Technical writers, pay attention

By | October 20, 2008

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.

5 thoughts on “Technical writers, pay attention

  1. Pingback: Three years of yammering on… | Caddickisms

  2. Arjan

    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

  3. Jeff Post author

    Hey, Arjan… nice to see you.

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

    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.

  4. Jeff Post author

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

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