Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plain Language Patterns in Technical Writing

Technical writing is a form of written communication that simplifies different types of information for readers. It can be found in several different fields such as computer hardware and software, engineering, chemistry, finance, or any other subject that requires simple, direct information to communicate a complicated topic. Its main purpose is to communicate in a way that is easy to understand for most people. According to, good technical writing is “concise, focused, easy to understand, and free of errors. Technical writers focus on making their documents as clear as possible, avoiding overly technical phrases and stylistic choices like passive voice and nominalizations.” It appears that technical writing uses many of the same elements as plain language.

Plain language generally has a higher reading ease and lower average reading levels. It uses active voice, quick sentence openings, and short, less complex sentences. It avoids euphemisms and jargon, and often has lower levels of formality. While analyzing different technical writing pieces including “how to” instructions, iPod help pieces, and manuals, I found that technical writing uses several of these elements along with other elements that contribute to the clarity of the piece including bold, italics, underlining, color change, additional pictures or videos, demonstrate, and uses the words “you” and “your.”

Using active voice and short, noncomplex sentences seem to make directions easier to understand and interpret for a wide audience within “how-to” manuals. One example I found was a step by step guide on “How to jumpstart your car.” Step number one reads: “Take out your jumper cables." “Take out your” is an example of active voice—it’s using action verbs at the beginning of the sentence and is directly addressing the audience. By doing this, the writer is making the task at hand as clear as possible. It doesn’t leave anything up to the interpretation of the reader, it is short and direct, and leaves no questions to be had. There is no simpler way to say “take out your jumper cables,” which makes it easy to understand and clear to all who read it.

Underneath this first step there is additional information that reads, “It’s a good idea to buy jumper cables and keep them in the trunk compartment.  If you don’t have jumper cables you have to find a good Samaritan who not only is willing to assist you, but who has jumper cables as well.” This additional information also uses aspects of plain language. It addresses the reader as “you” making it clear who should be doing what. It also is colloquial: it is informal and simple, again making the information clear and easy to understand. One thing that appears to be different in this section is that before the action verbs, the writer leads into the sentence or uses conditional statements (“if…”) before getting to the active verb. This is another pattern I found among technical writing texts. Additional information that is not vital to the step-by-step process, but may be helpful (for example, if you didn’t have jumper cables in your car), is less “plain” than the actual steps. It requires a bit more language, though simplifies the information so it’s still easy to understand. I believe this serves to cover all aspects someone might encounter if they have a dead battery. It is possible the person does not even have jumper cables in which case the document advises that they should always have some in the trunk, and also suggests a way to acquire them (a good Samaritan).

I found similar patterns in directions on “How to reset an ipod.” It gives both very direct, active instructions but also gives slightly less direct, conditional statements in colloquial language. For example, “Connect the device to your computer.” It has the active verb at the beginning of the sentence, addresses the reader in “you” form, and is short and simple. In another step it says, “If your device isn’t visible in the upper right corner of the screen, choose library.” While this sentence has a longer introduction before the active verb, that part of the sentence is vital to the next step and gives very specific direction (“upper right corner”). Without the introductory part of the sentence, it would make the statement less clear and confusing.

Another pattern I found within “how to” manuals is that they use prepositional phrases to simplify and clarify directions. For example, “shut of the ignition in both cars,” and “attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal of your battery.” Within the ipod manual context, some examples include, “If your ipod is connected to a computer…” and, “Press and hold the Sleep/Wake button and Volume Down button simultaneously for at least eight seconds.” All of these prepositional phrases are vital to understanding directions and increasing clarity within “how to” manuals. In the case of jumpstarting your car, the prepositional phrases are vital to the safety of the read as well.

After analyzing several examples of technical writing, I found many similarities to plain language. I also discovered patterns used within technical writing to create a clear, simple, and easy-to-understand directions. These include using active verbs in main steps and directly addressing the reader; using longer sentence introductions before active verbs in additional information; and using prepositional phrases to clarify vital information.

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