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The Craftsman (part 8)

September 16, 2009

The key to physical dexterity in “skilled handwork” is what Sennett calls the “lesson of minimum force.”  He uses the chef’s knife skills as an example, comparing the crafts of chopping and deboning to “playing pianissimo.”  The control of the knife is a useful metaphor as you can track the evolution of civilization with it: in China, chopsticks “replaced the knife as a peaceable symbol,” since, according to Confucius via Wikipedia, “knives were equated with acts of aggression and should not be used to dine.”  As the march of progress reclaimed the lost technical skills of antiquity, it also took us away from using knives to spear large chunks of meat off of Medieval trenchers, making them smaller and using them as adjuncts to the fork.  Aristocrats increasingly valued clever dinner conversation and delicate manners over getting roaringly drunk and fighting with one’s guests, rolling about on the floor between the dogs gnawing on discarded turkey legs.  “Soft power” is preferable to shock and awe in more realms than one; neocons, possessed only of hammers, refuse to see any problem as anything other than a nail to be pounded into submission.

Concentration and commitment are also essentials – the ability to extend the duration of our practice over longer and more complicated tasks.  Sennett uses the example of a glass blower who wanted to do something new, something harder.  This required unlearning the habits that had served her well enough in smaller pieces, as well as committing to working through her repeated failures to produce what she was looking for.  We develop a “rhythm” in the coordination between hand, eye and brain.  I mentioned it before, but it’s worth restating – I’m surprised, maybe even shocked, that Sennett has no references to the concept of “flow” or the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, since it’s such important work on these same lines.

In the next chapter, we get into the processes involved in teaching our skills to others.  Sennett uses cooking as his example again, this time focusing on the art of the recipe.  The danger in technical writing is always the curse of assumption – in software, it comes in the form of instructions to “unpack the tarball to compile the 64 bit version”; in cooking, it comes in the form of instructions to “debone the chicken” – both assume a skill level that make the instructions of no use to anyone other than another master craftsman.  I used to shake my head when my boss reminded me to end every set of user instructions with “Press OK to continue,” but the sad fact is that if you don’t, there will always be someone sitting there, having followed all the other steps, waiting for something to happen.

When I’ve taught writing, I’ve thus asked my students to rewrite the printed instructions that accompany new software.  Perfectly accurate, these nefarious publications are often unintelligible.  Not only do engineer-writers leave out “dumb things” that “everyone knows”; they repress simile, metaphor and adverbial color.

Well, yes – the “recipe” for a stuffed chicken, as given by the old Persian lady who taught Sennett to cook it, is really more like poetry than engineering.  ("Your dead child.  Prepare him for new life.  Fill him with the earth.  Be careful! He should not over-eat.  Put on his golden coat.”)  But while there may well be poetry in programming, when it comes to instructions for the befuddled program user, the last thing you want to do is introduce Tarantino-esque stage directions into the mix.  (“Strangling the very life out of somebody with your bare hands is the most violent act a human being can commit. Also, only humans strangle, opposable thumbs being a quite important part of the endeavor.”)  The goal in technical writing is not to have a “voice,” to be Julia Child or Elizabeth David (or, not mentioned here, M.F.K. Fisher, the “voiciest” food writer of all).  George Orwell is the best model:  “Good prose is like a window pane.”  Avoid “cant,” which in the instructional realm consists of using the private language of the expert. 

“The paralyzing tone of authority and certainty in much instructional language betrays a writer’s inability to re-imagine vulnerability,” Sennett says, but I beg to differ.  Imagining vulnerability into the material gives you the “For Dummies” tone of voice, obviously useful to the intimidated beginner, but quickly useless and even obstructionist the minute those feelings of insecurity and intimidation are overcome.  The “tone of authority” can be reassuring when it’s expressing clear, plain instructions which, once followed, increase the user’s sense of self-efficacy.  Maybe someday an O’Reilly book will win a Pulitzer for its “luminous prose” (the most overused trope in book reviewing – 5,670,000 Bing search results for the phrase), but in the meantime, Orwell’s goal of “truthfulness,” “to write less picturesquely and more exactly,” is still the best method.


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