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Technical Writing: A Wordy Dilemma

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For many people, the concept of technical writing doesn’t seem to bring up arguments about language. After all, the precision needed in technical writing seems to indicate that there are fewer arguments about grammar and word usage than in other forms of writing. But is this the case? Within the area of technical writing, standards seem to be necessary, but they also seem overly rigid in some writing situations.

A mouthful, to be sure.

The Case for Standards

Within technical writing in certain sectors – i.e. computers, medicine – precision is necessary. Since these technical documents will instruct others to make changes to programs or to medical protocols, it makes sense to have certain words used in consistent ways.

However, this does not always mean that the phrases are grammatically accurate, according to your English teacher.

The standards most technical writers follow:

  • Simplify – All technical writing should be simplified, in terms of grammar. That means no long sentences and no complicated phrases.
  • Use jargon when the audience calls for it – Industry jargon makes sense for seasoned readers, but not for those new to the industry or concepts being discussed.
  • Create clear instructions – The instructions need to be accessible for anyone who reads them.

Having one set of standards might be helpful for technical writing in general, but how can anyone ever follow one set of rules?

The Problem with Standards

Choosing to follow one set of grammar rules is tough, even in the writing industry. From journalism standards to academic writing rules, everyone seems to have their own ideas about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong.’ At some point, the manager of the technical writing team needs to come to an agreement about what is acceptable and what is considered user friendly. Perhaps an English professor might cringe, but technical writing is a field in which the information needs to be used in real life. And sometimes, real life doesn’t put commas in the proper place or end a sentence with a preposition (horror of horrors!).

The debate continues.

Do you agree that your document’s audience should dictate standards use in technical writing? Or do you think standards should be adopted uniformly across all of your team’s output? Do you see relaxation of standards compliance (in documents not subject to strict third-party regulation) as attention spans continually decrease and information is being consumed in smaller chunks? Does standards adoption stifle creativity? Please leave a comment with your thoughts – we’d love to hear them.

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  1. By Pro Blogger Newson 17th, March 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Technical Writing A Wordy Dilemma…

    […]A lok at technical writing and how it compares to other forms of writing when it comes to generaly[…]…

  2. By Larry Czaplyskion 6th, September 2011 at 3:11 pm

    In my experience, a company will develop its own standards but even then they are often not followed by everyone. But they should be if only for the convenience of the end user.

    If everyone follows the company standards, then the different types of document will be uniform making it easier for people to use them. If writers decide to do what each thinks best, there will be too many differences in the documentation and relentless confusion among end users.

    I don’t think creativity has a place in technical documentation. If you want to be creative, write a novel.

  3. By editoron 7th, September 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps the creativity should be applied in modifying the standards to better fit today’s audience – that allows both adherence to standards and opportunities for creativity. Other opportunities would be in using innovative ways to deliver the information. Not saying standards should be thrown out the window or that technical writers should start writing “It was a dark and stormy night” into their documentation, just saying there is room for both standards compliance and creativity in technical writing.

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