About the Samples in this Blog

Sometimes the best way to teach a new way of doing something is to show an old way and describe the differences. I use samples from technical manuals, marketing materials, user guides, and other forms of business communication to illustrate some of the problems in professional writing, and to describe how to apply plain language to solve those problems. I violate no copyright laws in using these samples, and I never identify the text’s author or the product’s name. I do not use these samples to call out writers for their shortcomings in plain-language usage; I am in no position to point fingers, as I still find said shortcomings in …

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Stand in the Gap: Translating Product Feature Names into User Tasks

I haven’t always known about plain language. Before I began studying it, I wrote as clearly and concisely as I could, but I missed an important principle: Translating product features into user tasks. Here’s what I mean: The other day, when editing a help file, I came across a topic I’d titled, “Using Pay Invoices Online.” Clear enough, yes? Sort of. Because the feature is aptly described, users can figure out that, using this feature, they can pay their invoices online. But what if I titled the topic, “Paying Invoices Online”? Users could then omit the mental step of figuring out if that feature will help them complete their task. …

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The Language Link

I’ve worked in technical communication for almost two decades. I’ve written user guides, online help, newsletters, tutorials, reference guides, API specifications, and user interface text. I’ve written the documentation for tax software, task-management software, science-lab hardware, and system-to-system technology used by the mortgage industry. I’ve even written humor columns and articles about technical communication. My favorite aspect of technical communication is its diversity. To produce useful documentation, we as technical writers must know our products and their underlying technology, our users’ goals, our users’ industry, our tools, and our subject matter experts’ temperaments. We have to know our way through a project, and we have to know our way around …

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Jargon Jive: Check out my latest post on the STC’s blog Notebook

http://notebook.stc.org/plainly-speaking-jargon-jive/

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Thinking about Writing: It’s Illogical

Recently I picked up Robert Lane Greene’s book You Are What You Speak. I love reading books about language, especially ones that discuss the various dialects of English, and so I thought my romp through the pages of this one would be another such awe-inspiring tour of my native tongue. I was wrong. From the first chapter, the author’s tone told me this was less a book about English speakers than a rant against English speakers who happen to be conservative. (I don’t mean people possessing conservative views of the language—what Greene calls “grammar grouches”—although he doesn’t seem to like them much either. Rather, conservative thinkers.) Fine, but not what …

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Ditch the Sales Pitch (My Latest STC Post)

In my latest STC column, I explain how to transform marketing muck into a user’s utopia. Enjoy!

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Adversarial Adverbs

Ah, the humble adverb. Writers use adverbs to emphasize a point, deepen a sentiment, refine an action. The problem is, adverbs do just the opposite. Consider this sentence. “I am truly sorry.” The adverb “truly” qualifies “sorry.” The listener’s obvious question is, “As opposed to not being truly sorry?” Adverbs rob good words of their power. Or how about, “I quickly ran to the store.” “Quickly” qualifies “run.” But “quick” is a property of the verb “run.” After all, you don’t run anywhere slowly. Adverbs often harbor redundancies. My freshman English teacher taught me and my classmates something wonderful about adverbs: They can be made useless. In a vocabulary lesson, …

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Adopt the User’s Perspective

Learn to see what your users see. Read my latest post on the STC’s blog “Notebook”: http://notebook.stc.org/plainly-speaking-adopt-the-users-perspective/

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A New Year, a New U(ser’s Guide)

This is not a blog about writing. I feel compelled to say that because so many people hear “plain language” and think “text” or “words.” But I’ve studied plain language in technical communication for several years now, and so I know that using plain language in documentation begins long before we sit down at our keyboards to write. Instead, the journey to the clear, readable documentation the plain-language approach delivers to a product’s users begins the day we say, “How does my user see this product? What does the user need to know?” In other words… The day we say, “I am the user’s mentor, not the company’s mouthpiece,” we …

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My latest post on STC’s “Notebook”

Learn more about plain language in technical communication: Check out my post this month on the STC blog. http://notebook.stc.org/plainly-speaking-be-the-users-mentor-not-the-companys-mouthpiece/

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