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September 4, 2013

Blemished—but better—tech comm?

Consumers’ demand for perfect things drives a lot of pesticide use….Ninety percent of pesticide use in apple crops is to get the last five percent of quality of the fruit.

That comment near the end of an On Point podcast confirmed that accepting a few blemishes on an apple treated with fewer or no synthetic insecticides is a compromise I am willing to make. It also made me think more about a tech comm–related post I saw last week.

There have been more than 100 responses to a LinkedIn post in the Technical Writer Forum about whether one or two spaces follow the period at the end of the sentence. I suppose I should be happy that the tech comm community has active social media networks, but my response was a lot less positive:

I’m skeptical that end users of technical content are that concerned about the number of spaces of following a period. The technical writers’ desire for writing that perfectly adheres to a rule is what’s “driving demand” in the case of that post.  Tech writers are not the true consumers of technical content. The end users are.

I’m not advocating style guide–free writing here. Style guidelines are important because they are the foundation of consistent writing, which is easier to understand and translate. But style guides are a small part of what makes good technical content. Stylistically pristine content is useless if it is technically inaccurate or doesn’t address the audience at the right level. It’s also a waste if it’s locked away in a PDF file that end users can’t find online, for example.


flickr: ollesvensson

Technical writers are generally better writers than most, but we can’t let our writing skills be our primary defining factor. Being a good writer is just a prerequisite in tech comm today; you can’t sustain a career in this industry by focusing on writing ability and style guides as your areas of expertise. (Besides, there are now tools that can automatically enforce style guidelines. Keeping a solitary focus on style is particularly foolhardy when a tool can do it for you.) We also can’t project our need for excellent writing on the audiences for technical information. For them, stylistically “good enough” writing is often plenty enough.

Move beyond the mechanics of writing and ensure your content reaches your audience and gives them the answers they need. If the time it takes to make your content more accurate, accessible, and intelligent means there are a few stylistic blemishes—many of which end users won’t even notice—so be it.

I think it’s a worthy compromise.

P.S. I have a degree in English and worked as a technical editor for years. Style guidelines are probably floating around in my bloodstream.