What is the nature of technical writing

Just write

As the name of the language with which the readers1 work this sheet, I suggest simple language in front. It is used in translations of international texts and will sooner or later become known as “plain language” in a standard.

Technical communication often already uses simple language. Practice, publications, courses of study, training courses and exams show it. However, this name is rarely used. Why not "easy language", but only - colloquially - simple language with a lowercase e?

1In the future I will use the general masculine to keep the text legible.

Easy language is not a solution

The easy language rightly uses the capital L. It is a kind of proper name for a project that was initially brought to life by a working group in Kassel. Today the “Network for Light Language” and “Lebenshilfe” take care of this, especially their group in Bremen. To some it seems like a profitable fashion; she has found enthusiastic companions in the academic world as well. [1]

This approach contradicts everything we know about cognitive processing of text. He claims that understanding depends primarily on the external appearance of a text, its structure and the choice of words. For example, he does not differentiate between reading skills and the level of knowledge of the reader.

Many authorities, first and foremost the federal government, have declared the easy language to be what English means “plain language” or Spanish “lenguaje claro”: simple language. That led to irritation. The goal of easy language was namely to make documents and texts accessible to clients with cognitive impairments or defects of the central nervous system. Causes are genetic peculiarities, damage that occurred around the birth, illness, accident or injury long after the birth.

As a threat, this condition hovers over everyone, because an illness or other event can destroy the ability to speak, read or write. Easy language may then help, although it is not the best conceivable solution for this purpose either.

Plain language often leads to readers without cognitive impairment feeling misjudged and rejecting such a text. Understanding or reading difficulties of many people are of a different kind than those of the target group for easy language. That is why it does not make sense to treat both equally.

Simple language

"Simple" is a misleading word. Someone claims that something is easy, another is convinced otherwise. So now “simple language” - that must create trouble.

Similar words do not help either: “clear” or “clear” language. These terms are equally good or bad because they are ambiguous. That's why we commit ourselves:

  • It is all about factual texts. The market offers enough works in simple language, from school books to fiction, but that is not the subject of this article.
  • When experts in the same discipline write for one another, they are not using simple language, but a technical language for them internal Communication.
  • Simple language only serves its purpose in the external Communication: Expert to layman.

There are at least three levels:

  • High - the expert in one subject writes for comparable experts in other areas. Example: IT text for readers from business administration, medicine ...
  • Medium - texts for the educated public, example: science journalism.
  • Low - specialist texts for everyone; Examples: authority to citizens, instructions for consumer goods ...

Whoever grants simple language different levels gains a powerful instrument. Now an author can write almost any text in external communication in a simple language. The only exceptions are the features section, religion and other areas that some may see in the marginal areas of the factual.

Stylistically excellent

Many ricochets from the Internet lead to fears for the worst. "Simple language is ..." and then it starts. A language variety is determined without distinguishing between levels. This restricted construct is not unlike the easy language, even if it is more powerful and easier to read.

You can see it that way, nobody forbids it. Everyone is allowed to define simple language, I don't propose anything else. Because of that, some approaches look strange when they do regulate formulated. Because rules can only be proclaimed by those who have the right and the power to do so.

Others have to be content with recommendations to give. Governments, companies and organizations can then convert these recommendations into rules when they make sense to them.

This thinking fits in with the philosophy of science of critical rationalism: I have often corrected my thoughts and only published them when I could not think of any reasonable reasons to contradict them. Which does not mean that there are no such reasons. Somebody just has to find them and refute my thoughts. I look for it myself and now and then I find it. Science is also a process of constant criticism and thus leads to new knowledge and contributions.

An example that has not changed for the time being is the question of style: From two great stylists of the German language - Johann Christoph Adelung and Eduard Engel - you can learn that the style of a factual text can never be good if you write past the subject or the reader. [2]

If the readers for whom I am writing understand what I am writing, the style is fine at first. Without pomp, superfluous, learned gossip, self-importance and the like. When these prerequisites are met, the difference between stylistic levels is only worthwhile. Finally, one can also formulate the simple and understandable more or less elegantly. One may then call that good or bad style.

Understand, a short version

If someone understands what they have read, there are consequences. Seldom visible at first, nothing that has to be noticeable in any way. And yet something important happened.

Something has changed in the long-term memory of the reader: New came in addition, Known was edited or lost his job.

Who emerges from a text is different from what he was when he jumped into it. The process is significant.

Knowledge grows step by step. “New” and “known” denote the decisive properties in this process. In long-term memory, the lifelong knowledge store, everything new must be based on what is known. Otherwise it is not new, but incomprehensible.

That alone would be too easy to be enough. No text reaches its destination directly. We would lose our minds, could or should we store every stimulus. Filtering or accelerating are the mechanisms built in by nature.

