: New: Book Report: How to Sharpen Pencils

I'm a technical writer. I write instructions. I often team up with a "Subject Matter Expert," someone who's really good at doing something. I ask them what they do and they write it down. You might wonder: what's the point of the writer? Why not just let the Subject Matter Expert write things down? How to Sharpen Pencils illustrates this. This work would have been much better if the author had collaborated with a technical writer; or an instructional designer; or a n00b.

David Rees, I'm sure, is better at sharpening pencils than I am. Furthermore, he's a clear writer. However, this book won't tell you how to sharpen pencils. It will tell you things that Mr Rees thinks about as he sharpens pencils—verbal descriptions of problems he looks out for. But if you're not already a pencil-sharpening expert, this book won't help you much. Much of pencil sharpening depends on judgement: "sharp enough" "unblemished" "oversharpened". How am I to recognize these states as a beginner? Not from Rees' description. He has forgotten what it is like to not know these things; he is an expert writing from the expert's point of view.

Another problem is that this work is a book instead of an instructional video. It's mostly verbal description, with just a few photos. When I read this book, I hoped to improve my technique for sharpening pencils with knives. What's a good speed to push the knife? What's a good angle? These are fundamental things, the basis of technique, things that I want to get right before moving on to fancier things. But I learned nothing of them from this book. No doubt Rees would say that I must learn these things from practice. However, I could do that while skipping this book. An instructional video would have at least given me a nudge in the right direction.

Much of this book is not practical. Rees is a professional "artisanal" pencil sharpener, but he sharpens pencils for others to use. It's clear he isn't even curious how his customers will use the pencils he sharpens, if they even do. (He refers to "display" pencils; suggesting that his customers don't use his pencils, would be dismayed at the very thought of doing so because it risks the tip. One has to wonder what they think they're saving it for.) He recommends #2 pencils without naming a brand—as if there was an industry standard for what a #2 pencil is, rather than a hodgepodge of almost-but-not-quite-compatible "standards." He recommends a #2 pencil for students taking scanned-form multiple-choice exams regardless of the number of questions on the exam, not considering the speed boost that a flat-pointed #1 pencil would give in shorter exams. Rees seems uncomfortable with flat points in general, seems overly-concerned with sharpness. Again, he comes at the task from the point of view of a pencil sharpener, instead of considering the needs of the eventual pencil user.

Have you traveled far from home to walk mean streets while wearing a bandolier of pencils? I have. I'm glad those pencils weren't sharp enough to break the skin, because sometimes when I knelt down, they had the opportunity to do real harm. They were sharp enough to write with, but no sharper; and that was perfect. Would I have trusted sharpness-obsessed Rees to understand this? I'm not sure I would.

Does his lack of empathy for his customers corellate to his writing a "how to" book that does a poor job of instructing? Perhaps. As it is, his book gives an interesting look into the mind of a man who has pushed the pencil-sharpening craft to its limits; but if you hoped to approach those limits yourself, you may find this piece frustrating. At least it's short.

Tags: book puzzle scene instructional design writing

blog comments powered by Disqus