The High Cost of Writing

The written material supplied by manufacturers about their products seems to have deteriorated in recent years, sometimes to a point of irrelevancy. With our 1961 Peugeot, for example, came a handbook for the 1960 model explaining the controls of a heater-defroster system that had no resemblance to our own. There are three buttons whose purpose still eludes us, although we have found that one of them makes the interior too hot in the summertime and another can cause the flame of a match to waver slightly. The leaflet accompanying my bedroom air conditioner shows push buttons and dials not to be found on the model I bought. With an electric blanket, the manufacturer supplied a warning that the blanket was not to be regarded as a heating pad, couched in language so stern that the maker might well have added to the purchaser, “You chump!”

Literature of this sort used to be terse, rather stark, and the subjects were of course simpler. A smart office boy with a grounding in English grammar could have written most of it and probably did. “Technical writing” is the term for everything like this today; it covers specifications, catalogues, manuals for installation, instructions for maintenance and repair, and it relates to tens of thousands of products ranging from a potato peeler to a supersonic bomber, the latter containing a thousand or two complicated installations all its own. One wonders how much written matter underlies, say, the operation of a nuclear submarine or even of the machinery in its galley.

Billions for Confusion is the title of a new book about technical writing in the defense program. It is published by McNally and Loftin, and its author is a technical writer named Malden Grange Bishop, who tells us that technical publications “cost six cents out of each defense dollar,” which is fairly big money for writers who, Mr. Bishop feels, don’t write very well anyhow.

As an example of what happens in a weapon contract, the author begins with a motor priced at $200 and sold to another manufacturer, who installs it in a gearbox and sells it, with his gear train, to a manufacturer who adds it to a blower. The apparatus is then sold to a company that builds it into a ventilating system for electronic equipment, sells it to an electronics company which sells it to the airframe company that ultimately sells the complete unit to the Air Force. The markup at each stage will depend on what each participant thinks he can get, but it will never be less, according to Mr. Bishop, than 20 percent. If each takes only 20 percent, the motor becomes an $829.44 motor.

If a considerable packet of technical writing accompanies the product through each transaction and is enlarged by the next, the ultimate cost of the writing is correspondingly high, says Mr. Bishop. Even so, he contends, much of the later writing is pilfered from earlier phases of the contract, and some of the writers and inspectors (weaponese for editors) are so bad that these lootings are not even copied correctly.

Incomes of technical writers can run to as much as $30,000 a year, which might suggest to the schools of education the possibility of reinstating elementary grammar in the public schools. Might not technical writing be the answer for the early dropouts, now unemployed and roaming the streets in all manner of delinquencies?