Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why Tech Writing and Novel Writing Aren't the Same

The problem with taking an English class at Georgia Tech is that it exists to check a box. Therefore, the English professors can do whatever the heck they want. And the poor unsuspecting freshman have no warning. All English classes look the same on paper. But Prof A always teaches Shakespeare, Prof B always watches movies and is a complete joke, Prof C does a study on SF, and then Prof D, my prof, turns it into a philosophy class. We studied phenomenology. We read Heidegger. It was terrible.

As if that wasn't bad enough, my senior year I was required to take a "technical communications" class. One would think that this class would be about engineers and scientists learning to communicate technical ideas. But now you're forgetting that English profs at Tech do whatever the heck they want. Even when they have absolutely no understanding of the subject matter.

And this is how I got a 'C' on a paper for using passive voice in a technical paper.

Let's be clear about something, dear readers, the rules for writing a technical paper are not the same as the rules for writing a novel.

For example, let's say you're writing up a lab report on a rat experiment with cheese. Which of these is right to say:

A) I placed the cheese in front of the rat.
B) The cheese was placed in front of the rat.

The correct answer is of course B. You see the point of technical writing is to almost make it like the scientist disappears. No one cares about the person placing the cheese. That person is not part of the experiment. What we care about is the rat and the cheese.

The reason why it's not ok to do this in novel writing is that it displaces the reader...which is exactly what it's supposed to do in a technical paper. Let me give you an example.

Technical Writing Scenario:

The rat was not fed after 9 PM. Compound 1 was injected into a piece of cheese that was then placed in the rat's cage at 10:15 AM. The rat consumed it without any indication that it tasted Compound 1. Afterwards, the rat behaved as normal until approximately 10:45 AM, when it began to display shortness of breath. This was followed by disorientation and lethargy. At 11:30 AM, the rat was dead.

Ok, now let's do the same scenario like a novel writer.

I didn't feed the rat the night before in order to ensure he would be hungry the next morning. When I got into the lab the next morning, I injected Compound 1 into a piece of cheese and put it in the rat cage. The rat devoured it without hesitation. I watched the rat, and he appeared to behave normally. Then around 10:45 am, he began to have shortness of breath. I watched, not allowed to help him, as he became disoriented and lethargic. Then finally at 11:30 AM, the rat died. I removed his body from the cage and put him in the incinerator. 

Neither of those are perfect examples, but you get the point. In one scenario, it's almost like this unfortunate experiment just happened to befall this rat. In the other scenario, the scientists is purposefully inflicting it on the rat. In one scenario a rat died. In another scenario, the rat was killed.

Do you see the difference?

In a novel you want the reader to be write in the moment. You want them to feel what the character is feeling. In a technical paper, there are no feelings. There is only observation. 

So basically novels are Star Wars and technical papers are Star Trek. 

And I don't mean that in a sense of one franchise is dryer than the other. I mean it in the way the worlds are expressed. Star Wars is all about high emotion. Darkness, rage, doing the right thing, glory, honor, etc etc. Whereas the Federation is supposed to be a bunch of neutral observers. 

They're different things. They serve different purposes. And right now I'm really trying not to turn this into a J.J. Abrams new Star Trek rant. (That's a post for another day).

Technical writing has to be dispassionate. And part of how you do that is passive voice. 

Does it make it hard to read? Yes. But does it make the experiment or whatever more clear? I think yes. 

So there you have it. A small taste on why technical papers are not written like novels.

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