Sometimes playing dumb makes things work better

A few years back I coined the phrase “professional idiot” to describe what I do for a living.

The “professional” part is easy enough to understand: it means that I get paid for the work, but more importantly, it means that I’m good at it. The “idiot” part takes a little more explanation, though perhaps you’ll have an idea of what I mean when I say that I work primarily as a technical editor.

When you think of editing, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the image of fixing typos, stamping out split infinitives (whatever those are), and imposing tyrannical, centuries-old rules of grammar. I do the first as a matter of course, pretty much ignore the second (since that “rule” never made much sense in English grammar), and use the third (with some sensitivity to changing usage patterns) as one of my tools of the trade, but not one to be followed slavishly.

What you probably don’t think of is “idiocy,” even though that’s almost certainly the most important aspect of my job: I’ve learned how to forget for a period of time that I know almost as much as my authors about their subject, and this lets me play dumb and trip over things that the author’s peers and I could both figure out with a little work – or a lot of work, occasionally. Once I understand why I tripped over a particular wording, I can figure out how to fix it so that nobody else, even if they really were as idiotic as I sometimes pretend to be (and they usually aren’t), will ever trip over it. The result is writing that’s much easier to read and understand, even if the original wasn’t an outright failure.

What does this mean to you? It means that if you’re like most highly-trained professionals, you’ve long since forgotten what it means to be ignorant of the basic knowledge of your profession, and the longer you’ve been doing the work the harder it is to remember that. To you, the phrase “I’m going to RAID the data warehouse tonight” doesn’t mean that you’re going to snack on a few floppies on the way home. It may not mean that either to your colleagues outside MIS, but they’re sure going to be thinking that for a moment. The problem is one of appropriate language: you’ve learned a whole vocabulary (a jargon) that’s wholly or largely alien to the people who benefit daily from your knowledge.

The solution is easy to state, but considerably more challenging to implement: you have to develop a sensitivity for which words and phrases speak volumes to you, but say nothing to people outside your profession.

How can you do this? It’s easier than you think. The next time you’re reading a computer magazine, pause between articles and pick up a newspaper, People magazine or a novel, and browse a few pages. Pay attention to the difference in the writing style: don’t worry about the grammar or the intellectual merits of the writing, but rather concentrate on how it feels. Feel how it affects your state of mind differently from the computer magazine. Notice how certain words never appear. Now pay attention to that feeling, because if you can remember it you can learn to recreate it on demand, and that gives you a precious skill: the ability to change your way of thinking enough to communicate effectively with your users, who don’t speak the same language you do when it comes to computers.

And if that makes you a professional idiot too, then it’s probably the only time you can legitimately feel good about feeling stupid.

Hart ( is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.