Audience and tech writers (was "Instructions")

Subject: Audience and tech writers (was "Instructions")
From: "Jane Bergen" <jane -dot- bergen -at- usa -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2001 14:12:00 -0600

Hmmm.... this discussion of writing instructions is very interesting.
As technical writers, we need to be aware that for writing
instructions, like buying clothing, the "one size fits all" phrase
seldom works. One of the tenets of technical writing instruction is
"know your audience...write to your audience." This factor has deep
implications for, on the one hand, the advocates on this list who
champion that a technical writer has to have intimate knowledge of the
subject to write about it, and on the other hand those who think that
any writer can write about anything, given the necessary SMEs and

Tracy Boyington writes:

"As writers, we should be sensitive to our own audiences. If they
happen to include those whose language is different from ours, it's an
issue that should be addressed. But if you know, for example, that the
product you're documenting is designed to be used by someone who reads
English at a post-secondary level, I see no reason to write for a
hungry 10-year-old."

Roger Boyell counters:

"Two writers commented on Michelle's original post, to the effect that
the Kraft cooking instructions, even if unclear to the children who
prepared the dish, were not meant for childeren anyway. Now, that is
no excuse. Instructions should be clear to anyone using them, whether
or not the user is part of the intended audience."

The answer lies somewhere in between, and I contend that technical
writing is much more subjective than most of us admit. If you know a
subject too intimately, you will tend to write OVER the user, unless
the user is already super-proficient and the product documented is
extremely complex. In most cases, the writer needs to understand the
audience as well as, or maybe rather than, the subject matter. Writers
can get the information they need from the subject matter experts,
document specifications, and testing, but unless they know the
questions the users want answered, they're just wasting time. There
are, of course, exceptions, but they're rare.

Jane Bergen

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