Friday, July 19, 2013

Quali and Self-Help Books Or, There's a word you don't hear much any more

I recently had a conversation where the word "qualia" came up. In technical writing, of course, this is a great example of a word that could only be used with a very specific audience. I had to scrabbling back to my first year university course, over 40 years ago to dredge it up: it refers to experiences that are inherently private and subjective. A headache is, for instance, an example of qualia, The expression "I see a tree over there" is a an example of a quale (the singular of qualia)while, on the other hand, the expression "There is a tree over there" is not: one statement reflects my internal experience while the other makes a claim about the experiences we share. A description of sound waves isn't part of our qualia while the experience of music is.

One of the interesting things about qualia is that you can't be wrong about them. You can certainly say "I have a headache" and be lying about it...but you can't be mistaken. No one can say to you "You don't have a headache" because what could that person know that you don't that would put them in a position to disagree.

When it comes to technical writing we want to explain how something in our shared experience works. And people accept that as the purpose of technical writing: that technical writing explains how things in the objective world that we share work.

But I think a mark of really successful piece of technical writing is that it changes the way that the reader looks at the world around them: the reader looks at and experiences the world differently after reading the document. When this happens, readers say things like "Oh, now I get it", or "I always wondered how that worked." We often refer to this as the "Aha!" experience--the mental 'click' when a reader 'gets' something about the outside world in a personal, subjective kind of way.

And I think this is also how self-help books--a kind of technical writing--differ from other kinds of technical writing. Most technical writing is about explaining how the shared, objective world outside of our head works and is only secondarily interested in changing the personal, subjective world of the reader's consciousness. Self-help books, however, are primarily interested in changing the nature of the reader's qualia: how the reader sees the world, thinks about the world, experiences the world.

And I don't think there's a bright line dividing the two kinds of writing. As is usually the case there's a continuum that begins in "This is how this works," then goes through "You can think about it this way" before it ends up at "You can change your attitude to the world." As a result, I suspect that there's something for technical writers to learn from self-help.

Reading or read

1 comment:

Thanh said...

This is gorgeous!