On being a writing “specialist”

[Updated September 7, 2012]

What do you think makes a writing specialist professional want to tear out [thanks, Joyce] her hair?  Subject-verb disagreement? No. Business reports with double-spaced text? No. Plagiarism? Not really. Students who write emails to pros in text-message style?  OK, maybe a little. But the REAL frustration is the widespread incompetence of people who claim to be writing “specialists.” And the inability of non-specialistsexperts to recognize them.

Want an example? Head over to Linguischtik and read today’s post, which is a review of a book about writing:

The Grammar Crammer has some jaw-droppingly crazy material. . . Do they have any idea what they are talking about? I’ve never seen such a confused mess. Even students in my intro classes don’t write garbage like this. In the future, the correct order to do things in is to learn something about language, then write a book on it.

This is not hyperbole. For example, the author of Grammar Crammer wrote, “The complex sentence is a wonderful invention of modern writers.” Huh [ shaking head until my brains rattle]? Surely, even non-specialistsexperts must wonder about this claim. There are many more examples. Here’s the comment I left for Linguischtik after reading the review.

I’m resisting the urge to run screaming through the streets out of utter exasperation. It doesn’t do any good to hold book publishers accountable. They have no morals. [I did just realize the book’s publisher is listed as University of Wisconsin Press!] But shouldn’t somebody somewhere along the way have noticed that the author is unqualified as an expert on language. And told someone else?!

It will be depressing, but you can see from her bio page at http://booksthatteach.com/bios.htm that she’s made a career out of telling people how to write. She also authored “12 Ways to Help You Wins [sic] A’s,” in Seventeen magazine and “How to Get a College Degree at Home,” in Playgirl. Her work (with a co-author) is listed as part of the Archive of American History at the University of Wyoming.

Is it 5:00 somewhere?

17 thoughts on “On being a writing “specialist”

  1. Wow… “The complex sentence is a wonderful invention of modern writers”?

    Maybe her definition of “complex sentence” is not our usual definition, or maybe her definition of “modern” isn’t. I don’t know…

    • The authors have put themselves forward as experts on grammar, and any expert on grammar is aware of the widely agreed-upon technical meaning of the term “complex sentence”. Further, any book purporting to teach grammar ought to teach the that technical meaning or else it is failing to do its job. Any other more colloquial use of the term should be explicitly signaled as such. For instance, they could have written “…and by complex, we don’t mean ‘has a relative clause’, but rather ‘expresses a complex idea’.” Then i wouldn’t have complained so much.

  2. Do you think “specialist” might be a sort of back-door way of saying “expert”? Literally (well, per The Free Dictionary), a “specialist” is someone devoted to a particular occupation or branch of study; it can connote expertise, but not necessarily denote it, no? I could thus call myself a “specialist” and enjoy the aura of expertise without directly claiming it for myself, couldn’t I?

    –Milan
    Model Risk Specialist (Reporting and Publications)
    aka technical editor

  3. So it seems that someone who calls themselves a “specialist” to indicate their focus on a particular thing, but who makes no explicit particular claim to expertise, would still need to tread carefully to avoid implying such a claim. Alternatively, they should seek another title (though at the risk of choosing something less familiar; cf the whole “technical writer” vs “technical communicator” thing).

  4. Maybe I’m missing your meaning, Milan. My point is that “writing specialist” does imply writing expertise. What could the author of Grammar Crammer truthfully call herself?

    • I used to likewise think that “specialist” implies expertise. That’s, I found out, not to be the case. I just means “this is what I do.” Nothing more, nothing less.

      • Yes, I totally agree, and this was something very hard for me to come to grips with, but in reality the way people use the word “specialist” does not in fact suggest expertise.

  5. I hope that no one would seriously accept the defense of “I never claimed expertise, I’m just a specialist!”. Besides, who cares what they call themselves if they are objectively wrong on easy-to-check facts about English. And in the case of Grammar Crammer, there’s more than just being a vague “specialist”, an explicit promise of education appears in the blurb on the back (emphasis mine).

    “Here is a cram course on grammar that can be read – and understood – in just a few hours. It discusses lucidly – even pleasurably – nouns, pronouns, verbs, modifiers, conjunctions and prepositions, punctuation, and sentences – including eight clues to ensure sentences will work properly.”

    • Setting aside Grammer Crammer and just looking at use of the word “specialist” across a variety of contexts, I want a word to describe someone who focuses on a particular thing (i.e. specializes in something) who has been at it too long to really call a student, but perhaps not long enough to become an “expert” (let’s take Ericsson’s 10K hours as a milestone, just for the sake of discussion). They’re generally competent but still show flaws. I’d still like to use the word “specialist” to describe such a person; what do you think?

  6. I agree there ought to be a word this, but I can’t come up with one. Specialist somehow implies educated or professional to me, and I would want to keep it distinct from someone who is just a long-time hobbyist. For example, I’m sure I’ve juggled for 10K hours. I learned 15 years ago and have done it in my spare time ever since. I hardly ever drop things and I know some tricks. I am, as you put it, generally competent but I still show flaws. Nonetheless I don’t think it would be right to call me a specialist in juggling.

  7. Interesting stuff. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about what I mean when I use terms like “pro” or “amateur” or “specialist.” And I’m working on a follow-up post. Stay tuned!

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