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Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age.

The first obvious thing about Wired style is that it doesn't look like most other books. It is wirebound, like many of our user guides, but it has a slip case to make it fit on a bookshelf. It gives a "low-tech" impression, but the book is anything but low-tech. If anything, Wired style is the first high-tech style guide. It comes from the editors of Wired - a weird, refreshing, intriguingly designed magazine - who also operate a Web site at www.hardwired.com.

The audience for this book is more likely "technical journalists" - those who write about technology for mass publication - than "technical communicators." But are our jobs so different? As we try to explain how to use a new piece of software or hardware and identify its benefits, are we doing something much different from a journalist who's trying to elucidate the mysteries of the Internet? This book may be a case in which we can take something from one field and apply it to a related field. What does this book have to offer technical communicators?

First of all, it offers some good advice on writing. Voice is paramount in technical journalism. "In short, we celebrate voice. . . . It's the voice of quirky, individualist writers that best captures the quirky individualist spirit of the Net. The voice of people who write the way they talk." That insight changed my writing after I read it. No longer was I so afraid to let my "voice" come through my technical writing. Sometimes we become too enamored of the scientific model of technical writing, from whence come so many of our problems with the passive voice.

The authors pose another good question for writers: "How can we write about machines without losing a sense of humanity and poetry?" It's so easy to let our writing die from lack of passion and examples. I have often thought the role of the technical writer is that of the humanist who is trying to save the world of literature and art (text and graphics) from the world of engineering and science.

In addition to its advice on writing, the book actually provides some style rules regarding technical writing. For example, we should use initial caps for computer keys (such as Enter) and for buttons in point and click environments (Click on Open) and hyphenate complex commands (such as Control-Shift-F). Sure, most of us have discovered these rules on our own or copied the way we see them handled in other documentation. But it's nice to see them set down as guidelines.

As for style, you'll find much in this book about how words should be spelled and formatted. The editors of Wired are big on closing up words, as in email. Their principle? "Since language evolves in one predictable direction - compounds start out as two words, then become hyphenated, then become solid - it's OK to leapfrog the middle step." As for style, they adhere to the "lowercase leanings of the Net." They are quite practical about this: using lowercase saves a keystroke (no Shift key); fits in with international communication, because capitalization rules differ among countries; and acknowledges the tendency of words to move from the proprietary to the communal (as from Kleenex to kleenex).

There is a lot of discussion of acronyms. The editors look, for example, at the issue of whether acronyms should be all caps or initial caps. They prefer initial caps for such well-known words as Basic (instead of BASIC). They argue for the use of acronyms rather than full spelling on first reference to such common names as MCI, IRS, and IBM. But they warn against the overuse of acronyms by "those who buy the bureaucratese hook, line, and sound byte."

Indeed, the book is actually a collection of technical glossaries, organized in chapters by different groupings. The focus of these groupings isn't always clear from the chapter titles, which use such alliterations as "Transcend the Technical," "Capture the Colloquial," and "Go Global." But even if the groupings aren't always clear, the good index even spells out some of the acronyms, so you don't have to look them up.

I'm not a "netizen" like the people who work for Wired. Sitting for 8 hours a day in front of a computer monitor weakens my desire to go online at night. But there's much to enjoy in this book. For example, I didn't realize the amount of e-mail shorthand that is in use. Some of the shorthand is amusing: RTM for "Read the Manual" (a good one for technical writers) or often RTFM (translation unneeded!).

In terms of weaknesses, the book could really use a "works cited" section as it talks about must reading for netizens. Many books, fiction and non-fiction, are mentioned in passing, and it would be nice to know more about them. There is a whole "cyberculture," to use a prefix that the editors of Wired don't like, which depends on a wide range of literature, music, and video. It would be helpful to see them listed here.

Furthermore, the design of the glossaries is unusual in the use of mirrored pages, which place the glossary entries on the outside margins of the pages. This means that glossary entries on the right-hand pages are printed on the right side, making them harder to read. And the guide words for the glossaries are rotated so that they are vertical and, therefore, impossible to read unless you rotate the book. Perhaps, in their zeal to "screw the rules," they've overturned some design principles that book designers have used for centuries.

There's an "in your face" attitude about this book that offers more freedom than technical writing, but one has to take it with a grain of salt or at least write it off to technical journalism. The editors of Wired style say, "When it comes down to a choice between what's on the Web and what's in Webster's, we tend to go with the Web." From what I've seen so far on the Web, however, I think I'll stick with Webster's.

CHARLES CRAWLEY is a senior technical writer at Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids, IA. He is a senior member of STC and was cofounder and first president of the Four Lakes Chapter in Madison, WI. An avid baseball fan, his ideal series would be the Cubs versus the Red Sox.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Society for Technical Communication
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Crawley, Charles R.
Publication:Technical Communication
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1997
Words:1061
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