Dexterous Writer, Witty Juggler
It isn't every day that you meet a technical writer who has a sense of humor, especially about his profession. Barry Rosenberg '79 is the first to admit that when he tells people what he does for a living, "there is never a follow-up question . . . after an awkward silence, the person standing next to me invariably becomes the center of attention."
Which is a shame, because Rosenberg is far more than an accomplished writer of technical manuals. He's a remarkable writer about writing, whose most recent book guides the everyman wordsmith through the mundane communications projects of the working world with clarity, subtle insight, loads of useful advice, and large doses of wit. Notwithstanding its less than scintillating title, Spring into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists, does in fact, well, scintillate. Its 175 short tutorials discuss everything from business proposals and bulleted lists to metaphors, the active voice, the art of editing, the danger of "fluffy phrases," and the importance of audience--and the discussions are consistently engaging and often spiced with humor.
"Technical Writing Can Be Creative," one of his mini-chapter headings, could be a slogan for Rosenberg himself.
A double-major in physics and psychology, Rosenberg discovered his talent for comedy while at Kenyon. He wrote a weekly humor column for the Collegian with classmate Perry Degener Jr., an experience that taught him "how to be funny on a weekly basis." He also read the news five nights a week for WKCO.
Above all, he says, at Kenyon he learned how to write. "Regardless of your major, the expectation was that you would write a lot and write well," he says. "I even remember having a pretty good time writing my physics comps about fairly elaborate scientific concepts."
Rosenberg taught physics and math for a year at a private school in Cincinnati before earning a master's degree in technical writing from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Since then, he has worked for several different computer companies, writing corporate technical manuals on software and programming. He is currently documentation manager at 170 Systems, a firm in Bedford, Massachusetts. And, to date, he is the author of more than sixty manuals as well as the technical "bestsellers" Hands-on KornShell93 Programming and KornShell Programming Tutorial, about the high-level programming language KornShell.
Technical writing may sound dull, but it's critical to the proliferation of ideas, says Rosenberg. "How many wonderful discoveries have been lost because a scientist or engineer didn't or couldn't successfully describe the idea?" he asks in the preface to the new book. The book is the latest in a series of "Spring Into" books published by Addison-Wesley, for which Rosenberg serves as the series editor.
The role of writing mentor fits him well. He has, in fact, taught numerous seminars on technical writing at all levels, including, most recently, four semesters of advanced technical writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The stint at MIT provided much of the material for the new book.
When it comes to any form of communication, says Rosenberg (who has also authored an as yet unpublished novel), the secret is to keep your reader engaged, which is where humor often comes in. "If your audience isn't paying attention, then the lesson is worthless." Or, as he puts it in a playful couplet: "Technical communication is to write and to say / The geekiest things in the simplest way."
Rosenberg's playful side has another outlet: juggling. And not just as a hobby. He taught himself to juggle after he and a friend wandered across Harvard Square one day and became fascinated with the street performers. He and his partner (who is now a psychiatrist) developed an act as the Dexterity Brothers and went on to perform professionally in such venues as Faneuil Hall as well as at private parties.
In the summer of 1986, they spent three weeks in Japan outside of Nagasaki, juggling to crowds in an amusement park designed to look like a European village. There, the normally witty Rosenberg learned just how poorly humor can travel between cultures. Working through a translator, the Dexterity Brothers quickly discovered that their usual patter didn't get any laughs. "Sadly, what did [get laughs] was when I fell off a step by accident and twisted my ankle," Rosenberg recalls.
He encountered a similar problem when one of his KornShell manuals was translated into Japanese. "The translator was totally befuddled by the acknowledgments, in which I wrote that I would like to thank the Academy," he smiles.
In all, Rosenberg performed in more than 1,200 shows. Today, he keeps up his skills on a limited basis, performing with his fourteen-year-old son, Daniel, as the Dandy Jugglers. "If we do five paid shows a year, that's a lot," he says.
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