Someone recently posted an interesting question and answer over at TechWR-L that I wanted to touch on briefly as it is a topic on my (obviously) neglected list of things to blog about. The question was about how much jargon is okay to use in documentation. The answer posted in a comment was:
You only have too much jargon if the jargon interferes with the ability of the audience to understand what you’re trying to communicate. If the audience speaks that jargon on a daily basis, you’re doing them a disservice by trying to eliminate their jargon.
The word jargon comes loaded with a lot of negative connotations. Think corporate jargon: “leveraging synergistic best practices going forward.” And obviously, that sort of nonsense just attempts to obfuscate the fact that the person using the phrase has no idea what they’re talking about.
But when you’re talking about industry-specific terminology, jargon plays an important role. It increases the efficiency of communication between members of the community by cramming a whole lot of meaning into a small linguistic space. You can say SOA to software developers and activate a whole slew of concepts in their mind with three letters. It would take paragraphs or pages to give a layperson even the highest-level understanding of the same.
And isn’t efficiency of communication a best practice that technical communicators should be leveraging?
Ultimately, the issue boils down to one of knowing your audience. Can you be sure that your audience is familiar with the terminology? It can be a difficult issue, especially when you’re writing about a topic with which you don’t have a lot of familiarity. Remember that just because you don’t know what industry terms mean does not mean your audience doesn’t.
This is something that technical writers have to work with their subject matter experts (SME) to determine. “Does the audience know what this term mean,” is a good question. I’ve found that often SMEs haven’t given the question a lot of thought, and asking them provides a good starting point for a discussion about what the audience knows.
One point to keep in mind here is that your primary audience isn’t always your only audience.
That said, if you can be sure your audience is familiar with the terminology, you won’t be doing them any favors by cutting out jargon for the sake of cutting out jargon.