During the course of a dinner at which the members of the Bureau of Mines staff gathered recently, John L. Cochrane, the director of the Bureau's publicity division, was asked to discuss the following topic: "If you had the power to develop a writer of technical matter, what course would you adopt?" A portion of Mr. Cochrane's reply is as follows:
First of all I would catch him young and feed him on alphabetical crackers to insure that he became a man of letters. Then I would give him a careful diet of raw bull to strengthen his nerve—the one most essential thing to technical writing.
I would teach him that the other man in the same line of work is always wrong: can't possibly ever be right. (You could prove that through the fact that he indulges in technical writing.) I would attempt to teach him that clearness is fatal to any technical writer. I would drill into him daily, "Kid, obscure your meaning, and you will become famous." Then it will give you a convenient loophole to escape if you ever have to. If anyone attacks you then you can very easily call him '"another," because in reality you, yourself, if honest with yourself, as you sometimes should be, do not quite know what you mean yourself. In that way, you'll have it on him, even though he won't know. Anyway, conscience is sometimes convenient, even to a technical man.
If you want to throw a few additional smoke screens into the article, which is always desirable, puncture it with stars, asterisks, crosses and other mysterious marks, the harder to understand the better. Then have a number of footnotes that correspond, but mean nothing. Be sure that you refer as authority to some society that you defy him to find out anything about, such as "Flannigan in the May, 1852, proceedings of Erin-go-Bragh." Make it as difficult as possible for your reader to follow; that's genius.
And here is some advice that ought to be italicized: If you disagree with another author and want to pillorize him before your technical disciple (you really care about nobody else) put in an extra footnote and refer to him as the authority for something you know is wrong. If done naively, it has the effect of T.N.T. The ordinary effort of the layman in such matters is childish in comparison.
Always quarrel with your scientific brother in a dignified manner. Begin with, "May I have the honor to explain." The beauty about such open, gentlemanly controversy is that you may quite as often be as near right or as near wrong as the other fellow. I stress this, because I feel it is an important accomplishment in technical writing. How fully equipped is a technical writer who can tell a man he is a damn fool in language that leaves him flattered!
Then by all means, if you are a Government technical employee, have at least three or four other technical employees read critically your manuscript before it is ready for the printed page. The beauty here lies in the fact that when they get through with it all such annoying superfluities as personality of the author have disappeared. Don't bother about the lack of capabilities of those who read the manuscript. The chances are that unconsciously they may improve it, as in the case of the hitherto homely person who developed into a handsome man after a horse had stepped on his face. And during this process of critique, if you ever wince when they put the hot iron into your soul, you will never make a technical writer, and therefore there may be some hope for you.
And please remember as a technical writer that nothing is ever perfect. If you are in a great art gallery and the simple-minded folk are admiring the Venus de Milo in their crude, enthusiastic way, remember your training and take issue with the work. Suggest that it is not true to nature because it does not have one or two warts on the feet. Point out that there are no varicose veins on the leg.
I almost forgot to say that brevity, being the soul of wit, has no place in a technical article.
If the dream child that I have instructed (and he is no synthetic kid) can follow me, it may be said of him with apologies to Kipling "Then you'll be a man, my son; you'll be a man."