Today I attended a session of the Mumbai chapter of the Society for Technical Communication . The first session was by Gurudutt Kamath, who is probably the most well-known figure in the tech writing community in India. My interest in attending the session arose cause someone I know was also speaking there, and also because a lot of the work that we do involves a significant amount of technical writing. So while, we may not be professional technical writers, consulting does require us to have excellent written communication skills.
Guru (as he is popularly known) was speaking on common errors in technical writing. I think many of these errors occur in daily business communication as well. He made it a pretty interactive session, so the other tech writers also piped in with the errors they have seen occur most often. Here's the list we came up with:
- Not identifying the purpose of the document. Each document should have a set of objectives and a context in which it is being developed. Is it a user manual, or a marketing collateral, or something else. This leads us to:
- Not identifying the right target audience. If you don't know whom you're writing for, you're quite likely to miss the mark in terms of getting your point across. You could come across writing increasingly dumbed-down documents, or your writing could be so filled with jargon that it would be impossible for the average reader to understand. Having identified the target audience, you need to be sure that the next error is taken care of:
- Not getting the right sample audience to review your document. The right reviewers can make a huge difference in the final quality of your writing. I have often had non-technical editors review some pretty technical articles, and miss out on stuff that a more technical reviewer would easily have helped improve upon. Some of the better journals have a peer review system, so you ensure that a wider sample audience reviews your writing. A lot of the times, we end up submitting stuff without review - which is almost sacrilege!
- Inconsistency. Whether it's your formatting styles or your use of numbering systems, or your choice of words (British English or American English or apna Indian English), you have to be consistent. This also applies to:
- Not selecting the right examples. Guru gave the example of an article, which was about choosing relevant examples, and was woven around Amercian baseball. Now the author might have written the original article for an American audience, but by the time it got syndicated, it was published in other regions, where most of the baseball metaphors fell completely flat.
- Common grammar and spelling mistakes. "It's" vs. "Its". Not pressing the F7 key. Enough said!
- Wrong references. In larger documents, references to sections or figures within the document can go wrong when the document changes. For a book, that I was recently co-authoring, I had to keep changing the references to snapshots and figures as I kept inserting more, requiring me to renumber the earlier ones, as well as change references to them. Apparently, the right way to do it is to add a reference field, and point it to the location within the Word document, so that when the referenced section changes, the reference changes with it.
- Cookie cutter nightmares. Ok, so we've all done this. Opened up a previous proposal or report, and simply pressed File Save As, and the old client name pops up in the most embarrassing places. We once failed to get a customer reference, because during the closing meeting they brought up the point that they had been put off because an old client name had cropped up in one of the documents we had submitted in the project. Based on the inputs from the other participants in the session, this happens to the best of them.
- Use of cliched graphics. Using the MS supplied clip art in Powerpoint presentations, not getting the graphics done professionally, and using irrelevant graphics. Of course, Powerpoint gaffes are a whole thesis subject by themselves.
- Punctuations errors. I am most guilty of these, especially with mis-placed commas. Just don't seem to get them in the right places! Other errors include inconsistent quotation marks, misplaces colons and semi-colons, the use of ;& instead of 'and', etc.