What Makes Great Technical Writing?

[Yes, this is one of those "reader input" posts]

What comes to mind when you think of great technical writing?

Maybe a how-to manual that stands out?
Maybe a good book that happens to be about some technical subject?

Data points to consider:

- When I put this question to my Gmail audience, one friend wrote, "Good grammar and pictures." And brevity is the soul of wit.

- An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual is a 68-page booklet from the USDA. The author's love of axes is plainly legible. It's more than you need to know about axes, but that's the point, right? Bonus points for being "your tax dollars at work".

- I've read only one of Gene Logsdon's books (this one), but I liked him immediately. He's been aptly described as a "man of letters"; he's an example of a great writer who just happens to write about technical things.

- Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds is a great little book about water storage. It's 3/8" thick and it's everything you will ever want to know about storing water. Lots of pictures and clear diagrams.

Why Bikes are a Great Way to Learn About Technology

It goes like this. Someone finds out that I'm a "bike guy". They learn that I build up bikes for friends, or they see bike tools in my apartment, or they read this blog.

Sometimes they figure that bikes are all I want to work with, all I'm interested in, just bikes.
The reality is almost exactly the opposite. In learning about bikes, I've learned a lot about other things. Because of what I know about bikes, I know a little about a lot of other related things.

Bikes are a great way to learn about technology. They're accessible, but they're challenging enough to be interesting. Getting started is easy, but learning the finer points of bikes means learning about all kinds of technology.

- Industry standards for bicycle parts are a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Pick up a random bike part, and its threads might be based on a metric, an imperial (SAE), or a totally bike-specific standard. Some parts are ISO, some JIS; Raleigh even had its own threading standards. Then there's the Italian, French, and Swiss standards. A few parts are left-hand threaded. People who know bikes are comfortable switching between all these crazy standards. Inch vs. metric? Try Italian vs. Swiss. Pop quiz: What's the difference between ISO and JIS bottom bracket axle tapers? Ask Sheldon

- Many of the essential technologies of modern life are present in every bike. Bearings, chain drive, brakes, control cables, and spoked wheels, to name a few. People who know bikes are familiar with all these subsidiary techs that drive so many other things. They've taken apart bearings, regreased, and reassembled.

- For under $300, you can buy a set of tools that will allow you to maintain damn near any bike. That kit doesn't have everything (notably a truing stand and workstand). But good luck overhauling your motorcycle with $300 in tools.

- Similarly, information about bike repair is easy to find. http://www.sheldonbrown.com/ is 90% of what you need.

- Steel bike frames are pretty unique in the realm of steel fabrication. The tubes are thin-wall--down to .3 mm in some cases. They can be joined in a lot of different ways, each requiring advanced skills. A frame needs to be straight, so low-distortion joining is key. The frame has to interface with all those funky bike part standards mentioned above. And the frame has to fit the rider, so there's a big human-machine-interface problem to be solved. Building bike frames is challenging, but part of the reward is that most other fabrication jobs are straightforward in comparison.

- Weight is always a factor with bikes. As Keith Bontrager said:
Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.
This isn't just true for bikes, though. As designers and fabricators, bike people are acutely aware of the trade-offs inherent in working within these constraints.

- There are bike parts made from a wide variety of materials, from brass to carbon fiber. Bike people have experience with the interactions between these materials. They know that aluminum seatposts tend to get stuck in steel frames because of galvanic corrosion.  They know that blue Loctite or beeswax can keep a threaded part from coming loose.

Why else?

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