Cardinal sin of blog (and technical) writing: making the reader feel stupid

Alan Pringle / Opinion4 Comments

Want to get me riled up? You can easily achieve that by making me feel stupid while reading your blog.

I read a lot of blogs about technology, and I’ll admit that I’m on the periphery of some of these blogs’ intended audiences. That being said, there is no excuse for starting a blog entry like this:

Everyone’s heard of Gordon Moore’s famous Law, but not everyone has noticed how what he said has gradually morphed into a marketing message so misleading I’m surprised Intel doesn’t require people to play the company jingle just for mentioning it.

Well, I must not be part of the “everyone” collective because I had to think long and hard about “Gordon Moore’s famous law,” and I drew a blank. (Here’s a link for those like me who can’t remember or don’t know what Moore’s Law is.)

Making a broad generalization such as “everyone knows x” is always dangerous. This is true in blog writing as well as in technical writing. In our style guide, we have a rule that writers should “not use simple or simply to describe a feature or step.” By labeling something as simple, it’s guaranteed you will offend someone who doesn’t understand the concept. For example, while editing one of our white papers about the DITA Open Toolkit, I saw the word “simply” and took great delight in striking through it. From where I stand, there is little that is “simple” about the toolkit, particularly when you’re talking about configuring output.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that a blog entry, white paper, or user manual about very technical subjects has to explain every little thing. You need to address the audience at the correct level, which can be a delicate balancing act with highly technical content: overexplaining can also offend the reader. For example, in a user manual, it’s probably wise to explain up front the prerequisite knowledge. Also consider offering resources where the reader can get that knowledge: that way, you get around explaining concepts but still offer assistance to readers who need it.

In the case of online content and blog entries, you can link to definitions of terms and concepts: readers who need help can click the links to get a quick refresher course on the information, and those who don’t can keep on reading. The author of the blog post in question could have inserted a link to Moore’s Law.  Granted, he does define the law in the second paragraph, but he lost me with the  “everyone has heard”  bit at the start.

That “everyone has heard” assumption brings me back to my primary point: don’t make your readers feel stupid, particularly by making sweeping assumptions about what “everyone” knows or by labeling something as “simple.” Insulted readers move on—and may never come back.


About the Author

Alan Pringle

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Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

4 Comments on “Cardinal sin of blog (and technical) writing: making the reader feel stupid”

  1. This is a great point, Alan. In manuals and help, I’ve always tried for a tone that makes the reader feel that a friend is explaining what he needs to know as he does something with the product, on his level. I personally have always hated writing that talks down to the reader. I picture my audience as a bunch of touchy teenagers who are overly sensitive to being talked down to. If I can get the tone right for them, no one else will even notice the language in the document, except that it helps them to do their work.

  2. I fully agree with you. Add “easily” and “just” to the list. “Easily add new users by . . .” “To get an account, just . . .” Words like these are a crutch to try to convince the user/reader that the product is easy to use, and they don’t work.

    I just read a “you can easily do XYZ” line in InDesign help today. It doesn’t get to telling you how to do that thing for another couple of paragraphs, enough space to lose the people who have gone there because it apparently wasn’t as easy as the author thinks it is.

  3. The impersonal nature of web communications makes it difficult to know who the audience is. Generalizing our conception of the audience is not easy because we make a lot of unconscious assumptions about shared knowledge with our intended audience. Writing tips for people in the computer industry might easily be relevant to people in the biomedical and construction industries. Why should they know or care about the growth rate of computer processing power? Intended audience and actual audience are more likely to diverge in the context of the web because the Internet is so much more accessible from diverse contexts than the “old world” of print. Writers, like immigrants from a distant foreign land, must adapt to the melting pot – or there will be those awkward moments.

    And yes, thanks, Alan, for striking my “simple” – I should know better. Nothing about the DITA OT is simple.

  4. But, it’s on a blog. One click away from Google. The reader who doesn’t know Moore’s law is stupid only if they don’t google it.

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