They’ll thank you when…

readingIt’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. As a blogger it’s tough not to succumb to the temptation to write the dreaded (and trite) 2,387 things I’m thankful for.

Let’s turn that listicle on its head.

As a technical writer, what can you do that will make your readers thankful?

Here’s my list.

Tell them a story. Mark Baker asserts that we should see ourselves as story providers rather than content providers. He’s right. Stories resonate with people in a way that simple content, or information, simply can’t. In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.

Give them more than just a narrative. A narrative might be mildly interesting, but a story is more than that. A story is a narrative with facts, or data, baked into it. In technical writing, the data supports the story of your reader meeting their objective.

Provide everything they need, and not one iota more. Don’t leave out any essential data. Don’t make the task appear simpler than it really is. But don’t pack your story with extraneous stuff that captures the fancy of your subject-matter expert.

Write in the proper tone. This will vary depending on who you’re writing for. Crisp and professional for the IT specialist who’s setting up a network; more casual for the weekend warrior who’s assembling a backyard barbecue grill. A tone that works for American readers might not work for Asian readers. It’s all about the fundamental rule of technical writing: know your audience.

Do those things, and your readers will be grateful, even if they never say “thank you” to your face. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve provided something of value.

What would add to this list?

3 thoughts on “They’ll thank you when…

  1. Pingback: The Difference Between Story and Drama | Every Page is Page One

  2. Mark Baker

    Interesting take on Thanksgiving, Larry.

    To me, the biggest thing your reader will thank you for is saying the right thing. The wrong information beautifully expressed does nothing for me. The right information badly expressed is still the right information. Saying the right think si 95% of everything.

    So, “provide everything they need”, certainly. I’m much less worried about the not an iota more, particularly since different people need different things. In a linear presentation, iotas that people don’t need can be a problem because of the limited navigation options. But in a hypertext presentation you can link to iotas that some may need and others not, and everyone can get the things they need.

    By the way, your post made me realize I needed to clarify what I meant by story in my post: Telling them a story is not so much a style choice as the only means at your disposal when raw data won’t cut it. Of course, using drama to tell a tech comm story is still an available choice and sometimes a good one.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. While I agree that “saying the right thing” is vital, I think that’s a tad vague. I tried to list a few ways of ensuring that we are indeed saying the right thing — although I suspect I might have missed one: speak in a way the reader can understand.

      As Mark has pointed out, a big part of speaking in a way the reader can understand is knowing the stories that we and our readers share in common. I recommend Mark’s new article (linked in the last paragraph of his comment) to all who are reading this.


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