Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ezra the Scribe

When I was a student at the University of Idaho, I ran across Ezra the Scribe. Ezra is an earnest, balding, bearded gentle giant of a man who advertised in local papers as a wordsmith. His logo was that of a Medieval monk, sitting at a table, writing. His ad copy insisted he could write resumes, personalized short stories and poems, and could be a great help on grants, term papers and research papers. I often wondered how much business he got, working as a scribe out of some hole in the wall in a small North Idaho town. Probably not much. Though his approach at advertising might appeal to the Ur-writer in the writers which abound in North Idaho, the image hardly portrays the kind of person a harried students, researcher, job-seeker or grant-seeker might turn to for help.

Then we turn to David Hailey the Scribe. But not a scribe in this Medieval sense. I absolutely agree with the suggestion that it is not enough to let students be creative. “We think students should be taught how to make innovative decisions – it is not enough to permit students to make the decisions and solve the problems on guesses and unsupported opinions,” Hailey writes. One of the greatest resentments I bear after earning a bachelors degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Idaho is that, as I look back, too great an emphasis was placed on creativity. Write, write, write, the professors said. Same when I entered the work force – except that they anticipated I’d pick up skills like reading and analyzing court documents, dealing with difficult people (sources and editors) and finding and selling good enterprise story ideas through the magic of osmosis. That I could write was expected. That I struggled with these other, more technical aspects of the job caused tongues to wag about the state of education today and sprouted promises of help to come which never arrived. In each case, the emphasis remained on the creativity, with the decision-making and problem-solving skills left to each individual to struggle with alone. Some, of course, did not struggle – they either learned these skills or were born with them. They became the ones doing innovative things and earning the praises and raises, while for the rest of us rabble, the editors could only say, “Why can’t you be more like them?” (I’m bitter about my journalism experience, as you can probably tell. I’m faring much better now, thank you, because I’m becoming more aware of my own constraints and shortcomings.)

So what do we do?

Collect advocates. Once and a while, as we stumble through our daily jobs, we make a difference to another professional. As we perform the job we love – writing texts that are useful, understandable and valuable – we demonstrate competence beyond that of crossing I’s and dotting T’s.

For example, last year I worked closely with an expert in nuclear criticality safety and two equipment operators to write a procedure the operators would follow to operate a new piece of equipment. By closely, I mean sitting next to these experts as they worked on the actual equipment. We worked together to find the best possible wording and we asked questions of each other, them working to understand the writing process and the standards writers go by, me working to understand their processes and science in order to write with economy and value.

The true test, however, came when the process and documentation had to be demonstrated for a team of auditors, led by an auditor with whom the criticality safety expert had frequently butted heads in the past. But because we, as a cross-disciplinary team had spent so much time working together and writing the document together, the audit passed with only minor bumps – a first in this criticality safety expert’s experience.

Since then, this expert has come to me not with questions about grammar (though those still come from time to time) but with questions on approaches to new problems, with the expectation that some kind of innovation will be forthcoming. A truly happy customer which, in many cases, is hard to come by where I work.

Analyze successes (and failures). Because of the success with the nuclear criticality safety expert, I have spent a lot of time analyzing that success – because in the past processes that mirrored that successful experience to the nth degree did not meet with the expected, successful outcome. The consistent shortcomings I see in these “near-successes” help me plan approaches to new problems and expected innovations more carefully before the work begins, in order to help me guide the process to a more successful completion.

Part of this analysis is in line with Hailey’s admonition to anticipate constraints. “Even the most brilliant ideas are of no use if they are not relevant to the specific situation,” Hailey writes. In analyzing the success with the nuclear criticality safety expert, for example, I seized upon the innovation (for me, at least) of creating a routing table in a procedure at a point where we were struggling with a long series of IF/THEN statements that would make the operators have to swim through three pages of dense text in order to perform rather simple tasks. I took that approach to another document, but did not anticipate constraints that document entailed. The first was a normal operational procedure. The second was an emergency operational procedure, which bears the constraint of bare-bones simplicity. The approach at simplifying one text did not go far enough in the second – a text I struggled with for over a year before one of our shift operations manager sat with me and outlined the various constraints these emergency procedures carry with them. Once aware of those constraints, he, another writer and I were able to take an innovative approach to this particular procedure, simplifying the approach and reducing its bulk from three pages to one – meeting another constraint, that of requiring operators to memorize these emergency procedures. That simplified procedure has been in the field, and in use, for three months now. Significantly I can count it as a success, because in the past after each use it was back on my desk with the order for more revisions. No longer. I know it works because it hasn’t come back.

In these analyses I do not focus on writing or language. I know I can do that already. What I focus on is looking at what decisions were made that helped the text be better or worse, and what processes led to making better decisions. I have decided – no big revelation – that working hand-in-hand with those who will use the text is better than working a text while keeping an imaginary audience in mind. For the imaginary audience, constraints can be outlined, but for the real audience, constraints can be more clearly understood. I’m not an ace at these kinds of analyses, but I’m getting better. I know they’re helping me find ways to be more than just a scribe.

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