After many filters, a unit called the “Central Executive” takes over (Fig. 01). It always comes to life when a bundle of stimuli the attention excited. Your job is to get one Working memory to set up and maintain as long as the attention doesn't wane. This is embedded in long-term memory [3] and serves as a connection between outside and inside. Its capacity is limited.

Fig. 01 Process of reading in memory; the author is faced with the task of attracting attention.
Source working memory freely adapted from Cowan; Copyrighs Baumert, alarm bell: monochrome, istock.com/ET-ARTWORKS

To put it simply, what is read ends up in this working memory and is taken there from the long-term memory. What is not available in this huge storage facility cannot help either. Terms that are missing, terms that the mental lexicon does not contain or that are bound differently than in the text read lead to errors or stop processing.

The limits of working memory and the size of the mental lexicon are critical to reading literacy. It follows from this: Whether a text is understood depends on whether it is author was able to correctly assess these conditions in the reader. If he is wrong, processing will stall, attention will drop and the central executive will slacken.

When understanding fails

Editors are usually good readers. Different types of text lie on their desks, which they understand and process.

Others have neither this skill nor the experience; You still have to write, your company, authority or organization requires it. Every day, thousands of documents are created that miss their target group.

This is economic and political nonsense; it also disregards the dignity of those who cannot do anything with a document.

In public, there are usually over 6.2 million [4] “functionally illiterate people” or “low literacy” people. We also know that just over half of adult readers have limited comprehension of texts. Your reading competence does not reach the middle level of the 5 levels used by the OECD (Tab. 01). [5] The consequence:

  • They tire quickly when they have to work on unfamiliar topics or large documents.
  • They read fleetingly or avoid it.
  • They get it wrong or not at all if the text is not what they are capable of.
  • You make mistakes when a document calls for action, warns against it, or states requirements.
  • They request help via the Internet, e-mail or telephone.

This not only affects people with poor reading skills; it also applies to good readers if they are not familiar with a topic. Instructions, letters, Internet texts, brochures and forms are often candidates for misunderstandings. Representatives of a simple English language do the math: Individual companies, authorities and organizations save hundreds of thousands, some even millions of dollars or pounds annually. The beginning is the introduction of Plain English [6], the simple English.

Tab. 01 S.E .: Standard error.Source OECD (2016). Annex A. Table A2.1. Cutout

152 to 145

The English version of a simple language was our model2. We looked at what Brits, Australians, Americans and others recommend to their authors. Other pioneers would also have been possible, Sweden or Finland as an example. We should have used help for this because we had not learned these languages. Their area of ​​activity is also quite small, and the literature would not be sufficient for our purposes. But this way we were able to access a rich treasure trove and choose which recommendations are available to an author today. 145 pieces of advice could be derived from this.

Some only apply to English, others also find an equivalent in German. Much reads like poorly founded instructions, and we found contradictions that are to be expected in German as well. One asks “Write as you speak!”, The next warns “Don't do that!”. Some things are scientifically daring and difficult to maintain.

The English recommendations from 18 books and internet documents helped us to create our own list that differs significantly from the source material. We have summarized 152 recommendations in 12 sections:

  1. Writing in the project
  2. Reader and the subject
  3. Document structures
  4. logic
  5. Design documents
  6. Stories
  7. Function words
  8. Meaningful words
  9. sentences
  10. Texts
  11. rhetoric
  12. Document types

recommendations will only be with Justifications and Examples given. We lay their foundations and invite everyone to criticize. This could create a German form of the plain language. In the following I show abstracts.

Reading ability determines text quality

From this the first questions arise even before a word is written. The more a writer knows about the audience, the better it is. This group is always mixed. To have an approach, we're introducing a new concept called the legitimate reader. [7]

Only interested in his judgment on a document. Anyone who has otherwise read it and comments on it should be heard, but is not always taken into account when changes are planned.

Among the legitimate readers there will be some who are less literate than others. For some products or services, the slightest reading ability should set the tone: vital warnings and prohibitions, for example. In other cases an editorial decision is necessary. It will have consequences, not least for the quality of the simple language used. This results in the Ws: What does the reader want and need to know why, what does he already know, how important is the text for him, how do we have to proceed?

Structure must help with finding

The importance of searching and finding has been preached for decades. While that's not wrong, for a simple language, English-speaking experts advise talking primarily about finding. The thought makes sense.

The structure of a document must be such that legitimate readers can find what they need to know straight away. No ifs and buts. Only then is it easy to read.

Searching is the responsibility of the author, who makes it easier for the reader to find.

Tell stories

In the 05/19 issue of this magazine, Virginia Kilpert advocates packaging content in stories - a courageous voice in the midst of the technical writers.

She is right. A story is the oldest form of imparting knowledge. It belongs in the concept of simple language.

