We previously covered how plain language supports science communication, and today we will focus on how plain language advances technical communication. We will answer the top three questions from technical experts and management leaders, and we will point you in the right direction for ways to apply plain language elements to your next project.
What is the difference between plain language and technical writing?
“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information,” according to the Center for Plain Language.
Technical writing is one job type within the technical communication field, that produces “any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: communicating about technical or specialized topics…communicating by using technology,… providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used…,” according to the Society for Technical Communication. STC goes on to explain that technical communicators “make information more useable and accessible” to readers “who need that information…”
Technical writers and communicators can choose to apply plain language techniques to their work to achieve their usability and accessibility goals while also increasing comprehension.
Why is it important to use plain language techniques in technical writing?
In the world of technical communication, where expert, technical, or complex facts dominate, the need for clear and concise information is critical. Both business and government know the stakes are high. For example, they know posting straightforward financial information can result in empowered consumer decision-making, while poor web text can cause public confusion.
Whether they are writing software instructions, designing a new website, or informing the public about an upcoming tax change, great technical communicators know all the information is useless unless the reader responds correctly.
What are the best ways to incorporate plain language principles in technical writing?
Apply the five steps to plain language.
- Define your audience.This can include geographic, language, or age factors, but it can also include a list of the key questions the audience might ask, as well as their top tasks to accomplish. Not all readers possess the same level of familiarity with specialized subject matter. By adopting a plain language approach, successful technical communicators widen their audience range. This type of analysis is important when communicating externally to the public or internally to a budget officer three doors down.
- Structure the content appropriately.
Plain language can enhance user experience. An organized logical information flow quickly leads the reader through technical information and helps them comprehend it the first time. Using headings, short sections, and intuitive lists enhance customer satisfaction and keep the information manageable.
- Write in plain language.By using everyday words, the active voice, present tense, and less jargon, technical communicators can break down barriers to understanding by simplifying content without sacrificing accuracy. Writing clearly and concisely keeps the reader focused and engaged, not distracted, and confused.
- Use information design.Technical communicators can avoid a wall of words and consider data visualization, photos, graphics, or other ideas to make content more understandable. An easy to navigate web page with headers and sub-headers can help readers move quickly and efficiently. Visual aids can also reduce misinterpretation and errors.
- Test the design and content.This last step is often omitted due to time or budget constraints, but it remains a valuable activity for every technical communicator. Was the user able to complete their top tasks, or did they search unnecessarily and become frustrated due to unclear labels or incomplete instructions? Could they accurately describe who and what the document or site is intended for? Spending time in the testing phase will help reduce errors and therefore save time during implementation.
The advantages of using plain language in technical communication are significant. Technical communicators can increase accessibility, guide users, simplify content, improve comprehension, and save time and money.
About the Author: Communications Consultant Kate Goggin specializes in plain language writing, editing, and training. She is a certified technical writer and has worked for several federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. She is a member of the Center for Plain Language and the Society for Technical Information and holds a degree in Communications Consulting from George Mason University. She is currently contracted to A. K. Government Solutions.