Hidden Problems Can Derail Technical Writing
- Hugh Hay-Roe (Murray Assocs. Intl.)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- July 1995
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 602 - 602
- 1995. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 7.5.1 Ethics
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- 98 since 2007
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Engineers' written messages - whether reports, memos, letters, or other documents - can be difficult to write for reasons quite apart from any technical complications encountered during the work. The difficulties can be diplomatic, ethical, even psychological. They range from anticipating reader hostility to being told to present negative results "in a positive way."
Some writers prefer simply to ignore such problems, but they run the risk of garbling or hiding the real message. Busy readers do not appreciate that. The shrewd writer will recognize the problem and develop a strategy for overcoming or bypassing it.
A Common Predicament
I would hate to guess how often engineers and other technical writers are blind-sided by what consulting editor M.J. Murray identifies as special problems in writing, but it happens frequently. The result can be unfortunate: buried main points, "weasel words," split topics or gaps in logic, and abrupt changes in tone, slant, or viewpoint. Such writing defects are not deliberate, of course. They happen to writers who have a particular problem but fail to analyze and solve it.
The hidden minefields are of two general types - problem messages and problem readers. The most common categories of problem messages are the following:
1. Bad news for management (which triggers the "Persian messenger gambit" discussed below).
2. Sensitive information that requires a tactful delivery.
3. Having to write a report that is based on unreliable or insufficient data.
4. Confidential information that must meet security guideline.
Problem people are at the bottom of the following writing difficulties:
1. Fear of antagonistic or skeptical readers (causing the writer to be defensive).
2. Ethical conflicts (you are asked to leave out unfavorable data points or to write statements you cannot honestly support).
3. Office politics and personal conflicts.
The Persian Messenger
To understand how these problems can affect your writing, take a look at specific examples like the poor Persion messenger. In the days of the ancient Persian Empire, we're told, the emperor was an absolute autocrat with the power of life and death over his subjects. Any messenger bringing bad news - a battle lost, let's say - might well fear that a short-tempered monarch would order him punished, even beheaded, because the report he brought made the emperor angry. To hold off a wrathful reaction, the messenger might dawdle on his way to the palace, trying to think of some way to sugar-coat, disguise, or delay the bad news.
Today some employees still have the same sort of reaction when they are obliged to deliver bad news in writing. They dawdle, they stall, they sugar-coat the news or try to hide it in a neutral-looking paragraph far from the start of the message. But as one oil company president once said in exasperation, "Look, management is not a cheering section! Of course we like to hear good news, but we need to hear bad news so that we can help work on an early solution!" Bad news seldom gets better with time.
If reporting bad news is the difficulty you have identified, stop and consider whether the bad news really a problem for you as an individual. Are you going to be held personally responsible? If you are, what about asking for a short meeting with the people concerned, so that you can report the news orally and ask for help in putting it in writing? If that will work, you can involve those who are present, getting their ideas on the best way to handle the bad news. Maybe you can even write for the signature of one of those people. Becoming a ghostwriter is one way to get out of the line of fire.
Technical and Ethical Conflicts
In these days of expanded government regulation and increased litigation, it's easy to get into a technical disagreement that has an ethical aspect to it. You might, for instance, be told to write a letter drawing a conclusion or recommending an action you view as technically mistaken, environmentally unethical, or both.
There are ways to go about handling such assignments without creating an impasse. First, because ethical managers and writers can disagree honestly, examine the problem with care before labelling an assignment "unethical." Perhaps there are two distinct but equally defensible viewpoints. If your conscience is still uneasy, ask your boss to sign the document. Think of yourself as being paid to present a company position. If that doesn't work, you might suggest that the assignment be given to someone more in tune with the policy (this may not work, but you can try). Sometimes you can argue your case and win. But in a shootout, the person having responsibility for your work, and the broader view of company affairs, will surely pack the bigger gun.
Suppose all efforts fail - that you cannot be convinced that there are two valid or ethical sides to the matter. You then decide you cannot in good conscience carry out the assignment, if ordered to do so. Your last option will be to reject it. And that could create employment risks only you can evaluate and career decisions only you can make.
Recognize the Problem
The foregoing examples are just two of the many kinds of special writing problems that you may encounter on the job from time to time. The approach you select for trying to solve any such hidden problems must depend on (1) your analysis of the problem, (2) your analysis of readers, and (3) the content of your message. Strategies range from not writing at all (delivering the message orally) to drastically changing the content, slant, addressee, or signer of your document. In every case, the important initial step is to recognize the problem and to take the time to decide what you had best do about it before you start to write.
1. Murray, M.J. and Hay-Roe, H.: Engineered Writing: A Manual for Scientific, Technical, and Business Writers, PennWell Books, Tulsa, OK (1986).
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