As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)
This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.
Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.
Perspective. I have some now.
I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King, a book that pairs useful information about the business of writing with personal anecdotes about King’s career. It wasn’t a page-turner, but I did look forward to picking up the book whenever I had a free moment.
Toward the end, though, King risked losing my appreciation when he wrote: “… but it’s not all about speed … And if you think it’s all about information, you ought to give up fiction and get a job writing instruction manuals — Dilbert’s cubicle awaits.”
I probably shouldn’t be offended as he’s not actually talking to me here. I am a technical writer first and a “fiction writer” second, if at all. He’s talking to the starving artist in the corner at Orchard Valley Coffee who is using the free Wi-Fi and nibbling his scone slowly enough to last through lunch. I’m not that starving artist because I did choose technical writing over more romantic literary pursuits, for better or worse.
Even if he’s not talking to me, King’s obvious disdain for instruction manual writing does offend me a tiny bit. Working in a cubicle — in fact, I have an office with a soundproof door and a window that opens — may sound like worse-case scenario to a creative. But most days, I get paid to practice the nuts and bolts of writing; I work with editors, I interview sources, I trim out the useless adjectives, I’m challenged to see a subject from a perspective other than my own. It’s not such bad way to spend a writer’s time.