Technical Writing and the Art of Haiku

Japan is an unceasingly astonishing nation. Only a few short decades after being bombed into the stone age during the second world war, Japan rose from its ashes and not only survived, but thrived. The very best electronics are made in Japan. The Japanese car industry has demolished the North American “Big Three”. While Ford, GM and Chrysler drown in debt, Toyota, Honda and Nissan are debt-free and have continually growing sales.

Part of the secret of Japan’s astounding success is the ability of its people to work effectively in teams. There is less emphasis on individuality, and more on the group as a whole. That is why factory managers, for example, often wear the same uniform as their workers and have their offices directly on the factory floor.

GroupThink
This team mentality pervades all aspects of Japanese society. If you are sick, you wear a surgical mask for the public good. When you work, it is always as part of a group; you are strongly encouraged not to upset the group dynamic with radical ideas. Even government, industry and the educational system all work closely together in an effective three-way partnership to continually produce and train the required workers.

This “group think” has created enormous wealth for Japan. However, it has come at a price of a different sort – a lack of creativity and free-thinking, both critical in creating new ideas. The Japanese excel at improving greatly on existing technologies. They are less skilled at creating new technologies. That is why very few Nobel prizes have been awarded to Japanese citizens.

Creative Creativity
Japan has been making an effort to change, to break out of its powerful group mentality and thereby become more creative. Some corporations employ scientists to conduct pure research that may not lead to anything of value.

Research for its own sake is a difficult concept in Japan. The Japanese are, above all, a practical and pragmatic people. Therefore, for them to allow experimental work like this is quite incredible. Unfortunately, there no scientific way to guarantee the generation of effective and practical new technologies. The only method is to find creative people, put them in a lab, throw lots of money at them and hope that something develops.

Of course, creativity applies to so much more than the business world. It applies to the arts, too. In fact, although you may be able to survive in business without being too creative, you would not survive as an artist, where creativity is essential. Even in the arts, though, Japan has created a formal structure and process, and the best example of this is Haiku.

Poetry in Motion

Haiku is a structured form of poetry that is over four hundred years old. The poems are three lines long. The first and third lines typically have five syllables, and the second line has seven syllables.

Here is a modern example:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

The challenge is to be creative within these rules. Because this can be quite difficult, there are many Haiku poems that do not follow this structure, yet still could be considered art.

With this in mind, I present to you a series of Haiku-style poems that I confess do not follow the formal structure. In fact, every technical writer must face the choice of following an existing structure in their work (a style guide), or going outside of that structure when necessary. That is your choice – make it a good one.

And now, on to the poetry…

The draft returns
On its cover, two words
“Needs work”
The horror, the horror

Auto-numbering in Word
Ah, the sheer joy
It’s as easy as
13, 7, 42

“Let’s take it offline”
the manager sings
We are offline. We are online.
What are we – the Borg?

The marketer says:
“architect our software”
“leverage our knowledge”
“empower our synergy”
Marketers…
Such funny creatures

Young Jedi tech writer
His mind corrupted with unstructured Frame
and the madness of Word
You must unlearn
all you have learned

XML is simple
Just elements, attributes & variables
Have no fear
It’s not rocket surgery

FrameMaker conditions – solid as concrete
FrameMaker variables – beyond unbreakable
FrameMaker text insets –
I weep uncontrollably

The programmer writes:
“using the zeta function
the new class may
inherit the variable
or be destroyed”
What colour is the sky
in the programmer’s world?

The PDF file size – so very large!
The business analyst asks:
“Can’t we just use
a smaller font?”
Must control
fist of death

I see the demo
of the shiny new CMS
XML, multiple outputs, versioning, workflow
Let the drooling begin

The cover
of the shipped guide torments me
“User Mnaul”
Quick and painless
It is an honourable death

XML, CSS, CMS
HTML, XHTML, XSL-FO
PDF, TIFF, GIF
Alphabet soup
Makes me nauseous

The 2,000 page document is complete
Peace at last
What – more changes?
I insert the CD ROM
delicately into
the reviewer’s skull
The nervous tech writing students
Await my interview of them
Entering as the Emperor, I bellow
“Bring me that one –
He amuses me.”

A guide is required
27 versions
6 different formats
14 languages
Excuse me while I place
gingerly into the paper cutter
my aching head

Testing the software
The message appears
I chuckle heartily
“Error, big”

Savouring the smell
of the freshly printed manual
in the morning
It smells like
printer toner

343 screenshots
All to be redone
Years later, from the tech writing department
You can still hear the screams
See the SME
who does not return his draft
See Igor, the seven foot tech writer
Run, SME, run!

The haughty reviewer
Demands to see the document
I send an XML file
He has no viewer
Vengeance is mine

Adopted by the Adobe tribe
I receive my First Nations name
Know it well
“Dances with Fonts”

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