December 2020

How The SME Stole Content Clarity

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

Every tech writer in Acme liked writing a lot…
But the SME, up two floors in development, did NOT!
The SME hated writing! The whole content strategy!
Now, please don’t ask why. It was simply a tragedy.
It could be his English skills were not right.
It could be, perhaps, that deadlines were too tight.
But I think the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his view of the user was small.
Whatever the reason, his skills or his views,
He received each review request, hating the news.
Staring down his nose with a sad, sour frown
At the pages of copy needing notes written down.
For he knew every writer two floors below
Had even more pages of content to go.
“They’re writing appendices” he snarled with a sneer,
“Next week’s the deadline! It’s practically here!”
Then he growled, with his SME fingers nervously drumming.
“I MUST find a way to stop more text from coming!”
For tomorrow, he knew, all the writers would send
New and updated copy he was expected to mend.
And oh! Oh, the words! Oh, the Words!
Words! Words! Words!
That’s one thing he hated! The WORDS!
Every day the writers would sit down to write.
And they’d write! And they’d write! And they’d WRITE!
They would write about tasks, simplifying his text
Which was something that made the SME very vexed!
And THEN they’d do something he liked least of all!
Ever writer in Acme, names he couldn’t recall,
Would embed queries and questions about his design.
As though they expected his work he’d refine.
They’d ask! And they’d ask! And they’d ASK!
Questions about how things worked and why.
Questions that made him want to lay down and die.
The more the SME thought of this writer inquisition
The more the SME thought, “I must stop their whole mission!”
“Why, for dozens of years I’ve put up with it now!”
“I must stop all this content from coming! But HOW?”
Then he got an idea! An awful idea!
“I know just what to do!” the SME laughed in his throat.
And he made a few notes that caused him to gloat.
And he chuckled, and clucked, “What a great SME trick!”
“With this plan I will stop all their asking quite quick!”
“All I need is a suitable tool…” He looked ‘round.
Word, Frame, and DITA, all caused him to frown.
Did that stop the old SME? No! The SME simply said,
“If I can’t use those tools, I’ll make mine work instead!”
So he turned to Markdown, and he started to work,
Writing unstructured text with a giant SME smirk.
Then he added passive voice and unclear antecedents
And plenty of jargon to add a semblance of credence.
Then the SME said, “There’s more” and continued to write
Fingers rapidly flying o’er his keyboard that night.
He used comma splices to join complete thoughts
And he added extraneous words, lots and lots!
When he came to a list of three words in a row,
The SME quietly hissed, “The Oxford comma can go.”
He inserted fragments, not completing a thought,
Knowing their presence would leave writers distraught.
He got stuck only once, for a moment or two.
Then he split an infinitive and used the wrong form of “do.”
He sprinkled his copy with colons and commas
“I can’t wait ‘til they see it,” he grinned, “oh what drama!”
He ended a sentence with a stray preposition
And ignored all grammar rules in his bad composition.
Noun strings! And Latin! Exclamation points! Bold!
Parentheses! Underlines! All uncontrolled!
He stuffed text into cautions, and warnings, and notes.
And he pointlessly put lots of words in quotes.
Then he added em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens
Interchanging their use in an effort to frighten.
He spelled out numbers larger than ten,
Then used numerals when the sentence began.
He threw in some acronyms, giggling with glee.
“And that!” grinned the SME, “Should keep them busy!”
And the SME saved his file, and he started to send,
When he got a phone call from Max, his one friend.
He answered the call, and Max asked for his aid.
Max couldn’t decipher how to complete an upgrade.
The SME walked Max through each simple step
It was clear that his friend was out of his depth.
Max thanked the SME and said with a sigh,
“Why can’t the manual be clearer? Why?”
“Don’t you check it before the content is published?”
“Why is it that the user is punished?”
But you know that old SME was so smart and so slick,
He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!
“Why, my misinformed friend” the SME lied on his feet,
“The writers ignore all my pleas to complete.”
“I give careful reviews and helpful corrections.”
“I’m very clear with my simple directions.”
And his fib fooled his friend so he said his goodbyes.
Promising Max that he’d pass on his cries.
But as Max hung up, with his hopes sky high,
The SME sent his work that didn’t comply!
To the writer he said, “I’ve rewritten your tripe.”
“I expect you to use it without hearing a gripe!”
The text he sent was, of course, poorly written,
And the meaning of his content very well hidden.
He knew to unravel his work would take
Weeks worth of effort to find every mistake!
He thought of the quiet he’d enjoy for a time
While the writer worked to make sense of his lines.
The annoying writer, with her spellchecker and tools,
Thesauri and style guides chocked full of rules!
In the morning he anxiously awaited her plea,
Certain she would ask for a new S-M-E
“Poohpooh to the standards” he carelessly hummed.
“She’s finding out now that my edits are dumb.”
“She’s reading it now. I know just what she’ll do!”
“Her mouth will hang open a minute or two,
And she will sit at her desk thinking it through.”
“I should soon get a call that my efforts aren’t needed.”
And the SME waited for signs his plan had succeeded.
Mid-morning the email he awaited arrived,
He eagerly opened it and was greatly surprised.
“Thanks for your edits,” he read what she wrote.
“I know you’re quite busy; it was more than I hoped.”
“I’ve cleaned up your copy with a few minor tweaks.”
“I’ve attached a new copy for you to critique.”
He opened the document! The SME popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every bad writing practice, the large and the small,
Had been fixed in short order with no tears at all.
He HADN’T stopped reviews from coming. THEY CAME!
Somehow or other, they came just the same!
And the SME, despite all the things that he knew,
Sat puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be true?”
“The content’s correct! The content’s well written!”
“My efforts to undermine have all been forgiven!”
And he puzzled three hours, ‘til his puzzler was sore.
Then the SME thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe writers,” he thought, “try their best to do well”
“Maybe writers and SMEs can together excel!”
And what happened then? Well, at Acme they say,
That the SME learned to think of his users that day!
And from that minute on, he worked with his team
He gave thoughtful reviews and held all in esteem.
He met the users! He saw what they wanted!
And he, HE HIMSELF! The SME responded.


About the Author: Dawn Stevens, is CIDM’s Director and President of Comtech Services. She has 30 years of practical experience in virtually every role within a documentation and training department, including project management, instructional design, writing, editing, and multimedia programming.