Attention to Detail in Technical Writing

When I was a young child (<5 years old), my mother made the mistake of telling me to “go jump in the tub” to get a bath. Literal-minded creature that I was, I climbed onto the edge of the tub and jumped into the water, creating massive puddles everywhere and darn near cracking open my skull. Little did I know that this literal-mindedness and careful (if creative) parsing of words would turn out to be a useful skill when I got older.

Making Life Easier for You and Your Readers

Effective writing isn’t just about correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation–though those are also important. Some other issues can create problems for your reader if you aren’t careful.

Homonyms and spelling issues

These are words that sound the same when spoken aloud but are spelled differently. If a word and its homonym are common and each word means something different, it might be worth the time to find a different word. One word I see in the space business often is “crewed” (the updated word for “manned”) spaceflight. Crewed is fine, I suppose, but to me it always sounds like “crude,” so I use “human” instead.

Other common spelling problems include:

There/their/they’re
Whose/who’s
Affect/effect
To/two/too
Where/ware
It’s/its

There are times that one of these words is the most useful for what you want to say–just make certain you’re using the right one.

Figures of speech

American corporate culture has a lot of terms of art to describe specific business processes, some of which do not translate well with an international audience. There are also clichés used in English that might or might not make sense overseas: rock the boat, move up the food chain, your mileage could vary, clear the deck, go to the head of the class, etc. If you find yourself using one of these well-worn phrases–and my editors catch me occasionally–think again about what you mean to say and try to use those exact words rather than a turn of phrase that only makes sense to a limited audience.

Offensive terminology

Some industries are still very much a men’s game, to the point where certain male-focused words or phrases have become standard business terminology. Examples include “conquest” (to take a customer away from a competitor) and “penetration” how much a market your company has been able to acquire/achieve. And despite women flying in space since the 1960s, many folks in my community still use the term “manned spaceflight.” I have a strong suspicion that such phrases will eventually be replaced as more women move into corporate offices. Until that time, if you are communicating outside your organization where they have alternative connotations, it’s worth using more technical, less sexualized terminology.

Jargon

Every line of work, from astrophysics to medicine to zoology has its own specific vocabulary to describe activities or challenges faced by its practitioners. In fact, a technical writer usually doesn’t get respected until s/he understands the jargon and can use it correctly when speaking to the practitioners. However, if you are communicating to outside audiences, a lot of that jargon needs to be set aside so that non-practitioners will understand what is being said or done. Your job as a technical communicator is often to “translate” between your customers and their intended audiences. Your customers might think that your translation efforts amount to “dumbing down” the content. On the contrary–you are helping them communicate effectively to someone who does not speak their language.

Why They Pay You 

The problems I just described above are the types of subtleties that separate a professional technical communicator from someone who’s not regularly paid to do the job. You are expected to know how to avoid communication problems and embarrassments. When in doubt, don’t forget your trusty dictionary and thesaurus. They will save you a lot of trouble, now and in the future.

 

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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