The Tommy Syndrome

by Mark L. Levinson

Once, during my years as a salaried hi-tech marketing writer, I had written a brochure that particularly delighted the management.  Two senior managers entered my office coruscating with pleasure and they fairly stammered as they tried to come up with the nicest thing anyone could say.  Finally one of them burst out, “We’ll make an engineer of you yet!”

That sure smashed the magic.  So they supposed that beyond and above any dreams of reaching the top in my own field, it would be unnatural not to nurse the dream of entering theirs at the bottom? 

I honestly think they were afflicted with the Tommy Syndrome.  I wanted to call it the Pinball Wizard Syndrome, but I see by Google that a certain Mary Nelson has already put the Tommy Syndrome name on it.  “We think everyone’s path will be the path we traversed,” she explains.  Tommy, in The Who’s rock opera of the same name, achieved pinball glory and spiritual enlightenment after psychosomatically losing the powers of hearing, sight, and speech, so he tried to tell his disciples all to “Put in your ear plugs, put on your eye shades, you know where to put the cork!”

The Tommy Syndrome is everywhere.  If you’re a technical writer and your readers are end users, you need to worry about the pinball wizard at your company who, while feeding you information to write up, insists that the end user can’t properly make a choice from among five neckties displayed on the screen unless you provide a thorough explanation of the data refresh mechanism.  The data refresh mechanism underlies the wizard’s understanding of what’s on the screen, so he believes it needs to underlie the user’s understanding as well; but maybe it doesn’t need to.  In fact, maybe among everything you’ve learned about the product, there are not only boring things that the user does not need to know but even things you find fascinating yourself that the user does not need to know.

On the technical writers’ e-mail lists, every time someone raises the topic of instituting certification for technical writers, the Tommy Syndrome is more than likely to appear.  It may be that the trigger for the discussion is someone’s indignation at a working, wage-claiming, company-car-driving human being who claims to be a technical writer when he has no expertise in cascading style sheets.  Or exploded parts lists.  Or SQL querying.  Or whatever disciplines initiated the particular pinball wizard into the business of clear and methodical explanation.  Then of course someone else will say no we must not be so insular because there are many different ways to be a technical writer, not everyone must follow the same curriculum, nothing really matters as long as, like every real technical writer, you have a good grasp of Java APIs.  Or typography.  Or user experience assessment and analysis.

Personally, I don’t understand about technical writers who never learned to spell right.  I studied literature a little, and I know that F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell right, and Vachel Lindsay couldn’t spell right, and Shakespeare predated the notion that spelling had any right or wrong in the English language.  I know they managed masterpieces, but to me it seems like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t know the shapes of the pieces.

You watch out for the Tommy Syndrome, and I’ll watch out for it too.  Not to mention the Pinball Wizard Syndrome.  But that’s something else.  That term was coined by a certain Andreas Goppold of Ulm University for “the unhappy user having to wade through an orgy of points and clicks before he finally gets to the place where he wants to do some real work.”

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.