Engineers are engineers. Writers are writers.

Pen and V-BlockPhil: One of the jobs I have involves book reviewing. You might think consider this a lovely way to make a living – settling down with a fresh publication in front of a roaring fire, spending a few hours reading it and then knocking up a pithy review for an adoring editor.

Well, that might be how it works for the broadsheet and literary press, but if the books in front of you feature lots of pictures of steam engines, your pithy review better fit in the sidebar of a magazine and it will only earn you enough for a working weeks worth of McDonalds Happy Meals, it’s not quite utopia.

Ignoring this, there is a bigger problem. Some of these books aren’t exactly great reads. I know as an author that each one represents a lot of work on someones behalf. Many hours of toil over a hot keyboard have been expended but that doesn’t mean they are any good and I feel a touch of guilt for pointing this out.

Good, in this context, means readable. For many of those who will be buying the book, getting the facts right and printing the pictures of trains properly is paramount. I am looking for more though, there should be evidence that someone has made a bit of effort to make the text read well. Occasionally they haven’t, and boy, it shows.

Years ago, I enjoyed the title “Corporate Webmaster” for a local authority site. This involved me spending time with “information owners” trying to translate what they were saying into words that the people who paid Council Tax would comprehend. To this end, I developed a maxim:

Don’t let engineers write web pages.

It’s not that I have a problem with engineers. Quite the opposite, people who know me realise I have an incredibly high regard for anyone who can properly call themselves an engineer (and Kevin from Coronation Street is NOT and  engineer, he is a mechanic, or at least was the last time I looked about 20 years ago). It’s just that having sat through several meetings about the contentious rebuilding of one of our town centres with people who thought that the public could be stopped from writing to the local paper by filling the Internet with information on pavement loadings and other technical terms, I appreciated their skill considerably more than they appreciated mine. It got so bad that the lady from the press office stopped turning up as she was fighting a losing battle with people who cared passionately about a subject but used language that might as well have been Chinese to her.

Subsequent discussions on a relief road did nothing to alter my maxim and when I used it in a conference presentation on web usability, the audience all chuckled in a way that said “Been there. Got the T-shirt.”

To be fair, it’s not just engineers. I was once told (bellowed) by someone that they didn’t need me to tell them how to communicate via the web as they had been a Social Worker for 35 years. Presumably that’s they were part of the team who had spent half a million pounds on a project used by less than 10 people in a year, which is why I had grudgingly been asked to the meeting…

Anyway, the bad books. It’s not that they are bad, just the facts are thrown at you as though they are hurled from a shovel. Splat, splat, splat. Each one hits you in the face like a clod of earth. Sentences fit together like parts from different jigsaws, tangents are taken and frequently the original topic is lost in a rambling haze (I know I’m setting myself up for a fall saying this, but you haven’t paid to read £14.95 to read this). At the editing stage, someone would have sat the author down and said, “Stick to the point”, crossed out the rambling and made then do it again.

Better still, they should have brought in a writer to tell the story. Writing is a skill that everyone thinks they have because they can put words in some sort of order. Sadly, this means that very few see any need to pay for it. How you can think this when you are about to publish several thousand copies of a book I don’t know. Maybe the projected sales aren’t enough to warrant the expense, in which case, would the paper be better left as trees?

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Filed under Books, Phil, Publishing, Writing

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