One of my “other duties as assigned” at my employer is editing and, sometimes, rewriting ISO documentation of our procedures. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
Saying that gets me some strange looks from people who know what ISO documentation is. It’s a bit like saying getting disemboweled is one of your favorite things to do. Just the same, it is one of my favorite things to do, because it makes me a better writer and a better thinker.
Simply put, “ISO” stands for International Organization for Standardization–click the link if you’d like some good sleepy-time reading–and an ISO procedural document is supposed to show a stranger from anywhere in the world how a required task done in your organization meets the standards this organization, and all companies certified by it, adhere to.
To write an ISO document well requires one to be very general and very specific at the same time. It requires an economy of words that would make Dr. Seuss jealous, with a precision of words that would make Dr. Seuss’s head explode. It requires one who takes it seriously to think about the meaning of every term and the logical connection of every sentence. It requires writing and rewriting and rewriting again and again. It is certainly not for people who hate writing, and many who love writing still find it repulsive. To them it is sterile and dull and heartless stuff that snuffs creativity for the sake of hobgoblin consistency.
I get why a creative mind might think that. Yet, I suspect, a highly creative mind may have a different opinion. I don’t claim to have that, but every time I take one of these babies on, every time I enter their jungle just to plant or chop a tree and instead find myself mowing down the whole damn rain forest, I notice something: that when I’m done, if I have done it well, the result is beautiful enough one could call it art.
“Hey,” maybe you’re thinking, “I read about something like that once in a book in school, what was it called?” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, maybe? Me too–it’s one of my favorites, and yes, it deals with exactly this sort of thing. How for something to have a high amount of that undefinable ethereal abstract we call “quality,” it must appeal to both the practical as well as the aesthetic. In real-world terms, for something to be really good, it must not only make sense, it must do so beautifully.
I’m no mathematician. I suck at numbers. But there’s one term of mathematics I appreciate especially when editing ISO stuff: Elegant.
In mathematics, a solution to a problem is said to be elegant when it is simple, precise and lucid. In other words, anyone can understand it, even someone not a mathematician. They may not understand how the heck you got there, but “there” is a comfortably understandable place. You don’t have to know all about dendrology to enjoy sitting under the shade of a tree. (Hey, until I Googled it just now I didn’t even know the word “dendrology” existed!)
So there’s the beauty of writing ISO documentation: It trains one’s mind to develop an eye for the simple, precise and lucid, and as your mind becomes that way, so follows your writing, no matter what you’re writing. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re not just everyone, you might give it a try.
I’ve decided to do a little pruning on this blog over the next few weeks. “Reed’s Story” will go into hibernation soon, so if you’d like to give it a read and forward comment to the email address provided at the link above, now’s the time. Also, arrogant guy that I am, I plan to add a whole page of writing tips soon. Stick around for details and in the meantime, like and share!