Ludicrous Clarity

New gadgets are always fun, but big, complicated pieces of equipment will come with big, complicated manuals.

I’ve been “the sound guy” at festivals for years. When I started getting larger bands on my stage, I realized I needed to upgrade my board. The more inputs on a mixer, the more guitars and microphones and keyboards I can handle. I found one with enough capacity that’d still keep me in the black after I got paid for the next audio gig.

I counted, and this particular board has 227 faders and dials. It also has 60 places to plug things in. (Those microphones, guitars, whatever a band uses to make pleasing noises.) Any mixer will be familiar to me in a general way, but this one can do stuff I couldn’t do before. I obviously needed to learn how to use this thing, and quickly.

The Pit

Equipment manuals tend to be dry, deathly dry. You can perform this task by turning switch A to the “blah” position. Then refer to page X. And manuals need to do this for every possible function of the device. Learning how to make a band sound good is a fun, exciting thing; why should learning how to use a sexy mixer put me to sleep?

In the end, I learned how to use the mixer through trial and error, consulting that manual only when I needed to. And this mixer’s manual is better than most.

I think companies remove all attitude and fun from these because a dry style is equated with “clarity”. And covering every single possibility is considered “thorough”. But trying to be utterly, absolutely clear, leaving nothing up to the reader’s interpretation, is death to any piece of writing.

It’s simplest to have the writers generating the individual sections write in a standard business style, or at least in a standard house style. Comments the editor sends back to the writers of the individual sections might include, “this doesn’t cover how do do [thing] when [unlikely circumstance] happens.” And the writer, under deadline, will dutifully shoehorn a few words into an already tortured sentence. After a few rounds of this, these writers will start producing ludicrously complete sentences and paragraphs. Any editing done at this point will be rushed, and the editor will be exasperated.

“Complete” means getting lost in the details, but “comprehensive” doesn’t have to mean dull. But it usually does, because when a writing project has to be comprehensive, clear, on time, and easy to read, guess which one of those will be tossed out? In the quest to cover everything, manuals simply ensure that people will only open them up (or download the PDF) as a last resort.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouvères.


One thought on “Ludicrous Clarity

  1. Makes me think of one of my favourite quotes from Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.” Having said that, I have gotten stuck with writing user guides a couple of times during my career. Once my client was an engineer who repeatedly removed every attempt I made to be human and user-friendly — because that was a language HE didn’t understand and he never considered the end user. Bad client, bad bad bad! The next time my client was a marketer. The result? An easy, charming, fun, HELPFUL guide. The moral of the story? Engineers should collaborate on the making of a product and then never be seen or heard from again.

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