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Fish Or Cut Bait

Constructive Criticism
by Bob Ciminel


June 22, 2004

When I'm not working on the tourist railroad, I am usually at my desk on the 9th floor of Building 700, in the "trendy and posh" Galleria Office Park. My office building is "inside the Perimeter," officially known as I-285, the six-lane racetrack that encircles Atlanta. I work in Cobb County, the last bastion of Republican conservatism in the metropolitan Atlanta area.

photo I-285

"Spring Time Along I-285"
Yes, the same Cobb County that lost the 1996 Olympics volleyball venue, which was no big deal as far as I'm concerned.

The Cobb County commissioners made the mistake of passing a resolution supporting "family values." For some reason, some Olympic athletes, and supporters and spectators, who practice "alternate lifestyles," which I assume do not include "family values," were afraid they might be harassed or attacked by the blatantly politically incorrect citizens of our county. And so, Cobb County lost the Olympics.

When the motor-vehicle merry-go-round on I-285 is not distracting me (it's right outside my window), I write technical reports about nuclear power plants. I write reports about things that go wrong and why they went wrong. If pumps and valves don't excite you, the reports would probably bore you.

I don't write about nuclear meltdowns; just the day-to-day events that occur during the operation of a nuclear power station. Some are serious, most aren't, and none of them stack up to Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. I'd show you an excerpt from one of my reports, but then I'd have to kill you. It's not that the stuff I write is top secret or anything, only Chinese nationals working in our nuclear weapons laboratories are allowed access to those kinds of reports, but they are copyrighted. We have to prevent Ralph Nader and Greenpeace publishing the reports on their Web sites because, as with most organizations that profit from people's fears and phobias, they would take things out of context and make them sound a lot worse than they really were. Besides, the reports are very technical, and your average run-of-the-mill anti-technology, enviro-whacko probably wouldn't understand the big words.

One of the things I learned early in my career as a technical writer was to accept criticism. My reports go through multiple reviews before they are published. After all, these things go out with the Institute's name on them and they're sent all over the world. So, they ought to be technically and grammatically correct at the very least.

I always keep a copy of my first draft and compare it with the final document to see how many changes I had to make to resolve people's comments. Some are technical comments, but most are what I refer to as "happy-to-glad" changes. No two people write the same way, and if you give someone an opportunity to look at your writing, they will invariably try to change it to match their style. It's not an ego thing; what makes perfect sense to you might be unfathomable to someone else. You can see examples of this watching press conferences and debates, or you can try reading the IRS instructions for preparing your income tax return. I expect to receive negative comments on my writing, and I try not to be thin-skinned about them.

Most comments are easy to resolve, but some are more difficult. Here's an example of what I am talking about. Let's say for simplicity's sake, I wrote a report about mice. This is how the comments and resolutions might progress:

Comment: "How many feet do mice have?"

Resolution: "Mice have four feet."

Comment: "Elaborate in document."

Resolution: "Revision 1: Mice have five appendages, four of which are feet."

Comment: "No discussion of fifth appendage."

Resolution: "Revision 2: Mice have five appendages; four of them are feet and one is a tail."

Comment: "What, feet with no legs?"

Resolution: "Revision 3: Mice have four legs, four feet, and one tail per mouse."

Comment: "Confusing. Is that a total of nine appendages?"

Resolution: "Revision 4: Mice have four leg-foot assemblies and one tail assembly per body."

Comment: "Does not fully discuss the issue."

Resolution: "Revision 5: Each mouse comes equipped with four legs and a tail. Each leg is equipped with a foot at the end opposite the body; the tail is not equipped with a foot."

Comment: "Descriptive but not decisive."

Resolution: "Revision 6: Allotment for mice is: FOUR LEG-FOOT ASSEMBLIES, ONE TAIL. Deviation from this policy would constitute misuse of scarce appendage assets."

Comment: "Too authoritative, stifles creativity."

Resolution: "Revision 7: Mice have four feet; each foot is attached to a small leg joined integrally with the overall mouse structural subsystem. Also attached to the mouse subsystem is a thin tail, nonfunctional and ornamental in nature."

Comment: "Too verbose and scientific. Answer the question."

Resolution: "Final Revision: Mice have four feet."

Comment: "Excellent document; well written, easy to read, informative. Really gets to the meat of the subject."


Bob Ciminel ©2001-2004
All Rights Reserved

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