Yesterday I posted about a couple of the unusual ways that technical writing texts, or technical writing-adjacent texts, refer to or discuss Donald Trump. Today, the pièce de résistance. My brother Sam is a communications professional–he is the Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department, and the Parks Dept spokesperson, which means he is often the person who makes an “official statement” about anything in the media having to do with the NYC parks. This August, a group of artists installed a cartoonish life-sized statue of Trump in the middle of New York City. I’m not going to describe the statue, because it’s not appropriate for the family classroom, but you can see it HERE. It was placed in a park, so my brother was asked for comment by Gothamist, a site that covers NYC.
From there, he went viral. His statement was covered on every major news network, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called him “the best writer in American government,” and Jimmy Fallon read the statement as the finale to his nightly monologue. If that’s not viral, I don’t know what is.
I asked Sam to talk to me about writing the statement–and we talked about some of the other themes in this class, like the nonneutrality of technical writing and collaboration. (This was over gchat. It’s slightly edited.)
Lucy: So, your famous quotation about trump sounded like it used template language from the parks department. Did it?
Sam: It’s standard practice in the communications department of any large organization to rely on standardized language from time to
time, especially when matters of policy are concerned. In this particular case, the briefing language – which was drawn from our
rules and regulations – spoke of “unpermitted erections,” a phrase which the wits in my office found irresistible to play with given
the subject matter we were dealing with.
Lucy: So was it a piece of collaborative writing?
Sam: Absolutely. A strong communications practice is ALWAYS collaborative. It’s very rare for any good communications office to send
out any piece of writing, whether it’s an op-ed, a white paper, or even just a one-sentence statement, without having more than one
pair of eyes on it.
This particular statement had three different people working on it.
They did so in short order – the turnaround between the journalist’s request and the issuance of the statement was about five
Lucy: WOW! I thought you wrote it alone. It had your name on it.
oh wow! so you and two other people wrote it really quickly, all together? what is that writing process like? DId you come up with the
idea, then other people edited the words, or…?
Sam: It was fun to have my name on it! In many cases, someone’s name has to be on it – and in a case like this, with a potentially
controversial statement, it’s more responsible, I feel, to put a name to it.
But this was the result of teamwork.
Lucy: Were you worried it would be controversial?
Sam: Not really – the strength of the sentence was that it really was just a statement of fact.
Also, remember our audience here:
This is New York, which can take a joke.
Lucy: WOW, so you had your audience in mind.
We talk a lot in this class about how technical language only has a veneer of neutrality, but no language is ever neutral. Your Trump
statement is an awesome example of that, because it is a statement of fact, but it also does not feel neutral.
Sam: Exactly! All language expresses a position, even if that position is only “we’re figuring out what our position is.”
Lucy: Were you surprised what a huge response it got? And why do you think it had such a reach?
Sam: Very surprised. Every now and then we’ll be a little punny – it’s the Parks department, after all, and people aren’t surprised when we
express a certain sense of fun – but the national attention caught us off guard.
Lucy: Do you think part of what people liked so much about it was that it sounded so proper, workplace like, and technical, appropriate… But it also had a naughty flavor?
Sam: I think that any official body that approaches it with a little lightness is welcome.
Yes, I think that’s spot-on.
The statement was deadpan; that’s what delighted people.
Lucy: Right, and it was super-appropriate and super-appropriate to the situation while also bizarrely alluding to the inapppropriateness of a lot of the national conversations
Sam: Thank you!
That was pretty unintentional – we were just riffing on the statue itself, which I think was much more consciously keyed-in to the stuff your’e talking about than we were.
Lucy: It is rare that huge crowds appreciate a good piece of technical writing, the way they did your quote. Can you think of another example of that ever happening?
Sam: Hm – that’s a tough one. I feel like technical writing is often noticed when it’s _inept_ rather than when it’s sly or witty.
Lucy: Excellent point. It’s often intended to be skimmed or *used* rather than read per se
Sam: But in this election something that springs to mind is actually Nate Silver, Nate Cohn and Noah Rothschild’s exegesisies of the polls.
At their best, they’re clear, straightforward, and above all BRIEF explanations of pretty complicated statistical methodologies.
I’ve seen them widely (and rightly) praised on Twitter over the past few months.
Lucy: Yeah. That’s not *quite* the kind of tech writing we do in this class.
So stop talking about it.
any other q’s?
thank you SO MUCH
this is GREAT
that was fun!!