RE: Variety in Tech Writing (was: Display, Displays, or Appears)

Subject: RE: Variety in Tech Writing (was: Display, Displays, or Appears)
From: Keith Hood <klhra -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Fri, 6 Jun 2008 17:43:24 -0700 (PDT)

> Actually, it does hurt. In the third sentence, for
> instance, the change
> to future tense and reversal of order to "numbers and
> letters" will
> require me to slow down while my mind confirms that this
> requirement
> really is the same as the one I learned earlier.

Dude, please...if that flummoxes you enough that it is a significant stumble in your progress, are you *sure* you're smart enough to be using this software? :-)

In a real document, the these variations in ways in describing password structure wouldn't be right next to each other the way they were presented in my example. So there wouldn't be any visually detectable change in either tense or order.

> It may not take long or be dangerous, but you've
> increased the cognitive
> load. Multiply that by a thousand instances, and using your
> document
> requires significantly more mental effort than it needs to.

The double-take time that you call "cognitive load" is...what, maybe as long as 1.5 seconds? Only in bad big-budget-special-effect movies or, possibly, ICBM silos, could that long a gap make any real difference.

And as you said, you don't read the manual like a good book in front of a fire. When you need help you pick it up, you look up the info you want, you follow the directions and get done as quickly as possible, you toss the book and get back to your "real" work. In the time you have the manual open you see one instance where there is a cognitive load bump. Total increase in information absorption time, 1.5 seconds. And you pick up the manual maybe twice a day. Maybe three times on a bad day. I think anyone can spare four and a half seconds a day.

And, if they refer to the manual often enough, eventually they get used to the fact that it doesn't use robotic repetition in the wording. After they've read that passage a couple of times they're used to seeing it, so that bump in recognition times goes away. End of problem.

> You don't need
> to amuse me or even strive to avoid boring me. You just
> need to give me
> the information I need in the most efficient, least
> burdensome way
> possible.

I never used the word "amuse" or advanced the idea of technical docs as a form of amusement. And I DO need to strive to avoid boring you, because if you get bored and/or annoyed by the tedium of reading the same carbon-copy phrases again and again and again, you'll be less likely to use the manual next time. Since you won't want to subject yourself to monotony, you'll be more likely to ask someone else how to do things, and thereby increase the chance of getting something wrong. That's how it works with real users. And as for getting information, going to other people is the most time-consuming and inefficient way of all.

It seems like people in this discussion keep missing the *scale* of what I'm talking about. I'm NOT talking about trying to make a technical manual read like a novel. I'm talking about something on the scale of whether or not you bother to specifically name which dialog box opens next. I'm talking about not using *exactly* the same phrase again and again. I'm talking about changing one or two words here and there, not yellow journalism.

If you take ANYTHING too far, it becomes detrimental. Same with uniformity. Too much uniformity makes documents (you could say) hurt the reader's brain, and that hurts the usability of the documents.

> The variations you embrace don't benefit me, the
> reader, they benefit
> you, the writer -- they keep _you_ from getting bored.

Actually, it does benefit you, the reader. It's just that maybe you don't consciously realize it because they're on such a small scale that it works almost subliminally. If things this little didn't have any effect on readers, half the people in the advertising industry would be on street corners with "will pitch for food" signs.

If you get bored while writing the docs, maybe you're in the wrong line of work.


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RE: Variety in Tech Writing (was: Display, Displays, or Appears): From: Combs, Richard

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