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I'm a geek working as a distance learning specialist for a large corporation.

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What is wrong with parents? Today, my wife and I went to see two vastly different films, Wall-E and The Dark Knight (reviews to follow). In both films, there were familiesKids in the movie theater

Superman is back. Lex Luthor is back, too. It's really good. But is it a triumph? First, a little explanation: This movie is a sequel/restart. Back in the seventies and eighties, Christopher Reeve (whoReview: Superman Returns

Set in the 12th century Crusades and the defense of Jerusalem, this movie should have been one I loved. The crew took pains to ensure an accurate portrayal of theReview: Kingdom of Heaven

Monkey Bites The post is missing a few details (perhaps because they aren't available), but it looks like the popular Eudora email client from Qualcomm is being completely re-written, using theEudora goes Open Source

We've got a firm street date for the new Babylon 5 movie! In fact, you can start ordering now!! As a reminder, here's the early description from JMS, as I reportedBabylon 5: The Lost Tales pre-ordering

There are some out there who would call this "weak 3" of the show. This is definitely the slowest pacing of a Stargate series yet. The premiere was good, butStargate Universe, week 3, Darkness

My second guest shot on the Midnight Movie Club was posted this week, reviewing the film "Return To Me" (with a stellar cast led by David Duchovny and Minnie DriverReturn to MidMo and other short subjects

I talked about this one before, but I had to mention that I just watched a Mythbusters episode on the Discovery Channel that confirmed that impairment is at least asImpairment while driving on phone > drunk driving

It's been quite a while since I found some worthy Babylon 5 geeking. Check this out. An impressive job. He fits a huge number of major points from the show intoFive years in two minutes, 27 seconds

Well, here we are with more sci-fi news. This time it'll be a mix of things old and new. Strap on your propeller hat and hang on, 'cause here weSci-fi rumors and news catch up

Smallville's a repeat tonight after the mid-season cliffhanger two weeks ago. Not sure where the plot is going? Come on... Chloe is still possessed by Brainiac, Doomsday is a ravingSmallville fix

New season, new Doctor, new show runner, new companions... lots of change this year. How'd it turn out? (as with the reviews of previous years, I'm going to try toReview: Doctor Who 2010

I finally got around to seeing Crash tonight. As you have probably heard, this is an excellent movie. A little hard to follow at times, but well worth the effort. ThereReview: Crash

For the first time ever, this blog is involved in a contest. This isn't like a "who's got the best blog" kind of thing, but one that gives you theWill you win?

Kathy Sierra has a great blog (Creating Passionate Users). I've only been following it for a couple weeks, but I'm really impressed. She writes about (predictably) making people passionate about"Interesting" idea

Technical writers, pay attention

New York Times columnist David Pogue has had two extremely good posts lately. One is aimed squarely at general computer users, and both are of great use to technical writers.

In the generally focused Tech Tips for Basic Computer Users, he points out things that all us geeks think everybody knows about computers. There are a fair amount that I didn’t know, however, so the list’s worth a look (though the article is so popular that it may have overloaded NYT’s comment system – the page took a really long time to load).

Here are two examples:

  1. Pressing ALT and the Tab key together in Windows will cycle you through all of your open programs. I’m frequently amazed when people don’t know that simple time-saver.
  2. Pressing ALT and F4 together will close the current window. So if you do it now, it will close this browser.

Takeaway for technical writers: Don’t assume your readers know these shortcuts. Be specific in how to perform required tasks.

The other article is good for any business writer, really, but it’s especially well suited to technical writers.

It’s really easy, as a writer, to slip into jargon. We’re comfortable with the specialized language and the meanings of all these words that confuse regular people. If you’re responsible for communicating with someone who doesn’t live and breathe in your corner of the world, though, you’ve got to be careful to use plain language.

Here’s an excerpt from Pogue’s article:

* Display. “Display” can be a noun (“a display of fireworks”). It can also be a verb that takes a direct object (“He displayed emotion”). It is not, however, a verb without a direct object, except in magazines like PC World: “Shows filmed in high-definition end up displaying in letterbox format.”

Displaying what in letterbox format? Fireworks? Emotions?

The word this writer was looking for is “appearing.”

[...]

* Enable. Who on earth says, “Enable the GPS function”? Only user-manual writers and computer-book authors. Say “Turn on GPS” instead.

[...]

* Functionality. WOW, do I despise this pretentious word. Five syllables–ooh, what a knowledgeable person you must be!

It means “feature.” Say “feature.”

I’ll add my own pet peeve here: Utilize. I want to scream every time I see this word. It’s another example of trying to sound smarter. It’s “use”. There is absolutely no difference in meaning. “Use” is much simpler and more common. That’s a good thing. Use it.

Oh, and while I’m talking about writing skills, here’s another tip for everyone, and it applies to speaking as well: be careful with clichés. If you’re not 100% sure you know it, don’t use it (or better yet – GASP – look it up!). Example: it’s not “for all intensive purposes,” it’s “for all intents and purposes.” “Intensive purposes” doesn’t even make sense. Think about what you’re saying. Most of the time, that will help.

Okay, I’m off to utilize the functionality of the TV remote control to enable the screen to display. For all intensive purposes, that should wrap up my night.

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5 comments to Technical writers, pay attention

  • found this post via your 3-years lookback..via Lee’s blog.
    Great post! I really hate it when I see words that could have easily been replaced by a far simpler word. Among those words are a lot of words directly used from English to Dutch..and ‘Dutchified’ ..just horrible.
    It’s always good to bear the technical writer stuff in mind because it’s partly my job to write decent texts (that is..when I’m done studying).

    Arjans latest blog post..A shadow of myself

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    Hey, Arjan… nice to see you.

    In a sick way I’m kind of happy that the problem exists in other languages, too… :P

    Oddly, I don’t typically get upset about Anglicized words. There are enough problems with people butchering English with English, I guess, that I just let those go as colorful.

    I’ve got a couple more “technical writer” posts in the queue, so you might want to watch for them.

    Reply to this comment

  • Jeff,

    When I read what you said about “utilize,” I cried.

    At last… someone who UNDERSTANDS!

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    Hallelujah! Thanks for leaving the comment. :) It’s good to know I’m not out there alone…

    Reply to this comment

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