Achieving Clarity in Technical Communication

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  • 0:43 Clarity in writing
  • 1:22 Details in writing
  • 3:43 Familiar words in writing
  • 5:28 Acronyms and abbreviations
  • 6:55 Active voice in writing
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

A lack of clarity in technical documents can lead to confusion and costly mistakes. This video provides tips on how to achieve clarity in technical documents.

Printer Problems

Imagine opening your new printer and reading these directions:

There is a lot of stuff you need to do before you can use your new printer. First, set your DPI at 600 x 600 and then load 10 x 30 HGPP into the output tray.

Would you know what to do? Probably not. The directions do not provide specific details, define acronyms, or use words that the general public understands. In short, the directions lack clarity and therefore are ineffective.

It is important to have clarity in your technical documents so that your target audience understands what you are asking of them and how to complete the task. A lack of clarity can lead to inefficient instructions, costly confusion, delayed deadlines, and missed monetary opportunities. In order to achieve clarity in your technical documents, focus on completing the following:

  • Provide specific details
  • Use words your reader understands
  • Define acronyms and abbreviations
  • Write sentences in active voice

Provide Specific Details

This year, the school my children attend decided to begin offering before and after school care. They sent out an email and Facebook message to all parents telling the times, costs, and location of the new program. Within hours, the school's Facebook page was overflowing with questions. What happens if kids get dropped off early for remediation? Would they have to pay? What if parents needed one day a week but not every day? Would there be sibling discounts? The confusion continued to grow and by the end of the day, the school retracted the information. It became very obvious, very quickly that not enough details had been provided, which created lots of confusion for the parents.

It is vital to provide specific details in your technical documents in order to prevent confusion. One way to ensure that you are providing enough details is to anticipate your audience's questions and concerns about your topic. If you are unsure of what those might be, ask a co-worker to read over your document and point out any potential problem areas that they may not understand. Anticipating your audience's questions will allow you to add in extra information that you may not have originally considered important.

Another way to ensure that you are providing enough specific details is to make sure you are explaining how you want your audience to do something and then answer the 5 Ws:

  • 'Who' will be involved
  • 'What' do you want those people to do
  • 'When' do you want them to take action
  • 'Where' should the action be completed
  • 'Why' is the action important

This journalistic method of writing ensures that you are thorough in your explanation of your expectations.

Make sure you also use specific language instead of vague pronouns. The words 'stuff' and 'thing' have become very common in our vocabulary today, but those words do not provide the kind of detail readers need to understand what you want them to do. Instead of using these words, provide a bullet list of the 'stuff' or 'things' to which you are referring.

Use Words Your Reader Understands

Have you ever received a message from your boss that sounds something like this?

It's important we land this deal, so put your thinking caps on and think outside the box. I don't want us to count our chickens before they hatch, but this deal could mean a big payoff for our company!

This sentence alone has four clichés, or overused phrases that lack meaning. The problem with using clichés and other figures of speech are that some people aren't familiar with the expressions, which can lead to misinterpretation of the sentence.

Instead of using clichés and figures of speech, which can confuse the reader, come up with your own way of describing your expectations

To help create clarity in your writing, use words your reader will understand. In addition to avoiding clichés, try to also avoid jargon, or words that a particular profession uses but that may not be easily understood by the general public. If you are writing a document for people within your own company, using some jargon may be acceptable, but documents created for the general public should use language that employs a natural vocabulary.

Finally, don't be concerned with trying to make your documents too academic. Using big words may make you sound intelligent, but if your reader has to use a dictionary to understand what you're trying to say, much of the message may be lost in translation. Instead, stick to simple, easy-to-understand vocabulary that clearly expresses your message.

Define Acronyms and Abbreviations

Our society has fallen in love with acronyms. From LOL to ROTFL, we are quick to type out these short-handed expressions instead of taking the time to write what we really mean.

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