Old instructions

rogersgeorge on April 7th, 2012

I’m not sure what approach to take on today’s topic.

Last week my brother (whom I hadn’t seen for maybe five years) and I visited the museum on the campus of the US Naval Academy. I was embarrassed at the poor quality of the writing  on many of the labels, but that’s a story for another post. One of the displays showed an instruction book for building a sailing ship. Here is a single sentence from the open page:

Some say the general method, which has been pitch’d upon by the greater number of shipwrights and others, and may be term’d shipwrights Hall Rule, is to take the length of the keel, measured from the back of the main post, to the fore-side of the stem, at the upper edge of the lower harping, by a perpendicular made from thence to the upper or lower edge of the keel, only 3/8 of the main breadth, from the outside of the plank of one side to the outside of the plank of the other side, at the broadest place of the ship, being set backward of aftward from the right angle made by such a perpendicular and base.

The intended readership was people in a skilled trade: shipwrights. No people with doctorates or fancy academic backgrounds here. The book contained illustrations, but not for this particular sentence. Think you could handle a whole book of this kind of writing? We built some pretty good sailing ships back then, too. Someone told me that the readership for The Federalist Papers, heavy reading forced on a few high school and college students, was New England farmers. I’m a bit concerned about the typical person’s reading and comprehension skills nowadays.

On the other hand, I celebrate that the technical writing trade has advanced to make even complex instructions (fairly) easy to understand, allowing people to concentrate on the task without having to spend a lot of effort deciphering the instructions. (One of my guidelines is that bad writing must not be justified with the excuse that the reader will figure it out.) After all, we build some pretty good spaceships and computers.

I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

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