While working for a client the other day, I was struck by how manipulating detail is often critical to writing (and client relations) success. A related question is whether the ability to deal with detail is innate or learned, and how a copywriter’s manipulation of detail often leads down the rabbit hole.
Detail-Oriented: Innate or Learned?
I don’t remember being particularly detail-oriented as a child, although I started winning amateur writing contests in grade school. Certainly I had to choose telling details to make my writing vivid, but not in the same way as copy editors whose sacred duty is to keep the ideas clear without allowing readers to be distracted by typos and obvious grammatical errors.
I probably became aware of detail when I worked my way through grad school as a research assistant for Morton Cohen on the Lewis Carroll letters. On my first day, Morton had one piece of advice: “I don’t care how smart you are, write everything down.” Morton’s goal was to track down the details for every little girl and boy Lewis Carroll had as a child friend, so I spent years reading birth and death certificates in Somerset House in London, wills, military lists, census records, peerage books, and newspapers. All this detail discipline probably made me a natural for technical writing.
Technical Writing: How Important Is Detail?
When I taught Freshman Composition, one of the assignments was always an exercise in process analysis, and a favorite topic was how to change the oil on a car. One of my big problems in grading these was whether or not to fail students who left out a detail that would ruin the motor (for example, if the “replacing the oil filter” step was missing). Some would write the essay very well, and wreck the car.
At the extremes, I have met technical writers who are very talented in understanding technical details and explaining them, but deficient in grammar skills. I knew one who was great with tech detail, but could not write anything beyond simple sentences and bulleted lists. His grammar was also pretty awful, and his copy editing skills were non-existent. (By the way, he once asked me to read his poetry!) On the other hand, I have worked with technical writers who are solid writers with perfect grammar, but who cannot grasp the details of the subject matter in order to write about it clearly.
Anyone who thinks it’s easy to be a tech writer or to hire one hasn’t worked in the field long enough.
Copywriting: Knowing What Details to Leave Out
Although I can imagine situations where tech writers might occasionally leave out details, they don’t do it for the same reasons as technical copywriters. Marketing is not out to explain how a customer would use a product, except in the broadest terms, but rather is out to convince them to buy it. So, for example, copywriters will leave out minor features — and will stress details that are major selling points.
Copywriters are sly, although not necessarily dishonest. If a piece of software lacks a great new feature that a competitive product has, copywriters won’t mention that their product doesn’t have it (probably because their programmers are feverishly trying to add it). Is leaving out detail or being selective about what detail is included dishonest? No manager who needs to make a decision about buying software or hardware is going to want to read manual-level detail to do it.
I find similar omissions work their way into client relations. I wrote some web copy the other day, and the client objected to its tone. I was about to write a justification for what I did (always a mistake), until I remembered that the client had worked for another company that had a website. I googled over and realized that by changing from the third person (Company A does this) to first person plural (At Company A, we do this), I found a comfortable tone for the client. Was I obliged to tell her how I managed this trick? Nope. I chose to bask in the glory and mystery of being a genius for a few minutes.
Thanks to Lewis Carroll’s letters, I can do technical writing, but honestly it is the spirit of Alice in Wonderland and adventures down the rabbit hole that make copywriting much more fun for me.