I like stories with a sense of place. Some of my favorite fiction writers are ones whose stories are inseparable from their settings — like Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, Louise Erdrich’s Northern plains, or Tony Hillerman’s desert Southwest.
Which prompts a question: how much does setting matter in technical writing? More than you might think.
Sights and sounds
Where is the reader for your technical content? What sights, sounds, and other stimuli are they experiencing? Are they seated at a desk? Standing in a lab? Lying under a car in a repair shop? Floating weightless in the International Space Station?
Now picture yourself in that place. What kind of media make sense for delivering content? The old standbys — printed manuals, PDFs, and tripane help — don’t make sense in a lot of modern settings. Instead, how about an interactive video? A set of tip sheets delivered on a tablet or smartphone?
The streets of Baltimore feel very different from the canyons of Arizona. What’s the atmosphere like where your reader is? Is it a high-stress hospital emergency room? A cluttered home office? Does the reader need information in a hurry? This is increasingly the case — meaning that your content has to be focused and findable.
As a budding journalist I learned the tried and true formula: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. As technical writers we do a good job of covering the what, the how, and the when. Most of us are mindful of the who and the why as well. Let’s not overlook the where.
Have you created technical content for readers who are in unusual settings? Leave a comment and tell me about it.