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The Quibbler Lives…and Learns

September 30, 2009

In his latest post at I’d Rather Be Writing, Tom Johnson suggests there is such a thing as Duct Tape Technical Writers, practical writers who understand that the user isn’t interested in elegantly written prose, but just “wants a brief, clear explanation of a concept or task.”

I was immediately reminded of something we called “Good Enough Quality.”

Long ago, after I’d corrected his grammar yet again, a friend remarked that if I were a super-villain, I’d be The Quibbler… a comparison NOT to Harry Potter, but to Batman’s Riddler – except my costume would be covered in exclamation points instead of question marks.  He even had a graphic artist render me in this vision – The Quibbler was a goddess – bulging… (ahem), muscles…  a style guide in one hand and a red pen in the other, always ready to Defend the Language.

Back then, I was a new supervisor responsible for ensuring the quality of writing in education materials. When I began that role, there were no standards, an ever-shifting process, and a project schedule that grew shorter with each subsequent project.  Ensuring the quality of our writing was damn near impossible under those conditions, so I did what I could – I edited every manual myself… and had minor heart attacks at the quantity of mistakes.  Confusing homophones (its or it’s, affect or effect, lie or lay), dangling modifiers, mixing tenses, failing to make sure antecedents agree with their pronouns…  I couldn’t grasp how professionals were making these mistakes.

The answer was simple…  there were bigger issues to worry about than grammar. Making sure all required content was drafted on schedule, verifying its accuracy, handing it off to production for printing… these were all things that mattered more than serial commas or gerunds.  We were a business, not a Pulitzer hunt. We had targets to hit, fees to earn, business to close. While perfectly crafted language enhances our product, there is a point when the pursuit of perfection costs too much to justify.

Revision time was often cannibalized for other purposes, so we learned to write only until it was  ‘good enough’, balancing good grammar against the needs of the business.  And you know what happened?

No one noticed.

I still quibble over that same friend’s use of accept when he means to say except, but these days, it’s just for fun.

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