25 September 2009

Technical communications – the business of eliminating poetry?

I just got back from the Technical Communication UK conference. It was pretty good, with excellent presentations from (among others) Chris Atherton, Gordon McLean, Matthew Ellison, and Kath Straub.

Looking back over my notes, for Kath Straub’s presentation Reading between the words… Using text formatting to increases persuasiveness and actionability of copy I’ve written:

“O Hai Tech Comms – T. S. Eliot totally pwns yr collective ass”

Oh, that’s going to take some explaining.

So, first off: what was the presentation about, and why was it interesting? The meat of it is that spacing (headings, line breaks, intra-word, etc) can be manipulated for ease of reading and comprehension. One of the phrases Kath used was “virtual commas”, which is to say using spaces as we might pauses in speech, to emphasise semantic blocks.

She gave a couple of interesting pathological examples – cases where something extra is needed to crystallise the meaning of a sentence. One caused an adolescent hissy fit from a couple of the crusty grammarians in the audience, and since I hadn’t realised that inelegantly unclear participles were quite so risqué, I’ll give the simple one instead:

“The chauffeur annoyed the man with the cigar.”

Who has the cigar? You probably can’t fix that with punctuation. You could do it with spoken emphasis, and, Kath argued, with spacing and formatting. You could adjust the intra-word spacing (or even intra-letter) to provide implicit grouping, for instance. You could also break the lines. Break at “annoyed”, and the man has the cigar. Break at “man”, and it’s the chauffeur puffing away instead.

So far, so glib. In practice, you’d re-write the sentence. But this was actually controversial in a room full of technical authors. I’ll get to why, but perhaps anybody with an English degree knows where I’m going with this. To a literary critic, a typography geek, a graphic designer, or more or less anybody who’s read a poem, it isn’t news that mis en page is semantic.

Here’s a nice simple example. Consider the first few lines of The Wasteland:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Practical Criticism 101: The implicit column of gerunds invite reading as a group, and sit not only physically but conceptually off to one side. The commas are doing some of that work, but so is the end position, and the slight pause you get in the flow of sense from the need to correctly find the next line. Kath talked about the cognitive load of “keeping track of who is doing what to whom” as you reach between lines. It’s a bad thing for simple comprehension, but it’s exploitable in a literary context to create layers of faint, potential meanings.

The line splits there create implicit semantic blocks, two to a line, that can be read simultaneously with the flowing sentences. We are invited to consider the single images as well as the continuous sense.

What’s going on here is that potential ambiguities are being carefully marshalled to suggest potential meanings. In Translations, Brian Friel describes the process memorably: “Uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry”.

This is the opposite of technical communication. From a clarity-focused, information design perspective, it’s as pathological a case as the man with the cigar.

I at least find it hard to deny that the lineation here (or in, say, something like Ed Dorn’s On the Debt my Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck) is a powerful contributor to the way meanings emerge. It affects how we read, how easily we read, which blocks we resolve, and what we associate. It’s semantic information. Ok, so in tech comms, we’re after fewer, simpler meanings, but we want them just as carefully constructed.

So lets poke the bear. How would I get that into DITA without losing content?

For anybody lucky enough to have missed the brouhaha and evangelism, DITA stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it’s an XML schema that thinks it’s a religion. Ok, that’s a spot unfair, but the fanboys are noisome. DITA is all about breaking down content and separating it into salient reusable blocks, separate from presentation.

Separation of presentation and content is a big old deal in technical communications at the moment, and it more or less makes sense. Lots of people have a valid use case to crank out a chunk of information in multiple contexts and media. These media could well benefit from different, say, weights of header, so why not store the “content” separately?

The thing is, it’s all been taken rather stridently to heart in certain quarters, leading to a knee jerk reaction whenever author-controlled formatting/pagination/lineation is mentioned as anything other than bleak, sulphurous devilry. This is twaddle. We know about things like reading behaviours and the importance of visual affordance. When we mark up a heading, it’s not because having a title is an intrinsic good (although of course, it isn’t unhelpful), it’s at least partly because headings get weighting and users skim for them. Many kinds of presentation are content.

No tech comms standard for markup (that I know of) accommodates salient spacing or mis en page. LaTeX might do some of it, but I’m told it’s fiendish to work with. You could almost certainly have a DITA specialization, and with something like the tools Kath was talking about, could perhaps even automate the tagging, but by and large, this isn’t how we’re currently thinking.

Uncertainty in meaning is anathema to user intelligibility. If we’re going to make sure we’re not writing poetry, there’s definitely value in having poetry’s level of control over semantic blocks.

Of course, it’s fully possible that this is an expensive distraction. I guess the thing to take away is the same as pretty much every other controversial presentation – shut up about X being not your job/not best practice/very modern, and look at delivering the best information you can to the user.

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Roger is a Technical Author at Red Gate, currently working on SQL Compare 8. He also enjoys literary modernism, RPGs and beer festivals.

View all articles by Roger Hart