It is amazing how many times in my life I find that the more I focus on something, the more I see it around me. For example, several years back my son decided that yellow was his favorite color and we began watching for yellow cars. At the time, I had never really noticed yellow cars before, now they were everywhere: yellow sports cars, cute little VW bugs, sporty pickups, work vans, all with varying shades of yellow from deep golden rod, to sunny mustard, to light lemon yellow. All noted, pointed at, and approved or dismissed by my son.
We see what we focus on.
Richard shared a comment on another post health update: Deadly Disease Targets Atheists that gives another great example of this.
A discussion grew up on the “deadly disease” post about the phrase “in toto” and since it had been used in a discussion so recently he was in the perfect position to notice the concept in action in his life.
His daughter (9) and friend (10) were making mac & cheese for lunch, a perfect learning opportunity for following directions and acquiring some basic cooking skills (like boiling water. Don’t laugh! Some people can’t even do that!)
STOVE TOP (BOIL):
1. Add pasta to 6 cups of rapidly boiling salted water (1 tsp salt). Cook, stirring occasionally, for 7-8 minutes until tender. Drain.
My first question is- who the heck came up with these instructions? Can you imagine trying to bake a cake following instructions on the box that say, “When cake is cooled on a wire rack from the 30-45 minutes of baking it received in a 425*F oven, depending on pan size, after of course having added 1 egg and 1/2 cup of vegetable oil and water and stirring until the clumps are removed, then pouring into a pre-greased 9x13” cake pan, stirred frosting is the best choice as it won’t tear the cake.”
WHAT?????? Not only is the cart before the horse, but the reins and hitching leathers are dumped somewhere to the rear of the whole mess.
Back to the pasta...Needless to say after reading those directions "in toto", the children were properly perplexed as to the order in which to proceed. They managed to get the water into the pot, and the pot onto the stove, but where to go from there?
The instructions ask you to begin by adding pasta, but said pasta is being added to pre-salted rapidly boiling water and the mental gymnastics this convoluted instruction entailed was too much for two pre-teens just learning the ropes of cooking.
The original instructions required full knowledge of the process of cooking noodles, and the reader had to be able to hold that full context in his mind for the duration. In other words, the EXPERIENCED chef would know that the first step was getting water into pot then adding salt BEFORE worrying about how many noodles to add to it when it boils.
It is possible that the person writing the directions for the macaroni felt quite proud of not dumbing down the directions for something as basic as boiling macaroni, but instead provided a bit of mental gymnastics for those who can’t make it on the fly and who actually need to be reminded how much salt to add to the water.
Effective writing is writing that embraces the context for which it was written and takes into account the audience that it is intended for. Basic cooking directions must needs be straightforward and make no assumptions about the cook's understanding.
In the case of the macaroni, a much more clear set of directions would have begun…
1. Place 6 cups of water into a pot. Place pot on the stove burner or element. Turn stove burner to high and add 1 tsp. of salt to the water.
2. When the water boils (bubbles rapidly) add the macaroni noodles to the water, stir often until the noodles have swollen. Remove one noodle on spoon, blow until cool and taste for smooth but not too soft texture..
3. Turn stove burner to low...
Each step in the proper order, presented separately, able to be understood piece by piece and "in toto".
If I write "in toto" one more time the image of the little dog in Wizard of Oz is going to start doing funny things to my brain.
If writing is misunderstood, who bears the responsibility? The writer or the reader?