Understand the context

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Get to know the nuances of technical writing meant for different audiences.

“Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.”

— Albert Einstein

When you work in an organisation, the top brass may ask you to make tall claims in what you write. Tall claims or fabulous promises may be part of business strategies, but they are unethical. Telling half-truths, deliberately keeping back something to avert embarrassment, distorting a fact to suit your interest or showing unhealthy bias all amount to unethical practice.

These may offer temporary gains, but are bound to put us on the back foot in the long run. You may know that language can be used to express ideas, to camouflage lack of ideas or for a cover-up. Do not go for negative strategies. Use direct expressions and plain language, so that no one will be confused or misled.

There can be legal action following false claims about the quality or effectiveness of your products. As a technical writer, your job is to present matter which you trust to be true.

If you happen to find an attractive write-up from another organisation, you may be tempted to copy it. Do remember that plagiarism is not only unethical but also illegal, as it may violate the provisions of the copyright.

Keep secrets

Yet another point is the need to protect the professional secrets of your company. It will be unethical on your part to publish sensitive or confidential information of your company, even if you have access to it. In the event of doubt, get it clarified by the top management if you can include such information in your write-up.

We should remember that what is technical to one may be ordinary to another. The inability to make this difference often results in experts using their jargon, failing in effective communication. If you are writing something involving technology for popular consumption, keep in mind a reader who hardly has any technical knowledge. Imagine that you have to explain the use of a special software product for accountants. Even common terms in software engineering may sound technical to the accountants. You may have to say what each term stands for, as it appears in your draft for the first time. This should not be in the dry style of a dictionary, but should form part of a description that flows naturally.

Various readers

The type of readers you address may be classified as follows:

High-tech: Comprises experts working in your field. Sometimes, persons who work in other fields can be considered experts. For example, the vendors of electronic goods may be marketing professionals without formal technical training; but they know technical specifications just as electronics engineers do. You can use technical jargon, abbreviations and so on. Need not describe the background, or go for too much simplification. Explanation can be minimal.

Low-tech: Familiar with the technical subject, but may not be proficient. Should not assume too much of specific knowledge. Provide reasonable explanation. In some cases, your boss may fall in this category, as when an administrator occupies the top slot in an engineering enterprise. Indicate briefly what technical words mean when they appear for the first time in the document.

Lay: Unfamiliar with the subject. Assume no prior knowledge on the topic. Give clear explanation, starting from the basics. If a technical term has to be used, indicate a simple definition so that the reader understands what it stands for. Perhaps, an illustration will help.

However, your tone should not give the impression that you are belittling the readers. Further, precision in technical writing is critical.

Any incorrect description can lead to the wrong operation of equipment, or systems causing damage or accidents.

If the same document is likely to be read by multiple audiences, it should be intelligible to the least informed.

While dealing with multiple audiences, one useful strategy is to provide a semi-technical document and add a summary or abstract free from technical terms for the use of planners or administrators. Also, if you write a document to be read at the global level, cultural differences have to be taken into account.

For example, people in certain countries may frown at the expression “piggybank,” since pigs give a negative connotation.

So also, humour may vary from one country to another; never go for it unless you are confident that it is universal. Avoid figurative language or literary expressions that may fall flat with certain readers. If your product is to be used by people in a country where English language proficiency is low, the descriptions will have to be in accordance with the comprehension level. Diagrams will be a boon in such instances. Remember the pictures of men and women displayed in front of the toilets in international airports.

Human touch

For giving a human touch to the document, you may go for the pronouns you, your, we, our and us instead of impersonal words, such as the user, reader, manufacturer, designer and so on.

Compare the two pieces given below. Both aim at transmitting the same idea. But the tone makes a lot of difference.


With reference to your request for the replacement of the faulty tuner, we are to inform that such replacement is possible only after it is inspected by our technician for confirmation that the fault has not been precipitated by your non-compliance with our specific instructions contained in the maintenance manual, or by your wrong handling of the equipment. He would visit your premises in a week during his rounds for confirmation, only after which we will initiate further action in the matter, in tune with our company policy. Please remain advised accordingly.

Yours faithfully

Dear Mr. Sriram,

We appreciate the hardship caused to you by the breakdown of your tuner. We shall gladly replace it, soon after our technician checks it in your office. He will be there as early as possible. Trust you will give us one week for the replacement.

Yours sincerely

The personal touch in the second letter makes a difference.

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