Technical Writing in the Trump Era
Guest post by Gill Kohn
Happy New Year Charlie Brown from Mar-A-Lago
Welcome to Donald Trump’s America! It’s not exactly Norman Rockwell, some might say more like Andy Warhol. Nothing is as it looks, cinema verite’ with a twist: often appearing larger than life and then distorted for full effect. As the Federal courts argue the constitutionality of President Trump’s recent landmark executive order on immigration, we can begin to see the attention being paid to drafting and control over official documents under the current administration. Words must matter to now President Trump, as with the original response from the White House referring to the temporary restraining order from the Ninth Circuit presiding over Washington State as “outrageous”. This response was immediately walked back and the word “outrageous” omitted. However, his characterization of U.S District Court Senior Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” was left in place, much to the dismay of several of his closest advisors. The good news, not “fake news” for President Trump, is that his straight forward, minimalist, no-nonsense style may actually help him, as it did in the campaign, minus the unpredictable ad hominem insults. In the ultra-sensitive area of executive disclosure, as in Technical Writing, less is always more.
Bullets over Broadway
Alas, the first cardinal rule of Technical Writing: Compose your documents as though you were addressing a twelve-year-old reader. Bullet points, charts, graphs, drawings and photographs make your case far more effectively and leave little room for interpretation. Government document submissions are impartial and objective. They should be free of any bias and are heavy on specific references to the statute. In my last series of documents to the Department of Transportation, the Table of Contents was the applied statute in its entirety. Broken down line by line, with the body of the document hyperlinked to the TOC, nothing extraneous at all.
It was easy to determine if our permit request met the exacting requirements of the law. If it was lacking in any area, we could remedy it without delay. Like a Broadway play, as they say, “If it isn’t on the page, it isn’t on the stage!”
Death in Venice
Recently, I needed to file a regulatory mandated incident report with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As a trained Technical Writer, I kept the hazard form sparse and specific. This is what I wrote in the section under Description: “An employee became ill while on-site in our Compressed Natural Gas Vessel Test Pit. He exhibited life threatening symptoms. He was transported to an emergency care center. He died four weeks later of undisclosed causes.” Essentially, an indication of circumstances. At the time of the event, the test pit was uninspected and unapproved by OSHA. There was private discussion within my company of liability, however filing documentation was required. My thought was OSHA would want to investigate the area where the illness occurred to determine safety and compliance for existing personnel. After all, someone got sick and later died. Their response was terse and non-committal, emblematic of understaffed government departments: “We will contact you if we decide to proceed further and conduct a site inspection.” Our legal department rejoiced and breathed a sigh of relief.
Clearly, what’s needed is less talk, precisely chosen words and more action. After all, that is why we elected Donald Trump in the first place: he was perceived as a man who would get the job done without too much chatter and as few words (and unnecessary staff!) as possible. The issue for his administration to tackle is when you begin budget slashing you often lose your best career personnel. OSHA and other government departments may be on their way to more efficient administrative correspondence and limited scheduled inspections, however saving money on office supplies and using fewer words in their official documents is only the beginning toward safeguarding our hard-working employees. But, it’s something to be thankful for under President Trump. Let’s hope it continues as we smile, move quietly in line clutching our popcorn, into the darkened theater of the next four years!
About the Author
Gil Kohn has been creating manuals, handbooks and sales brochures for the past ten years privately as a technical writer in both the wine industry and energy field. He has traveled widely, developing the difficult skill of interviewing both employees and customers, creating the most relevant content. Recently, Gil has begun to explore the online world of publishing articles on current events in politics and the arts. He follows the headlines and then examines the subtext, hoping to reveal a new perspective. You can connect with Gil through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.