Monthly Archives: June 2012

Passive Actor; Active Verb

Yesterday I opined that sometimes you have to use the passive voice to avoid introducing the user to an irrelevant actor. For example: The report is sent to the printer is better than The printer prints the report. Using passive voice in this scenario isn’t the worst thing you can do as a writer. But, depending on the subject of the sentence, you can also convert the passive verb to an active one. Consider these sentences: The dialog box is displayed. The dialog box displays. The dialog box appears. Each sentence keeps the user’s focus on the right subject–you don’t, after all, want to say, “The system displays the dialog …

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The Purpose of Passive Voice

Yesterday, after explaining why the passive voice goes against nature, I dropped a coconut shell: Sometimes, in technical communication, you gotta run naked through the jungle. Consider these procedure and feedback statements: To print the report, click Print.      The report prints. OR To print the report, click Print. The printer prints the report. OR To print the report, click Print. The report is printed. The feedback statements do the following by turns: Use a transitive verb intransitively. State the actor in the sentence unnecessarily, thus making the sentence longer. Use the passive voice. So which is the least among these evils?  Let’s pick apart the first two options to find …

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Passive Voice, Is that Really You?

We English speakers crave order in our sentences; we like our subjects before our verbs, and our verbs before our objects. For example: “She mailed the letter.” This is the lauded “active voice,” so named because the subject, the actor, acts on something, and the verb that follows the subject is a “doing” verb. Passive voice, on the other hand, makes the object of the sentence the actor (“The letter was mailed by her”). So the verb, to make this B-lister into the star, mushrooms into a two-part verb made up of a “being” verb and a “doing” verb (“was mailed”). The passive voice makes us work. In our minds, …

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Is the Passive Voice Ever Okay?

Listen, passive voice happens. And although we writers should “prefer the active voice,” as many style guides phrase it, sometimes the passive voice should happen–for the user’s benefit. So in this series on the passive voice, we’ll explore this red-headed step-child of plain language and technical communication. We’ll learn how to identify it, analyze the problems it creates, fix it when we can, and also decide when to let the poor creature be. To get started, consider these sentences: The dialog box is displayed. The dialog box displays. The report prints. The system prints the report.  A graph and timetable can be included in the report. The report can include …

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How Plain Language Affects Technical Communication

Plain language touches every part of what we do as technical writers, every part of creating good documentation. (And by “documentation,” I mean documentation in any form–a tutorial, a user guide, an online help topic, a Wiki, and so on.) Plain language requires that the writer: Analyze the user and write to that audience, focusing on the user’s goals rather than the product’s features Choose the appropriate medium for the audience (online help vs. tutorial, for example) Organize the document’s content to meet the user’s needs Use word choice and sentence structure that convey the message without distracting the user from the message Lay out the document so that it …

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The Gobbledygook Generator

I bet when you saw the title of this post you thought I was talking about your employer’s marketing department. Nope. The Gobbledygook Generator is a fun little gadget on the Plain English Campaign’s web site. Next time you’re in the mood for some jargon jive, check it out. Or maybe just take the Director of Marketing out to lunch.

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Plain Language: A Standard vs. a Style Guide

Yesterday, as I dreamed and schemed about a standard for plain language in technical communication, I started wondering about the differences between a standard and a style guide. Technical communication doesn’t hurt for style guides: There’s the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, Sun’s Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, and–my favorite–Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style. There are style guides for plain language too, including, The Oxford Guide to Plain English, the SEC’s A Plain English Handbook; and the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. So if we have style guides for both technical communication and plain language, can’t we just pick the best …

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A Plain Language Standard for Technical Communication

Ask three experts to give you a standard for plain language and you’ll get three sets of criteria. (Sometimes the experts don’t agree on whether we’re developing “a standard” or “standards”!) And none of those answers even flirts with the special needs of technical communication. In fact, many don’t agree on what type of standard we need. Some use readability measurements, some evaluate the content of the document itself, and some test the document with its users to determine if it meets their needs. (I like the middle path, but I’ll cover these in later posts.) What standards do exist ignore technical communication, and–given that the STC publishes articles with …

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The Tech Writer in the Landscape of Plain Language

I’m surprised; the research I’ve done on plain language (PL) reveals that most of the PL material out there speaks to lawyers (who need it) and government workers (who definitely need it). Few articles discuss how plain language affects technical communication; it’s like the two have never met. Oh, the STC nods to it with a statement about supporting the 2011 Plain Writing Act, but its Web site and publications still sport articles that violate PL on oh-so-many levels. And the guidelines that the SEC and the government have published (which I mentioned earlier this week) don’t address people who write technical material, except in jest. The government’s Plain Language …

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So You Think Tech Writers Already Use Plain Language?

In my research on plain language, I found a funny article that spears tech writers for our, er, “writing style.” Put it in the category of things that make you go hmmmm…. And, also, ouch.http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/humor/technologywriters.cfm

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