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Advocates for the End User??

by Sara Schlotte Strande

Those of us who have had Dr. Roland Nord for Editing Technical Documents know the mantra: "The editor is the advocate for the end user." This statement seems obvious, especially for those of us in the practice of creating documents, but its concept can be forgotten in the rush to plan, write, and finalize that document.

So how can technical writers and editors be "advocates for the end user"?

Technical writers should begin thinking about what their users need out of a document in the development stage. What is the purpose of the document? Will it inform? Will it teach? Is it a document for novice users? If so, will it be a general overview of a concept, or will it be a step-by-step procedure? Is it a reference for more experienced users? If so, what do they need from the document? Will the audience get more use out of the document if it is detailed and all-inclusive, or will they understand the document better if it is concise and to the point? According to Nancy J. Campbell, author of Writing Effective Policies and Procedures, technical writers must consider what information is important to users and how best to capture readers' interest through writing style (Campbell, 11). Thinking about what your users need from the document you create before you write it increases its usability. Consider the following concepts when creating your next document.

Purpose

What are you trying to do with this document? Are you trying to inform or persuade your readers? Are you writing for a novice audience or an experienced audience? What do you want your audience to be able to do after they read your document? Decide what your purpose is before you begin writing, and your document will be of higher quality at the end.

Organization

Is the line length appropriate for the selected type size? According to Dr. Roland Nord, professor of technical communication, smaller type should be used on a shorter line. To determine the optimal line length for the selected type size, take the type size and multiply it by 2.5. The answer is optimal line length in picas. For example, the optimal line length in a standard document for 12 point Times New Roman Type is 30 picas.

With a quick glance, how does your document appear? Is it well organized with appropriate use of spacing, leading, and headings, or is it crammed together without any indication of what is important? Use spacing to "chunk" like information together.

Use the same leading around the first heading you use around the second and any subsequent headings. Set up a style to ensure all headings, whether they are level one, level two, or level three headings, are constant throughout the document.

Do your headings make sense and refer to the following content? You don't want a heading that indicates to the reader that a list of procedures is to follow only for the reader to find that a list of policies actually follows. Inconsistencies may confuse the reader, reducing the reader's comprehension of the document.

Grammar and Usage

Passive voice is rarely a good choice for active, concise writing. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, "…passive voice is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice," (CMS, 5.112). In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, which is the verb. In active voice, the subject receives the action from the verb. Choose to write in active voice for a more concise document your readers can easily comprehend.

Passive voice
"Experiments have been conducted to test the hypothesis."

Active voice
"Scientists have conducted experiments to test the hypothesis."

How "noisy" is your document? According to Carolyn D. Rude, author of Technical Communication, noise in a document is anything that takes the reader's attention away from the content (Rude, 28). It may be a misspelled word, a poorly worded sentence, an overly compressed layout, or even a comma splice. Work to reduce and even eliminate the amount of noise in your document.These suggestions are just a few to consider when creating your next technical document. The most important concept to remember throughout your technical communication career is to always keep in mind the end user and that person's needs. Rather than the old saying the Clinton administration tried to live by, "It's the economy, stupid," technical writers and editors should instead consider, "It's the user, stupid."


Sources

Campbell, Nancy J. Writing Effective Policies and Procedures. New York: American Management Association, 1998.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. 2003. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rude, Carolyn D. 2002. Technical Writing, 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Education.