Recently I was doing a training seminar on technical communication. I reviewed what I wanted to discuss and thought about what technical communicators needed to pay attention to. Of course, the reader was the first thing that came to mind. Then I dug deeper. I realized it was how clearly and concisely any document is written for the audience reading it.
How clearly and concisely a document is written affects the reader in many ways. Readers generally skim, scan, or read word-for-word. It depends on their needs. Skimming lets a reader get an overview of the document. Scanning a document lets a reader find exactly what they are looking for without having to read the whole document.
Mainly these two methods of looking at a document let the reader find data first, such as test results, cost, statistics, or any other organized data. Usually once a reader finds what they are looking for they read word-for-word. Reading word-for-word allows a reader to pick up any details they may have missed and to get a greater understanding of what they are reading.
When creating a technical document, the first thing technical writers receive is data. That data could be test results, program code, interviews, phenomenological research, statistics, quantitative research results, or any number of other types of data. It doesn’t matter if the data is correlated, raw, or analyzed. As writers, we need to make sure when we get data, that we shape it into information so that the reader can skim, scan, or read it word-for-word.
We shape the information by organizing and presenting the data to the reader so that they can gain knowledge. Once a reader has the knowledge they need, they can then make decisions to take the correct action needed. Even if the reader decides not to do anything, the action in that case is deciding to do nothing. For example, test results show that lead levels are acceptable to government standards. No further action for mitigation is required for the report reader. They can schedule the next test if necessary.
This all comes back to writing clearly and concisely. If the writing in a document is not clear and concise, the technical writer doesn’t fully understand what they are writing. In other words, they don’t understand the data, the process, or the procedure enough to write information clearly and concisely for the document’s audience. Unfortunately, the document fails for the reader if they cannot turn the information in the document to knowledge.
Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.