It does not have to be a complete narrative, with a beginning, a main part and an end. Sometimes language images like the one from the Bible are sufficient: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

People, places and understandable interests can generate images that pave the way for long-term memory.

It is true that every linguistic image will find a reader who is offended, but this sequence can be narrowed down by careful selection of the material.

Use rhetoric

Distant relatives of these linguistic images are the instruments of rhetoric. “Just don't use it!” Is the common prejudice of many experts.

A look at the tabloids shows otherwise. They are understandable even for poor reading skills and precisely because of this they are full of metaphors, irony, exaggerations and other means.

The rhetoric exists precisely because one can achieve goals with it. It is only noticeable unpleasantly by someone who does not understand anything and still uses it. It has that in common with spices: a lot is possible from the perfect dish to the ruined one.

Fig. 02 Increase as a rhetorical device - recommendation, justification and examples. Source Andreas Baumert (2018b), p. 165, recommendation 141, rhetoric.

Communicate technology easily

The key concept could be an editorial guide [8]. This can be understood as a combination of files, databases, software and printed matter. The guide, which some call differently, can make statements and introduce rules for each of our 12 sections. Considerations for understanding the role of working memory become a rule in the guide, 2 examples:

  • 1. The inexperienced reader must recognize at a glance the distance between the auxiliary or modal verb and the main verb. The 6 words in the preceding sentence could also be expressed as a number, "may not exceed x words". This also applies to verbs with a separable prefix "aufstieg", "unterfahren" ...
  • 2. If words are likely to be unfamiliar to the reader, they need to be replaced or explained. The declaration can be extensive, but there are only two solutions: waiver or declaration. The document can become more extensive as a result, but simple language is not available without orientation to the level of knowledge of the reader.

The norm on the horizon

Today, in January 2020, the ISO, the international standardization organization, is working on a standard for simple language: plain language.

Leading organizations [9] for simple English have long prepared this process. Finally, Standards Australia made the official application to ISO and now it seems to be moving forward.

The concept is to formulate general rules that apply to most languages ​​in global markets. The individual standardization organizations are then asked to implement these principles: DIN, for example, for German. How far this approach will go, whether only for Germany or for the German language in general, cannot yet be foreseen. The national organizations in which German is a national language will certainly come to an agreement on this.

As I write this article, four general principles for simple language documents are being considered:

  • 1. The content corresponds to what readers need or need expect. Authors need to know what belongs in a document and what they do without.
  • 2nd reader Find easily what you are looking for or need. A document must be structured and designed in such a way that the focus is on finding it. Not searching.
  • 3. You can choose the content understand. Capture, understand and apply are the top priority. Tests will be necessary more often for this.
  • 4. You can choose the content use. A document must assist readers in achieving the intended goals.

For trained technical writers, this is not news that amazes them at first. Also tabloid journalists, school book writers and others who are professionally involved external write, see no secret in it. But it is interesting that everyone who is instructed to write in simple language should proceed according to such principles.

Authorities, companies, organizations and associations will be faced with enormous tasks and will have to revise their writing. So far, everyone could understand by simple language whatever they wanted. That will change when a standard is available by which all documents can be measured.

Links and literature on the article

[1] Baumert, Andreas (2018a): Simple language and easy language. In a nutshell. Library of the University of Hanover: https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bsz:960-opus4-12348. Baumert, Andreas (2016): Easy Language - Simple Language. Literature research, interpretation, development. Library of the University of Hanover: https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bsz:960-opus4-6976.

[2] Baumert, Andreas (2018b): Simple language - writing understandable texts. With the assistance of Annette Verhein-Jarren. Fun in reading Verlag, Münster, pp. 23–36.

[3] Cowan, Nelson (2016): Working memory capacity. New York, London: Routledge. Baumert (2018b, 140) and Baumert, Andreas (2019): Communicating science with simple language. Heidelberg: Springer, Chapter 3.1.

[4] Grotlüschen, Anke; Buddeberg, Klaus; Dutz, Gregor; Heilmann, Lisanne; Stammer, Christopher (2019): LEO 2018 - Life with Low Literacy. Press brochure, Hamburg.

[5] OECD (2016): Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[6] Kimble, Joseph (2012): Writing for dollars, writing to please. The case for plain language in business, government, and law. Durham, N.C .: Carolina Academic Press.

[7] Baumert, Andreas; Verhein-Jarren, Annette (2016): Texts for technology. Instructions for study and practice. 2nd edition Berlin: Springer, p. 89.

[8] Schubert, Klaus (2019): Simple language. In: Jörg Hennig, Marita Tjarks-Sobhani (ed.): Comprehensibility as a problem of technical documentation. (tekom publications on technical communication 24.) Stuttgart: tekom.

[9] Clarity, PLAIN and Center for Plain Language.