Level of writing?

Subject: Level of writing?
From: Geoff Hart <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 10 Feb 2000 13:22:08 -0500

Patty Meglio <<...had a conversation the other day about a person who...
writes papers, guides, and articles about highly technical information
mostly for very technical people. The question came up as to what level of
writing this information should follow.>>

Write to the level of the audience, of course, but modified by the context
in which they'll be using your information. If they are capable of
understanding complex concepts, and need or expect to do so, then don't talk
down to them.

<<I thought that most technical writing should be written in eighth grade
English, with appropriate technical jargon for easy and fast readability.>>

"Eighth grade English" is a content-free expression; depending on who's
doing the defining, it could mean using some (generally useless) readability
formula, or that you should test the material on an 8th-grade audience to
make sure they can understand it. In any event, that rule of thumb applies
only to an entirely unknown audience (in which case you're playing it safe
and hopefully ensuring everyone can read the information) or an audience
that consists primarily of nontechnical people (i.e., people who lack the
training, the knowledge, or the smarts to handle truly technical material).
Based on what you've described, that isn't the case here.

<<She countered that if the audience thinks in highly technical, highly
scholastic or technical background, it should be written as such, even if
the text is long and wordy.>>

She's both right and wrong. The part that's correct is that you need to
write material that uses language and a style that the audience expects,
that they're familiar with, that communicate efficiently, and that suit the
purpose of the communication. In its most toxic form, which persists in
certain parts of academe, this means that you won't be taken seriously by
your audience if you don't write convoluted, elliptical, ornate text; in
more benign forms, this is simply a recognition that you must use the
correct words--and use them correctly--for any given audience.

The part where she's wrong is "even if the text is long and wordy". Good
"technical, academic" style uses jargon that communicates clearly to the
members of the discourse community (i.e., loosely speaking, that's the
jargon way to say "audience" <g>). Nowhere do the rules of thumb say that
the material must be long and wordy (and by extension, incomprehensible)
unless the goal is explicitly to challenge the reader to make sense of what
you're saying.

<<If this information is of an instructional nature, I would find it
difficult to read large amounts of text that was written in a level as high
as college level and I think most people would, especially if they needed
the information quickly.>>

That's certainly correct. When the reactor's about to melt down and needs to
be ejected from the ship, even a rocket scientist will prefer "Hit the red
button" to "Strike the round, depressable actuator, which reflects light
primarily in the portion of the visible spectrum nearest to infrared, with a
force of between 100 and 1000 Newtons, thereby forcing the actuator to
actuate the circuit".

--Geoff Hart, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"The paperless office will arrive when the paperless toilet
arrives."--Matthew Stevens

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