Can it be both raw and right?

 by Mark L. Levinson

I was at my usual table near the back, and from outside on one of the better established, less flashy streets of Yokneam’s technical writing district the beams of an occasional taxi brightened the vintage Ms. Pacman machine in the corner of the joint like a sudden bonus score as some foreign businessman returned to his swank hotel.

Adri walked in from the hamseen.  “Two frozen yogurts,” I called to old Genady.

“Pour some pisang on mine,” said Adri, removing his dusty eyeglasses.  “It’s been an infuriating day.”

“Downgrade back to Win XP and wait a year,” I said.

“It’s not that,” said Adri.  “It’s the SMEs.  Small-minded engineers.  One of them came to me today with a draft spec he’d written and you know what he said? ‘Make it pretty.’”

“So what did you say?”

“Nothing.  I was too polite.  No, I was too angry.  No, I was too slow-witted.  But I know what I should have said.  Pretty is a by-product.  We make it clear, we make it accurate, we focus it.  The meaning isn’t there for the reader until every word is in its ideal place and they all connect like a printed circuit.  If you haven’t said it right, you haven’t said it.  You can’t separate the content from the presentation.  There’s no such thing as sloppy but accurate.  How can the content be right when the language is wrong?  The language is the content.

“Pretty?” he fumed.  “You bet it’s pretty when we’re finished.  Not random pretty like a basket of daisies.  Planned-out pretty like a, like —”

“Like a straight seam in a silk necktie,” I said.  “Well, there’s no convincing these people.  They think —”

“But it gets worse,” said Adri.  “I had a manual ready for technical review, so I passed it to the chief programmer.  He kept it for a week, and when he handed it back, you know what he’d done?  He had arrows pointing out how he wanted material rearranged.  He’d even corrected my English.  You know what I told him?”

“Nothing, I’ll bet.  But what should you have told him?”

“I would have, but I was too —  I should have told him, I’m the professional writer here.  I’m not asking you whether the English is correct.  Of course it isn’t.  This is just a draft.  A raw, raw draft.  Why should I sweat the English?  And who cares if half the parameters are explained before the procedure and half are after the procedure?  I’ll take care of all that window-dressing later.  Right now I only want to know if the content is correct.  Focus on the content, never mind the presentation.  Is that hard to understand?  They’re two separate things.”

“It’s like I said,” I said.  “There’s no convincing these people.”

“You know you guys are crazy?” said old Genady.  “Has the hamseen got to you?”

“And you, have you been hitting the pisang?” said Adri.  “What do you mean, we’re crazy?”

“You tell one person that the way you write the material makes it right or wrong, but you ask another person to tell you whether it’s right or wrong before you’ve written it correctly and you’re angry that he tries to correct the writing.”

Adri looked at Genady.  Genady walked away.  Adri looked at me.

“It’s not like it was the same person,” he said.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.