I ran across a little item in the news the other day: someone is correcting the punctuation of graffiti on walls in Ecuador.
That reminded me of the time back in the ’80s that I worked for a startup supercomputer company. The worker bees (non-management personnel) were hired because they were smarter than average, and that seemed to translate into an almost childish sense of humor. Therefore any sign in the plant was in danger of modification by the resident (half) wits. I was editor for the repair and user manuals, which, since the computer in question was still being invented, required a lot of interaction with the engineers that were building it. By my office door was my official job title, which I altered to read:
That attitude came from incidents at other writing jobs. For example, I’d once interviewed a field tech engineer (repairman who went out to our customers’ sites and fixed our machines when they broke) about the way a certain circuit worked, and at the end he patted me on the shoulder and said, “If you have any problems, just let me know. I’m something of a writer myself, you know.”
For some reason the phrase combined with the shoulder pat hit me wrong. You see, I not only had spent four years in the military as a computer repairman, I also put in another four years at Texas A&M getting degrees in physics and journalism to get where I was. So to have some guy who, according to his own notes had trouble spelling anything over four letters — to have him act so condescending towards my job made my gut churn. I immediately went back and told my fellow writers about it, and we all had a good (if somewhat bitter) laugh. “I’m something of a writer myself, you know” became the punch line to many an inside joke for several months thereafter.
But that was when I was still just a pup in my chosen career and hadn’t yet learned the big lesson: everybody learns to write in the first grade. Okay, to be accurate, everyone learns the alphabet in the first grade and a few sort of learn to spell. But every adult thinks s/he knows how to write and always have. At least that’s true of all the engineers I ever met. A software engineer (those are people who write the code that makes computers do what they do) pushed this home one day when he tried to argue that his spelling of a common word was right and the dictionary was wrong. Why was this important? Because the engineers, believe it or not, had final say over what went into the manuals.
Now the logic for that is actually based on something reasonable: very slight changes in, say, a start-up procedure can crash a complicated computer. So stuff has to be presented in the right order. And any mistake in reproducing segments of the computer code in a repair manual can give rise to all kinds of havoc. Therefore, the powers that be decided that engineers should have the final say in all things written. I was certainly willing to give them the power to decide technical issues, but I wanted to draw the line at spelling and proper sentence structure. That’s when I discovered that the opinion of a lowly writer didn’t count. After all, everybody learns to write in the first grade.
So, with perhaps more than a bit of pique, I altered my sign. I should have known it wouldn’t stop there. By 5 pm it had been changed several times. The final result said:
Before I went home that night, I slid the piece of paper out of its plastic holder and enshrined it on my desktop. I wasn’t upset — in fact, I thought it was now perfect and I didn’t want it to keep being “edited”. People change everything.
Yes. Yes we do…