Technical Writers Beware

Larry’s new to the company; he’s gone through some training, has eight years of experience, and is ready to start his new marketing job.  Larry’s also a creative person, and reading the policy and procedure manual is close to root canal for him, but he’ll do it over the weekend…at least he’ll start it.

Kristen’s also new to the company and she’s ready to know everything about it and her IT department; she’ll read and reread the policy and procedure manual over the weekend.  She’ll probably memorize parts of it just for fun and understand every word.

 

Larry and Kristen represent the cross section of most employees; they both need to understand what the policies of the company are, and how to implement the procedures during their tenure at the company.  When you write policy and procedure, instructional manuals, and status reports write with a diverse and mixed audience in mind.

Creative thinkers read information differently than analytical thinkers.  The right-brain thinkers – or the creative employee – will read one section and not understand any of it if the writer directs the information to the left-brain employee – or analytical thinker.

The analytical employee writes a majority of these manuals – instructional included – and they need to be read and understand by the creative employees too.  They’re written in a language that most right-brainers can’t begin to understand.  Why?  Because the creative people don’t learn the technical language and jargon; they’re into what works for them:

  • Simple explanations
  • Word pictures
  • Pictures and graphs
  • Plain  and descriptive language

Instructional manuals – to me – are the worst offenders for right-brainers.  They’re written by analytical thinkers who write to analytical readers.  And yet…  When I buy new software, a clock, a camera, even a bookcase at Target, I want simple, easy-to-understand instructions, and pictures – more pictures than words – to help me with the process. If the manual doesn’t have pictures, then the words need to paint that picture for the readers. It’s frustrating to be confused in an instructional manual to all of us who don’t have the innate technical abilities that “geeks” have.

Policy and procedure manuals are the same: plain safety issues are vital.  Understanding what to do in an emergency, or what I need to do and whom I need to see if I need to take emergency leave, or want an extra day off is imperative if I’m going to be a good employee. Share information with co-workers, not in your department, to get their feedback and input. Do they understand all that intricacies of the material? If not, ask what they need to get it in their mind’s eye.

Simple language is a good place to start.  I don’t know if you ever watch NCIS, but I so relate to the major character, Gibbs, when he goes to Abby, the forensic scientist and technical genius, and she begins to explain in a language so over his head, he says, “English, please, Abby.”  Yes, English to us, the reader, who is eager to learn, and yet needs an extra explanation in simple language.

Tools:

  1. Use white space – bullets.
  2. Use graphs and pictures.
  3. Keep your paragraphs to three or four sentences.
  4. Make your sentences 15 words or fewer.
  5. Instruct “me” in simple language – everyday vocabulary.
  6. Never assume.
  7. Write for the reader.

Larry doesn’t need a translator; he needs and wants the information to speak to him as well as the other readers.  There is common ground.  Give him the opportunity to dig into his policy and procedure manual and to understand the grounds for his survival; Kristin will survive and possible help the Larry’s of her company when she writes new programs.

© Copyright 2016 Dee Dukehart * Dee@DeeDukehart.com

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