I’m passing time in Terminal C at Newark Airport, and way across the concourse a baseball game is on TV. From this distance the screen is tiny — in fact I can see only about two-thirds of it — and I can’t hear anything.
There, in the middle arch, is my baseball game.
Yet I can enjoy the game, simply because it’s baseball — a game I’ve watched since I was a kid. Even though I don’t know the players or the score, I have plenty of context for this game I’m eavesdropping on.
Similarly, one of the best things we can do as technical writers is to supply our readers with information that fits the context in which they’re reading.
Peering at the tiny TV screen, I recognize the words on a player’s uniform: East Carolina. I heard on last night’s local news that East Carolina would play Houston today for the championship of a conference whose name I don’t remember. Sure enough, the other team’s uniforms are red. Must be Houston.
I don’t know any of the players on ECU or Houston. From my vantage point I can’t tell the inning or the score. I don’t even remember the name of their conference. Still, I can see a lot:
East Carolina’s pitcher is a lanky lefthander with a nice, smooth motion. I watch him freeze a batter with a good breaking pitch — not because I can see the ball, but because I see the batter’s reaction. Now the batter is headed back to the dugout walking the same dejected walk of every batter who strikes out, from Little League to the World Series.
Years of watching baseball have supplied me with context. It’s the same with the people who read our technical content. When the content fits their context, they can make sense even out of information that’s new and unfamiliar. But information that doesn’t fit their context isn’t even information. It’s just data, with no meaning at all.
How can we help our readers fit information into context?
Use familiar terms. If the reader knows something by a certain name, use that name. This is no time to break out your thesaurus. If the reader is accustomed to the metric system, for heaven’s sake use metric measurements.
Use diagrams and illustrations that are consistent with each other in appearance and content. If possible, use diagrams and illustrations that look like ones the reader is already familiar with.
Compare new concepts to things the reader knows. John McPhee, about whom I wrote recently, is a master of this.
As I finish writing this article, dear reader, I realize that it needs to fit into your context. You might not care about baseball, or about my ruminations on the game. So I go back and rewrite the introduction, so that right away you’ll see what the article is really about. How’d I do?
What else can we do to fit content to the context in which our readers consume it?