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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Great Depression

For about two years after what was arguably the best contract I ever worked collapsed, I went from one 10-week contract to another to another. And, with so many tech companies still in great pain from the "Internet bubble burst," the contracts were getting farther and farther apart.

Eventually I took a full-time job for relatively poor pay editing K-12 textbooks. I learned a fantastic amount about writing and editing textbooks, and had some of the best "team" experiences of my working life - we really did work together instead of working at cross purposes as many "teams" have over the years.

For the first eighteen months or so, I thoroughly enjoyed my job. I got to work with gifted artists, competent writers, knowledgeable art researchers and fact-checkers, and ridiculously accommodating screen layout people.

The fun part was going into a conference room with a chapter outline and hashing out the layout and content with a room full of history lovers, artists, and designers. Later on, we'd come togther to review "dummied up" pages with a choices of design and art. Then we'd review the "page layout version." Right up to the time the chapter files were sent to the printer, anybody on the team could make a suggestion, and nobody's sense of ownership kept them from considering every idea.

That said, pay was bad and not likely to improve, as the industry as a whole seemed to be in crisis. As it was explained to me, the textbooks we were working on were ordered when the economy is good, so we were working on several projects that started before the recession started. Then, after a couple years, we had turned in all of those orders, and there were few or no new orders in the pipeline.

Uncertainty and low pay kept personel churning on some projects, and the stress actually caused my mentor to become physically ill. Eventually, I had to take over the project we had been working on together - a state history book for a Gulf state.

A "Damn Yankee" Writes a Really Good Southern History Book

As "editors," we weren't supposed to be writing. But the writer we had engaged to write the manuscript for this particular book seemed to think it was her duty to convince schoolchildren (including the black students who made up 50% of the target audience) that the state was populated entirely by useless, ignorant bigots who had, frankly, deserved to have their factories burned, their railroads torn up, and their farmboys slaughtered during the Civil War. In fact, the way she handled even modern Southern history made me wonder if she thought that they were due for another pass.

Beating schoolkids over the head with the sins of their parents, not to mention their great, great, great grandparents' "owners" seemed wrong to me on so many levels. Finally I phrased the issue to myself this way. "What if by some fluke we had to move there, and my kids had this textbook?" I wouldn't want a "whitewashing" job that hid the ugly parts altogether. But I would also want my kids to read about people and events they could take pride in. Sadly, a number of my coworkers thought I was wasting my time, because, as far as they were concerned, that state was entirely populated by useless, ignorant bigots . . . .

In my research, I found an eighteenth-century settler who was more-or-less the Davey Crockett of his state, as well as a Hispanic governor who showed amazing tolerance and fairness toward other cultures. I found a Civil War hero (respected by both sides) who later distinguished himself as a senator (again, repected by Northerners and Southerners alike). I tracked down a prominent early 20th century "reformer," who - in an age dominated by race-baiting and demagoguery - promoted women's rights and took a stand against lynching.

Here's an irony: while I was doing my best to present the positive side of the state's history, I heard about an art gallery and store that promoted regional artists. So I contacted the owner and asked about a particular artist whose name I had come across. But the owner wanted to know who would hire a "Damn Yankee" to write about his state, and whom he could sue to make certain I was taken off the project and replaced by somebody who "knew Southern history" - by which he meant, someone who would call a war the South started to defend its ability to traffic and enslave people the "War of Northern Aggression." And so on. (He expressed his concerns far more colorfully than I relayed them here, but you probably get the idea.)

But just after that fellow did his best to "cure me" of trying to find helpful folks from his state, the great-great-nephew of the "reformer" I was documenting contacted me, thrilled that we had thought his relative worth mentioning, and sent me all sorts of helpful material. And an English prof from a state university gave me permission to use one of his poems in the textbook, following up with some other helpful material as well. It "shows to go you," as they say.

Treating Christianity and Judaism as Fairly as you Treat Other World Religions

One of my favorite projects was helping with a high-school World History text. The writers presented many ancient cultures and characters (even those we only "know" about through ancient religous text) as historical fact. But when it came to Judaism, they dismissed Abraham, Moses, and David as mythical characters, claiming that all reports that Israel existed as a nation before, say, 700BC were really based on cut-and-pasted forgeries. When the writers did address Old Testament accounts, they did so in such a way as to present an offensive charicature of Judaism - even to the point of recommending antiSemetic medieval art for illustrations.

Interestingly enough, our company was owned by Jews. So I asked one of the owners if he would mind me taking a "crack" at that chapter. And the one about the founding of Christianity, which - according to the chapter writers - was more-or-less a fourth-century fairy tale. The co-owner's told me that his wife was more interested in "religious things" than he was. He gave me permission to meet with her and review my concerns about the chapter on Judaism. She didn't seem to think it was that important - after all most of the Jewish kids she knew weren't in public schools anyway. But I attempted to convince here that non-Jews having a more balanced view of Judaism might be a good thing. So I got the "go-ahead" to do my rewrite.

Then I learned that, according to my supervisors' interpretation of "fact versus myth," you could say "Buddha lived about such and such a time," but you couldn't make a similar statement about Abraham, Moses, David, or Jesus because they were all "mythical characters."

So I took the tack of explaining that the Torah contained "sacred and historical writings of the Jews," then saying, "According to the Torah, Abraham was born in Mesopotamia," and so on. When I was done with the chapter on the history of Judaism, the co-owner's wife took it to her rabbi to look over, and he was very pleased. If you think that I was ingratiating myself into the owners' family, you don't know that family. I suspect that both husband and wife thought I was "making a bigger deal about it" than their own history topic deserved. I also made a point of mentioning important events in Judaism after the destruction of the temple in AD 70 - a date that some Christians, sadly, seem to think represents the end of Judaism as a valid expression of faith.

When I got to the chapter on Christianity, I used similar principles. Instead of conforming to the "facts" as invented by Voltaire, formalized by 19th-century liberal theologians, and repeated unexamined, in countless "history" texts, I could say "The New Testament contains the sacred writings of early Christians. According to the New Testament, Jesus was born in Judea," and so on.

I contributed several other chapters to that history book, and took similar care with each. After all, no matter what culture I belonged to, I'd like to think that my own children would find their culture fairly represented when they encountered descriptions in their public school history books. Though my co-editors didn't have the same emotional connection to the subject matter, they also worked dlidgently.

As soon as the book was approved by the publisher, three out of four of the lead editors received promotions. Apparently I hadn't been on "the track" long enough to qualify.

That was okay, really, though. Soon after that, one of the other owners flew into from the coast to reassure us that the rumors were false, that the company was stable, and that they "had our backs."

He didn't have to tell me twice.

And that brings us to Technical Writing in the Space Age. Click here to go to the next chapter.

Whether you're at the start of your career, in the middle, or at the end, I'll be glad to hear from you, especially if you have a "great moment in technical writing" - or several - to report.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else you care to send me, I remain,

Paul Race

Breakthrough Communications

Note: Breakthrough Communications™, Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, BIG Train Store™, and Trains-N-Towns™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.

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