The Disastrous Effects Of Bad Technical Writing

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Technical writing should never confuse the reader. The example below is a piece of writing that proved to be dangerously ineffective (this letter is part of public record):

Babcock & Wilcox Company IR Generation Group

TO: [Manager, Plant Integration, Three Mile Island] FROM: [Manager, Plan Performance Services, Babcock &

Wilcox] Subject: Operator Interruption of High Pressure Injection

(HPI) References: [two titles listed]

References 1 and 2 (attached) recommend a change in Bab-cock and Wilcox's philosophy for HPI system use during low-pressure transits. Basically they recommend leaving the HPI pumps on, once HPI has been indicated, until it can be determined that the hot leg temperature is more than 50[degrees]F below Tsat for the reactor cooling system (RCS) pressure. Nuclear Service believes that this mode can cause the RCS (including the pressurizer) to be solid. The pressure reliefs will lift, with a water surge through the dis-charge piping into the quench tank.

We believe the following incidents should be evaluated:
  1. If the pressurizer goes solid with one or more HPI pumps continuing to operate, would there be a pressure spike before the relief valves open which could cause damage to the RCS?

  2. What damage would the water surge through the relief valve discharge piping and quench tank cause?
To date, the Nuclear Service has not notified our operating plants to change HPI policy consistent with References 1 and 2 because of the above-stated questions. Yet the references suggest the possibility of uncovering the core if present HPI policy is continued. We request that Integration resolve the issue of how the HPI system should be used. We are available to help as needed. [signed]

Did you actually read all that? Probably not-and neither did the plant manager at Three Mile Island. Babcock & Wilcox Company's intention for the above letter was to warn Three Mile Island that they could uncover the reactor's core (and thus possibly have a nuclear meltdown) if certain operating procedures were not changed. As you may recall, a nuclear meltdown is exactly what happened. How would you revise that letter?

Problems Of The Technical Writer

The phrase "media intake" implies that communication has at its disposal more media and channels of information than were conceived possible just a few short years ago. As with the scientist, more information reaches and is available to the writer than can be assimilated in a short period of time. This poses great frustration. The writer literally feels inundated by this ever-increasing tidal wave of information. In this vein, the late President Kennedy is reported to have said, "I'm reading more and more and enjoying it less and less." Thus far, no simple solution or rational answer has been found for this problem. Earlier in this chapter there was a statement that said that the most successful technical writer must necessarily become an eternal student. You will have to spend many hours reviewing mountains of information just to keep up to date. There is no such thing as resting on one's oars. For example, consider the story of the Hollywood agent who was fired by an actor for failing to get him a choice role. The agent protested and proceeded to give the actor a long list of accomplishments on his behalf. The actor responded, "Yes, I know. But what have you done for me lately?" Unfortunately, this little vignette, funny as it may sound, is true everywhere people work for others. So, to ensure your continued value and employability, you must stay current and on top of things in this fast-moving world. People can be replaced in the workplace very rapidly.

You will find that in a technical writing career you are dealing heavily in human communications. Therefore you must maintain effective personal interaction. If you find yourself wondering why you aren't getting responses to your requests, why you are not receiving the same information other members of your staff are getting, or why some of your meanings are being distorted by your readers, then it might be time to reevaluate the way you are communicating. To minimize these problems, you must keep all lines of communication open, and your communication must be clear and active.

Other communication problems may arise between you and the people with whom you associate on your job or those for whom you write. It is not at all unusual for scientists and engineers to think and behave differently than you do. The same words both of you use may have completely different meanings to each party. This also may apply to your readers. You will be expected to adapt yourself to them since most of them won't change their ways for you.

Marshall Field, the great entrepreneur, once said, "The customer is always right. So, give the lady what she wants." Because of this, you must learn how to address your words and writing and to use a language appropriate to your audience. All these problems emphasize that the field of technical writing is an ever-evolving profession with ever-changing demands.
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