Making Things Clear

Today I showed a friend "how to use" her camera - the basics of her DSLR's controls and the exposure triangle as well as a brief walkthrough of what kinds of things you can do with photo developing and editing software. It was a lot of fun. I think she enjoyed it, it opened her eyes to the real power of her DSLR, and I remembered how much I really enjoy making murky things clear. Making murky things clear is not what got me into technical writing, to be honest, but it is something that I really learned to like in technical writing. It is deeply rewarded to take a dark and primal mass of information and rote steps and turn that prime matter into the clear diagrams, procedures, and background knowledge that folks need to get on with doing what they need to do.

In my mind, that's the heart of technical writing: making things clear. I write for audiences technical and non-technical. Either way, it is very gratifying to hear their experiences in which they start lost in a dark forest and are able to use the information that I organized and delivered to build themselves a nice log cabin with a tidy fire. In my mind, clarity, a certain revealing-ness, is the inner, innate value of both photography and technical writing. Each strives to show people clearly what they perceive, if at all, dimly. It shows a meaning that is rushed past or peers into a thicket that seems dark and overwhelming. A good photograph does not show the world, but it shows something that otherwise the viewer would not see. Good technical writing does not tell the story of all the things, but it helps a user understand this obscure relationship, accomplish this complicated task, or remember that precise fact.

I hope I've grown as a technical writer. It's something that I've learned on the job by reading others' writing, attending workshops, and reading textbooks. Looking back at my earlier writing is similar to looking back at my earlier photographs. Some of them surprise me by how good they really were. Many of them are charming with how, um, tolerable, they really were. My older portfolio pieces, whether photographs or how-to articles, now long since disappeared from public view, remind me to be gentle with learners. I had gentle and generous clients and managers, I see now. Still, I always want to improve upon all the various skills and knowledge encompassed by each disciple. Both disciplines are like old Gothic cathedrals. They look nice from the outside. From the inside, they are overwhelming. There is too much to learn and very few people every truly 'master' either discipline. But the rest of us can do good honest work, good photographs that people like to look at, good manuals that people don't mind having to use, if we work at it, seek mentorship, and always strive to improve.

I'm some ten years into technical writing now and a few more years than that into photography. Neither was a passion when I started. I hope that by discovered the inner value of each I am better able to use each discipline for others' benefit. By sharing the fruits of this value with others, I hope that I grow in each passion, and not just in the passion, but in the skills involved to make the passion fruitful.

I like making things clear.