English
4780

Technical Writing

Spring
2017

 

Audience readings

 

Week 1 (jump to Week 2, Week 3)

About technical writing

Comments

Technical communication is relevant and essential to everyday life, empowering users to make positive change in the world. I’m dedicated to this proposition: that technical communication is a set of skills that every person should learn. In my most recent work, I argue that we spend too much time teaching students how to write a relatively esoteric genre (the essay) and too little time teaching them how to write documents that make things happen in the world (proposals, instructions, reports, etc.,-- the many genres that we typically call ‘technical communication’). (Miles Kimball)

Readings

About technical writing

Voice

 

Audience

Comments

Writing starts with the audience, not the content.

Unless you understand what the audience needs and how they need it presented, any content you create has a high chance of failing to communicate.

The many jokes about poorly written manuals is often not that the manuals are poorly written, but that they dump information without any consideration for the audience. When that happens, the time and expense of writing the document is wasted.

Readings

Audience

Voice

 

Required information

Comments

“Required information” is any information the reader needs in order to understand the entire document. The required information will be different depending on the level of the reader. In addition to containing all the required information, good technical writing must contain correct information. That is, the document needs to contain information relative to its purpose.

Readings

 

Voice

Grammar

Comments

Making sure your document is grammatically correct is important because it is courteous to the reader. Just as inappropriate clothing can ruin a good job interview, poor grammar and spelling can ruin good technical writing. It is not only distracting, but indicates that you didn't’t even take the time to proofread what you wrote.

However, perfect grammar does not mean the content is worthwhile. It is very easy to create an unreadable and unusable document that is perfectly structured grammatically.

Readings

 

Voice

 

When the author = audience

Comments

"If the purpose of the communication is to record information for the author's use then there is no target audience." In this case, the audience is the author, which is different from being told to record everything in case someone might want to look at it later.

The audience = author brings up the issues of how poorly most people realize how much they'll remember. You write short notes that make perfect sense now....but when you look at them in 4 months, they make no sense. Even writing for the author as audience requires figuring out what the audience will need.

Can you look at class notes from two semesters ago (in a class outside your main interests) and make sense of them now? They were good enough to study for the test then. Can you use them now to answer a question?

Readings

Write for the audience, not for you

Voice

 

Audience analysis requires data

Comments

A problem with many audience analysis (and way to common in school-type writing) is that the author just assumes they understand the audience. Rather than doing any research, they just make up the different audience types.

If you don't have a basis for the audience analysis, it's worthless.

Readings

 

Voice

Week 2

Experts and simply written material

Comments

Think about how much written technical (and business) information focuses solely on the expert level. I have read my fair share of technical scientific articles that were full of expert jargon that the average person could not understand. The more articles I read, the more I could interpret them. I often thought of the average person reading the articles and the confusion that would be experienced because of the lack of knowledge of scientific writing. The complex topics in most of the papers could be simply communicated to the average person by using terms that they understood. The scientific articles were designed to pass technical knowledge to the fellow scientist that could understand the terminology. A communication of the same article would break down the complex topics into language that the average person could understand.

If written the other way (using lots of definitions and breaking the material down into too-simple and already known stuff) you would loose the expert readers who are the audience for the article.

It is NOT true that you can write for novice and the expert will understand it too. Well, ok, they will, but they will also have a lower comprehension than of a document written for their level. Basically, it's too simple and they start skipping stuff.

Readings
Voice

Audience can understand it, but doesn't want it

Comments

Writing executive summaries and other reports that are for senior people tend to be written at a high level. I've had some students make comments like "I have to write this simple since the executive will not understand the technical details."

No. They probably can understand the technical details. If the executive is an engineer, she can understand the details and work it out herself. However, that is not her current job. She expects you to provide a clear summary with the important information she needs to make a decision.

Readings

 

Voice

Audience analysis

Comments

Understanding how to figure out what the audience needs and how it should be presented is a major element (perhaps the most important element) in effectively communicating.

Remember how a majority of business say that low communication skills are their major problem and how too many college graduates can't write. It's not really a lack of writing skills, but a lack of skill at figuring how how to structure the content for the audience.

Readings

Audience analysis

Voice

How to conduct an audience analysis

Comments

A step by step example of how to perform the audience analysis.

Readings

Conduct an audience analysis

Voice

 

Performing an audience analysis

Comments

The short (8 minute and 58 second), instructional YouTube video” PTC 620 - Lecture 4 - Audience Analysis” provides an informative overview of audience analysis – or systems for developing effective materials for different audiences.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7CP8MirztQ

In the video, the speaker identifies different aspects to consider when identifying the audiences for written documents. The speaker also overviews different approaches or strategies for analyzing one’s audience in order to identify that audience’s expectations related to written documentation. The idea is that an effective analysis of one’s audience provides authors with the information needed to produce effective written documents for that audience. (While the focus of the video is written proposals, consider how the ideas covered in the video can be used for almost any written document.)

As you review this video, consider

1. How the ideas presented in the video compare and contrast with concepts of audience we’ve covered in the class readings thus far

2. Which of the approaches to audience analysis covered in the video you consider to be the most effective and why

3. How you might apply the ideas of audience analysis covered in this video in your own professional communication practices

4. How you might apply the ideas covered in the video when drafting your papers for this class

Readings
Voice

Week 3

Contextual inquiry

Comments

Contextual inquiry is a formally developed method of understanding the user's needs. As such, it helps define the audience, the information the need, and how to perform something.

This is a method to file away in your mind because it'll be useful in the corporate world.

Readings

Contextual inquiry

Explaining contextual inquiry (youtube)

Example of a study (youtube)

Voice

 

Analyze the audience data

Comments

It is important to analyze the data you collect. You can't just report what you found.

I've seen too many summaries that are: User 1 said X and Y and did A. User 2 said X and Z and did A and B.

That is just summarizing the data, not providing a data analysis. You need to find the factors that the different people share, what do they have in common that is relevant to your purpose.

Based on your data analysis, you have the information you need to start to construct the personas.

Readings

 

Voice

 

Personas

Comments

One of the end results of the audience analysis is that you end up with a set of personas. Essentially every real-world writing situation has multiple audiences; you get one persona per audience. They provide a concrete anchor on what any specific audience needs.

In the process, they help avoid writing of the "well, I think someone sometime might need this information." If you can't say "this persona needs it", then no, it's not needed.

The reading is about marketing, but they are valuable for technical documents, too.

Readings

How to create personas

Creating UX persona (youtube)

Voice

 

Readability

Comments

Readability is a measurement that assigns a grade level to a text. Managers love it because it's a single number and easy to calculate. Unfortunately, it's pretty much useless. But many companies still insist that their writing must conform to a specific grade level.

Rather than doing a proper audience analysis, they punt and just say "we're writing for an 8th grade level so everyone can understand it." Notice this still does nothing to ensure the proper content is provided or that that the content makes sense. It's ignoring the persona development except for saying all personas read at the 8th grade level.

Worse, you'll be finding in the homework that what is measured is too low level to be useful.

Readings

Ways of measuring readability

Problems of measuring readability

Example of different levels

Voice

 

 

 

 

 

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