These days, business speak surrounds us. It doesn’t discriminate against company size or position status. College interns and CEOs alike find themselves dropping buzz words in conversation. But to what end? When is enough, enough? The next time you want to move forward, deliver, or buy-in by all means go for it. But don’t expect people to know what you’re talking about. The more time your employees spend guessing the meaning behind your jargon, the less productive they are. Ben Franklin sums it up best: “Time is money.”
Technical writers are a rare breed. To be successful in this profession, you have to be patient, know how to communicate, and, last but not least, understand technical concepts. These tough demands have been the inspiration for this article, the third and final, in what we like to call our technical writing “rant topics.” See the first two in the triptych, “What’s Wrong with the Passive Voice” and “Why is Consistency Important.”
So, what makes technical writing such a challenge?
It’s not like technical writing isn’t already incredibly boring, so why does it have to be consistent? Such is the typical complaint about what we at Shoap do to earn a living. So how important is consistency?
While we sometimes fantasize about people grabbing one of our documents and cozying up to the fire to spend some quiet hours learning how to use a new piece of hardware or software, the reality is starkly different. As they used to say about Ivory soap, 99.44% of the time the only reason people crack a user guide or click on online help is because they’re stuck: they can’t figure out how to do something that they need to do – and need to do immediately.
Consistency means you can find information quickly and understand that information when you encounter problems. Let’s see how.
Why do people use the passive voice? Engineers, scholars and business people alike use the passive voice on a daily basis – probably without even realizing it. So then, why is passive voice frowned upon and what exactly is it?
Simply put, passive voice is a style of writing that makes the object of the sentence the subject of the sentence. Sentences written in passive voice are structured so that the noun who performs the action is not the subject. Confused? Consider this illustration.
Sentence 1: I made a mistake (Active)
Sentence 2: Mistakes were made. (Passive)
After an eighteen year career in technology, I have one thing in common with many of my colleagues: we have children. Eating lunch or grabbing a coffee I am frequently asked “What should my child do to get a job in technology” and “What did you major in?” and “I heard about a computer camp where kids make games. Is this a good idea?”
I have little recollection of how I decided to become a technical writer. I’m not even sure how I found out that technical writing was a thing people did. I followed some roommates from college to Atlanta from Connecticut in the fall of 1993. I was a pretty good writer and I had always been a “computer nerd.” Today that might conjure up visions of Red Bull fueled hackathons. When I was growing up it meant reading operating system manuals. For fun.
Paul Clifton is a Ph.D. student in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been an on and off technical writer with Shoap Technical Services since 2007 and is currently working in interaction and user experience design at Intel.
Recently, I helped my friend update his resume. I’d helped him make a brand new one a few years before, and it had been an extremely painful process, so when he asked me to help update it, I nearly just said no. To my surprise, the draft he sent me proved that he had been paying attention when I had originally explained the rules for making a good resume, why they were the rules, and why following them mattered. His grammar and spelling still weren’t very good, but grammar and spelling are the easy part. Clearly communicating complex information by meeting the expectations of the reader is the hard part, and I was happy to see that he had pretty well taken care of that.
I used to take Microsoft Paint for granted. I saw it every once in a while in the Accessories folder when I was looking for the Calculator or Notepad but never really used it. Then I starting using screen capture programs at work to take screenshots for user guides, manuals, online helps, etc. When I was on my personal computer, I had no idea how to take a screenshot without a fancy program, and then I finally remembered Paint. Since then, I’ve used it for screenshots, creating and editing pictures/photos, and testing.
I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly Googling anything and everything and I frequently end up on Wikipedia’s website. One day I was looking at all of the possible languages I could read an entry in and noticed “Simple English” was one of the options. I was reading about something complex and “Simple English” simplified the topic and made it easier to understand (you could say it’s a “red carpet” to the “English” entry).
When you are a company dealing with your customers’ most valuable personal information, you need them to trust you. One easy way to do this is to have your documentation flawless (or close to it). Also, performing a test run with a small group of people before releasing it to the masses is a good idea. The group of people should be 3rd party users who can find the mistakes you can’t find (since you’ve read and reread the form 40 times and never want to see it again).