Every industry has its own jargon, but techies seem to gravitate toward indecipherable gobbledygook. Even if you take acronyms like DRM, LCD, USB and PDA out of the equation, there’s still a lot of obfuscating verbiage in an industry where people “dialogue” instead of talk, and call features “functionality.”
The social media revolution of the last few years has forced many techies to write like human beings. After all, if your blog posts aren’t understandable by the masses, you’ll know by the comments (or lack thereof).
But a new US federal law is poised to go a long way toward conquering opaque language. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires all federal agencies to use plain language in all spoken and written communications, including websites, documents, forms and webcasts.
The Act’s passage was a victory for Annetta Cheek, board chair at the Center for Plain Language, which was behind the push. Cheek says that although the private sector won’t be directly affected by the act, there might be some fallout. “The government always sets the tone,” says Cheek.
Time to Talk Plainly
If that’s the case, it might be time to take the communication on your websites as seriously as the code supporting it. Doing so might be trickier than you think. Cheek says she has met many brilliant people who can’t write to save their lives.
“There are people who are decent but not great writers, who can become better, and there are others who will never be good with words,” she says. “There are some people who are never going to be writers. To those people I say, ‘Hire a writer.’”
If you’re in the first category and still have hope, here are some tips for clearer writing:
- Study. There are several good books that can give you tips for clearer writing and communication. Your best bets: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, and Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C. Wydick.
- Don’t rely too much on readability tests. Use rating systems, such as the Flesch-Kincaid readability test — available on Microsoft Word — sparingly. While the rating might be used as a blunt instrument, Cheek points out that the test is unable to distinguish gibberish from cogent communication. “It’s very mechanical,” she says. “It doesn’t catch the important stuff, like organization, but if you get a bad score, your writing probably needs work.”
- Consider StyleWriter. On the other hand, you will find some tools out there that will help your writing — most notably StyleWriter, which Cheek says is the best of its kind. “I use it. It always catches something I’ve missed,” says Cheek, who adds that techies tend to prefer such automated solutions. “They take it better when a software program offers them ways to improve rather than a person whose objectivity they may suspect.”
- Know your audience. Diane Williams, a writer and editor at The Tauri Group consultancy, says that in tech, the level of discourse depends on the sophistication of the likely reader. Does your audience know what Ethernet is? Then no need to explain. If you’re not sure, then by all means, provide a definition or at least a hypertext link.
Write Like You Talk
The key to clear writing is to never write something you wouldn’t say out loud, says Williams. For instance, even the clearest speaker might send an email saying, “As per your request, I have reserved a room … ,” though they’d never utter those words in real life. Most people don’t write the way they talk because they’re intimidated by the written word. “It’s a fear factor,” she says. “It takes guts to write something clearly.”
For an organization, a shift toward clearer writing is a way of underscoring support for customers. “Many bureaucratic writers, both in the private and the public sector, rarely think about the reader,” says Cheek. “They think about their organization, their boss, reviewers, legal staff, etc. I’ve had people come to me with a document to edit, and when asked, could not even identify the audience. It was just an assignment.”
When you put more thought into writing, then you’re focusing more on your customers’ needs. “In plain language, you can’t begin to write a document until you know about the audience. And you need to put their needs first,” says Cheek. “That, in fact, is a major culture change for many writers.”