RE: Minimalist or low-level?

Subject: RE: Minimalist or low-level?
From: "Trese, Timothy G." <Timothy -dot- G -dot- Trese -at- SAICSeals -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2002 09:29:31 -0500


I'm not sure the term "minimalist" is what you want. Technical writers
ought to always strive for minimalism. We call it conciseness. But a
cardinal virtue of the trade, by any other name, smells just as sweet.

What I think you're going for is scope; specifically it's level of
detail, rather than breadth of topic. You advocate writing at a high
level of detail (what you call low-level, referring to your imagined
audience's level of knowledge); your cronies are writing at a low level
of detail (assuming a high level of knowledge, and probably using a
telegraphic, rather than conversational, writing style, I bet.) It's on
a continuum where you address your audience appropriately. Given your
example task, "On the File menu, click Open," there's a whole range of
levels of detail. From most to least detailed, each is appropriate to
different audiences:

1. Click on the FILE menu. When the menu drops down, click OPEN.
2. On the File menu, click open.
3. Select File>Open.
4. Open the record.
5. Select the first column of the record you want to modify. [assumes
your reader knows that a file must be open to modify it.]
6. Change the decimal point position using Format>Numbers>Decimal
Points. [assumes #5 above and that your reader knows you can't modify a
column unless it's selected.]

...and so on, up to the point where you tell an expert what you want in
the most general terms, and assume he'll take it from there.

What's very disconcerting about your situation is that you have no idea
what level of detail is appropriate to your audience. If it's too highly
detailed, experts won't read it. If it's too low a level of detail,
novices can't read it. A hypertext solution might allow you to
accomodate a wider audience, but you still need a clue about the
audience, or the expert STILL won't read it, and the novice will spend
more time clicking than reading.

Suggest you start by talking to marketing. (Hint: If THEY don't know who
the target market is and something about the end users, keep that resume
up to date...everyone in your company will be needing one soon.) Other
good sources are developers, CM, CSRs, etc. Right now, you don't have
enough information to do your job.

Tim Trese
Documentation Specialist

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