Nonknowledge: Intelligent, nonspecialist engagement

I was absolutely fascinated by William Germmano’s Lingua Franca post “Nonknowledge (and Why It’s Good in Editors).” While it focused on nonknowledge being a critical tool for acquisitions editors or for scholarly publishing, it expressed a belief that I have about technical editors not needing to be an expert in whatever subject they are editing.

I must call out this particular quote:

…a difference between ignorance (as not knowing about a subject) and nonknowledge, as a state of highly intelligent, nonspecialist engagement. That distanced, nonspecialist attentiveness…”

In my career as a technical editor, I have worked on products meant for programmers, physicians, network engineers, data scientists, and marketing professionals. I have used my nonspecialist engagement or my nonspecialist attentiveness, along with my natural curiosity, to learn enough about the products that we are writing about, such that I can find the logical and potential technical issues inherent in the drafts of documentation that I edit.

I think technical writers must cross over the line and become technical specialists, gathering actual knowledge of the subject, in order to write useful documentation. However, technical editors can take advantage of their nonknowledge, or perhaps the highly limited knowledge, to provide a critical review of the information, pointing out logic breaks, missing information, or areas of confusion. Technical editors must use a beginner’s mind to untangle some highly technical information. I like the label of nonknowledge even more.

Happy editing everyone.

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2 Responses to Nonknowledge: Intelligent, nonspecialist engagement

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    I like this, Michelle. But I think there must be levels of nonknowledge. While it’s true that the technical writer must develop some technical expertise, she still fills a vital role as a nonspecialist — for example by identifying areas of a software user interface that are hard to use. I see the editor as being one level further removed; thus she can point out the logic breaks, missing information, and areas of confusion that you mentioned.

    In short, nonknowledge is an important tool for both the editor and the technical writer. And since we’re kindred spirits we can pause at the end of a long work day, enjoy a beer together, and commiserate about our experiences.


    • Michelle Corbin says:

      You’re right, Larry, I think it is more of a continuum of grey than a black or white dichotomy. I think that the technical writer and the technical editor overlap in their nonknowledge, but the technical writer slides more towards the knowledge than the technical editor. I know that there are those out there who likely disagree that either writer or editor should embrace nonknowledge, but I really do think nonknowledge is a valuable skill or tool that we both can use.

      Can my beer be a margarita or fruity rum drink?


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