Words matter

A contemporary version of the existential credo 'I think, therefore I am' must be 'I run spell check, therefore I write.' For, all too often, passing a spell check is the best that can be said of some technical writing.

          A contemporary version of the existential credo "I think, therefore I am" must be "I run spell check, therefore I write." For, all too often, passing a spell check is the best that can be said of some technical writing.

          With technology after technology being piled on us in our daily IT existence, information overload is so much a fact of life that it is rarely mentioned. Yet, it is only "words" that let us deal with this glut. Good writing, then, is a necessity, not a luxury.

          The reasons for this state of affairs are manifold. In some cases, time is the enemy. A reporter covering a breaking news story is, almost by definition, rushing copy through the pipeline, and some things just don't get caught.

          In other cases, there is the carefully crafted "technospeak." Used by white-paper writers, analysts, vendors and trade journalists, this formula demands mixing a copious amount of space-appropriate jargon such that a casual reader will be impressed. Furthermore, when that reader fails to understand what is written, he will assume himself to be inadequate to the task.

          Such pieces, of which there are many examples, hearken back to a well-worn maxim: "If you can't dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your . . ." Well, you get the picture

          In yet other cases, sloppiness or just plain ignorance are to blame. But examples tell the best story. And these examples are all from a sampling of trade publications that came across my desk in recent months.

          In a story updating the reader on the state of caching technology, a prominent bullet list of "benefits" lists: "Increase response times by pushing content closer to end users."

          So according to the writer, before I install a cache I might have, say, a three second response time. After, I would "increase" my response time to, say, four or five seconds. Huh? Since when is an increase in response time beneficial? Simple common sense applies here. Installing the cache should decrease response times.

          Another piece about new Layer 2 Ethernet switches says the devices "could help a small or enterprise IT shop roll out Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop on the backbone." I don't know about your company, but I haven't encountered many desktops on any backbones.

          A piece describing Secure Sockets Layer accelerators noted: "However, SSL encryption and decryption can use a lot of processor overhead . . ." So now it seems we have this "thing" in our processor that we call overhead and we have to be careful not to use too much of it. Nope.

          The working definition of overhead in IT is along the lines of "resource consumed in the process of providing a service." Using SSL creates overhead. If the writer simply used "power" or "resource," that would have been fine, but opting for the more technospeak "overhead" got him into trouble.

          The piece de resistance was, appropriately, in a vendor white paper. Touting the benefits of its revolutionary switch management software, the vendor denigrates the old way by comparing it to "flying a 747 jet with a sexton."

          Well, at least it sounds good. A sexton, the dictionary tells us, is "a church worker whose job it is to ring bells and dig graves." Who'd want him up front helping out?

          Could it be that the writer meant "sextant," a tool used for celestial navigation? I hope so.

          Writers should be more careful and, sadly, so must readers. After all, words matter.

          Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Manasquan, New Jersey.

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