Tools vs expertise: A conversation about writing, processing words, and setting type

A couple of years ago, this tweet was pinned to the top of my timeline for a few months. I still quite like it:

Last night my good friend Brandel Zachernuk picked up on this and no, I have no idea why he was sitting around pondering things he’d seen on Twitter 23 months ago. Whyever that was, we had a good chat and came up with a few things that are worth keeping, so here’s a transcript (edited for grammar and to remove chat about children, radio, SpaceX, and macroeconomic psychology). (The two of us aren’t very good at staying on track.)

BRANDEL: I just had a neat thought, related to your Keanu moment about ‘word processors’
Microsoft Word and its ilk never started as being tools for writing.
They were tools for typesetting
That’s a different task you do at a totally different time.

MAX: I suppose the typewriter had already combined composition (i.e. authoring – choosing the words that you use to express your ideas) and typesetting, but by incident of their mechanics they had limited almost every possible design decision to choice of 1 option.
You buy a typewriter and it comes with a single font. You choose a paper width and the margins are built in, etc.

B: That’s true, typewriters fit in there too as an uneasy middle ground. I guess there was such a ‘bright line’ between publishing and everything else for a long time.

M: Typewriters took away typesetting decisions which word processors then gave back, but they handed those decisions to authors rather than designers.

B: It’d be great to talk to people who did information work in earnest before computers made all the phases and distinct disciplines so muddy.
Get the tangible sense of what proofs and drafts were, etc.

M: Yes! It’s funny to think that disciplines or sets of skills were mixed up with control of machinery – e.g. you must be the visual designer if you have access to all the little metal letters
…and if you don’t have any little metal letters, you’ll never get to set type in your lifetime.

B: But then the task of setting those letters into a line of type was so arduous that you couldn’t really be expected to manage any editorial decisions too.

M: And now that we’ve built machines that reduce the labour and take away the physical objects, we stress about the wrong people making bad decisions. People are never happy!

B: People misidentified what’s hard about a lot of stuff. [They] mistook the physical things as the hard parts [when the hard parts are actually the seemingly] incidental things also done by people doing the physical work.

M: I reckon that designers have done a much better job of reclaiming their expertise, and redefining it for modern tools, than wordsmiths.

[…We get distracted and end up making jokes about what Karl Marx would make of modern-day space exploration, before Brandel drags us some of the way back to our original track…]

B: Yeah people in liberal arts and humanities haven’t done a great job of seizing the systems of digital production for their own ends.

M: Do you mind if I blog this conversation? There are some useful things in there that I want to have written down somewhere, and a transcript on a blog is as good as anything else for now.

B: Fine by me! It’s really interesting to be surfacing what computers aren’t doing, or haven’t been set up to be doing properly. It’s so easy to lose sight of the way into the present moment and which values were prioritized.


That’s as far as we got. Interesting? I hope so. I think so, too. But I think that of pretty much anything Brandel comes up with. (Seriously, have a look at what he’s done on Codepen.)

Someone asked me how to start learning about content strategy, and these are the four books I immediately listed

  • Content Strategy for the Web, by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach (who at the time were both at Brain Traffic). For a lot of us this is the book that got under our skins and made us want to be content strategists. For the discipline as a whole it’s best described as the book that started it all.
  • The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane. The first of two Book Apart books on this short list. Anyone who’s worked for more than a couple of minutes on web content will get a heap out of this book. Content strategy is both a craft and a bunch of tools and techniques, and I don’t know of a book that better combines both sides.
  • Content Everywhere, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. This book, like the next one, is still shiny and new. It’s also the kick in the brain I’ve needed to get me back into things after the Christmas break. (If you’re new to things, just make sure you read the first two first.) Structured, re-usable content is only going to get more important, and more valuable. This book explains why, and how to make it happen.
  • Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane,┬áin which the user, reader or customer gets to play a central role, by using your content on more devices than you could count. The only way your content strategy can cope is by being robust enough for whatever choices your audience throws at it. This is entry number two from A Book Apart. (You know what? Save time and just get the complete A Book Apart library.)

No-one paid me anything for this post, I promise.