Jacquelyn Malone: How Tech Writing Helped My Poetry (Yeah, Tech Writing!)

Check out the other essays in our series Poets Who Write Prose.

Jacquelyn Malone

Jacquelyn Malone

When I say that being a technical writer made me a better poet, I can almost see you raise a cynical eyebrow and say, “Oh, yeah!” I should perhaps add that being a technical writer in a company that subjected writing to usability testing – and placed technical writers close to the usability labs – made me a better poet. Nothing hammers into your head the subtlety of how words are received better than sitting behind a two-way mirror and watching some poor soul struggle to complete a task you’ve written about.

But I didn’t start out to be a technical writer. Years ago on a whim I went to a one-day conference about jobs in high tech. At the end of the day, I was offered a job writing video training scripts for a high tech company. I knew nothing about computers, but I was told that being a novice was good – the people who were being trained to use business software were computer illiterate, too. The next morning I handed in my resignation as a high school English teacher and jumped head-first into the tech world.

There were many surprises for a naïve young writer, the most serious of which was that six months after I’d burned my bridges and quit teaching, the company I joined decided to do away with its video training program. The four of us in the department faced being out of a job. But my boss liked my writing and decided to keep me on as a technical writer.

A technical writer! Ugh! I had just started writing poetry, and tech writing seemed to be in another galaxy. But I had little choice since I hardly had enough experience as a video script writer to be competitive in the job market. So I trudged on, moving in a couple of years to another company. Little did I realize how fortunate that move was because the new tech writing department worked closely with the usability department. Writing was user-tested before it went out the door.

I quickly learned there is a tremendous difference between these three statements:

  1. Before you begin, make sure your computer is in a well-lit place.
  2. Find a well-lit place for your computer before you begin.
  3. Place your computer in a well-lit place.

Before I explain which is best, think about the mood you are usually in when you are seeking computer instructions. I can bet you’re not thinking “Oh, what fun!” And if you don’t believe number one above is irritating, you haven’t watched a usability test. Why is it irritating? Two reasons: it’s too long to easily scan, and the task is almost concealed in excessive words.

Oh, but you think, “I can read! I’m smarter that that!” Don’t count on it. Remember your mood.

Two is better, but three is best – if the step has the number one in front of it.

How words are received by the reader

Writing is usually taught from the point of view of expressing yourself well, but technical writing is all about how your words are received by the reader. The technical writer has to set the stage for the procedure or has to know the specific place and issue that brought the reader to the procedure. In other words, the writer has to label the procedure in the table of contents or in the index in the language users will recognize as their problem. And if you set the stage by numbers, readers will know exactly where they are – if the writer has diagnosed their problem properly.

How poetry is received by the reader

I’m not saying that poetry should be like tech writing. But poetry, too, is all about how your words are received. It may be that a poet wants readers to discover the meaning, a meaning that comes not through logic but through an emotional center that conveys a meaning difficult to put into objective language. What language structure best promotes that emotional center? Why didn’t Frost write. “I think I know whose woods these are”? Why didn’t Eliot write, “When the evening is spread out against the sky, let us go then – you and I”? Both rewrites are probably the way you would express the thought in prose. But in both cases the poets’ order suggests a subtle mystery, which stirs an understated emotion. Notice how the word order makes Frost much more tentative and makes Eliot’s destination much more open-ended. Those hesitant enigmas set a subtle tone completely missing in my rewrites.

When you find a language structure that sets the major tone you want to convey, you’ve found the core of how you want to relate to your reader.

Jacquelyn Malone is the writer/editor for masspoetry.org. She has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship grant in poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Cortland Review, and Poetry Northwest. The poem published in the Beloit Journal was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. One of the poems published in Poetry was featured on the website Poetry Daily. Her chapbook All Waters Run to Lethe was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012.