Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Marcovaldo Taught Me About My Technical Writing

Italo Calvino - Marcovaldo Front CoverItalo Calvino - Marcovaldo Back Cover

In our Three Things Italian class the other day we were reading a short story by Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985) called La pietanziera (or the “lunch pail” - loosely translated). The story is from Calvino’s collection of short stories Marcovaldo ovvero le stagioni in città (Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City) published in 1963. In this particular story, Marcovaldo muses about the times of excitement and disappointment when he opens and discovers what his wife has packed for him in his lunch pail. In the story, Calvino uses many different, but related terms to talk about Marcovaldo’s joy for eating and his anticipation of the day’s lunch. For example, opening the lunch pail richiamare l’acquolina in bocca (to make one’s mouth water) and when it is open, Marcovaldo aspirato velocemente il profumo (inhales the scent) of the food.

During the discussion about the story, our instructor mentioned how Calvino uses the different words and associated imagery to approach the subject of the lunch pail and its contents. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head. It is natural for me to write about a subject by approaching it from various perspectives, using different but related terms. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I do it in a confusing manner. Figuratively, I like walking around the subject, seeing it from different angles. What’s more is that I have this tendency when I write technical documentation. I’ve worked for large companies producing technical documentation and I can tell you this: this approach doesn’t fly. When I decide to use different words to describe a technical concept, coloring outside the lines so to speak, I’ve most often gotten blank stares and demands for simplification and rewrites. I feel the approach is a way of mixing it up, injecting some excitement into otherwise lifeless (usually) technical writing. Ironically, a concern I’ve picked up on most teams producing technical documentation is something to the effect “our documentation stinks and nobody reads it”. Hmm. I say there is a rich area of exploration between story telling (like Calvino does and many, many other authors) and technical documentation. Why should there be a separation?


  1. remember the photography book i showed you in London? that guy was genius at writing hilarity into technical stuff. basically what his book was about was "what buttons to push, what settings to use and what accessories you need or should buy" so pretty boring stuff... but he had flair! especially when he said to use pop up flash on your worst enemies...

  2. good example, what was the title again?

  3. Ho gia letto e riletto il racconto - e divertentissimo, come anche gli altri nell libro!

    Per favore, correggi 'Macrovaldo' a 'Marcovaldo' nel titolo.

    Grazie e buona fortuna!


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