The other day, a colleague asked me how I felt about writing procedural documents. Basically, in process analysis, you break down the steps of a procedure so someone can understand and, if desired, repeat the steps and get the same results. The process might be complex and fully coherent only to those trained in an area such as car repair or IT—the discourse community as we call it in academia. Or the steps can be formulated for the average person with no prior experience in the particular process or field. For instance, their process could be to assemble a piece of furniture ordered from a catalog. Either way, once the audience is identified, the steps are presented in accessible, logical language.
While this is not an area of writing that people find fascinating to discuss at social gatherings—they are much more interested in hearing me discuss, albeit briefly, my research and writing on medieval Irish literature—I find it a challenge and one that presses me to really consider how clearly I communicate in other areas. If I can guide a stranger so well and thoroughly that they can replicate the wiring and structure of a large machine (mass manufacturing), or build a chair (standard instruction manual), or successfully assist and satisfy an irate stranger (customer service protocol), I have affected many lives in a positive manner. That’s pretty cool, frankly.
To make this accomplishment even more effective (and satisfying), I need to think about all possibilities that may arise once the user is interacting with my text. That is mostly wondering what might or can go wrong even with the directions in place. For instance, not all customers can be calmed by the same responses or promises. The customer service rep might not be able to assess whether or not they are being worked for a deal or freebie, or if someone has had a bad experience before they got to your line and just have hit their limit of patience. What if the tools needed for handling sensitive materials are no longer readily available to the workers at a factory and your text only addresses what they don’t have? (Think the main office cutting corners in purchasing . . . ) Where can these people turn?
A good mystery writer or a type-A personality (like me) can have a field day with this type of writing! Those of us who spend maybe too much time planning for the many curve balls life might throw can have their cake specially baked and plenty of time to eat it too. So, what may not be a big hit for cocktail conversation (teaching at a University always got more admiration for me) is still definitely satisfying.
With this in mind, I am reminded of the time I met Frank McCourt at a tribute to the author Benedict Keiley who had recently passed away. We had a mutual friend, so we were introduced and began to chat (are you finding me more interesting now?). When he found out I was teaching at Pace University there in the city, he pursed his lips, scowled, shook his head, and said “Now that’s a racket. Everyone thinks your great when you tell them you are a professor! Tell them you are a high-school teacher and . . .” He proceeded to make another face of exasperation. He was not tearing me down. He was expressing the general attitude out there. Of course, pretty much no one knows who I am and he, now sadly deceased, will continue to be one of the most well-known Irish authors of the late 20th and early 21st century. He was a high-school teacher and yet, in that unglamorous role, influenced future writers prior to his own fame and fortune.
It remains to be seen if my time in academia has opened any major paths to my many students. I may not become famous and may no longer be able to impress anyone with my job description, but I may just touch and affect many lives in such a way as to improve their worlds in small but meaningful ways. For a writer, it’s all part of the process.