme seems to be Dagobah Green with hints of authority. When documenting software there is a real sense of having users “do or do not do.” The idea of trying, or of having users attempt something that I haven’t already fully explored is just not an option in this case.


*Note for the eagle eyed: As a rifle is a military supply, this is not a spelling mistake!

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