My Favorite Things…. about designing short informative documents

My most recent class in my technical writing program was called “Designing Short, Informative Documents.” It was a week-long, hands-on, workshop-type  class. By far, it was one of the most practical college courses I’ve ever taken. Because of that, it is one of my favorite college courses.

The first great thing I learned in my course about short, informative documents is that deductive reasoning is the reasoning of the day. In short informative documents, there is never a place for inductive reasoning. The reason being, if your document is short and informative, chances are your readers will be reading it under circumstances that don’t allow for an in-depth study of the document. Rather, they are likely looking at it with a quick glance or scan (in a doctor’s office or a hotel lobby perhaps). Assume the reader will NOT read the entire document. If that is the case, then the punch needs to be at the beginning of the argument.

The second great thing I learned is that anything that distracts from the important information is noise and it should be removed. In other words, if something on the document doesn’t contribute to the essential message, take it out.  This applies to graphics, information, colors, etc. This principle informs the content. Essentials only.

And the third great thing I learned in my course is that short informative documents are about communication, not grammar and fancy words. If grammar and/or words make it difficult to communicate to the reader, consider changing. Use language and syntax that communicates.

I learned much more than just this, but these three things seem to be most relevant to the issues that I face as a technical writer/editor.

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2 thoughts on “My Favorite Things…. about designing short informative documents

  1. Craig Haiss

    Excellent post, Rebecca. A lot of technical writers seem to be dissecting existing documentation and trying to make it more granular for users who want quick answers. Attention spans are definitely shrinking, and technical writers have to adjust accordingly.

    So do you think this “quick glance” behavior on the part of readers is purely circumstantial (they just want to finish a task), or do you think we’ve all grown accustomed to short chunks of information because of the digital age we live in?

    Looking forward to your next post!

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  2. pd Post author

    Craig,

    Thanks for your comment. To answer your question, I think readers really want to finish their tasks, and, we’ve grown accustomed to short chunks of information. This is what excites me about technical writing. We’ve gotten really good at communicating efficiently.

    I think our short attention span is the result of a refined process, rather than atrophy. Readers/users have gotten discerning about what they are willing to attend to. It’s not necessary to waste time on badly written material when we can go out there and find something that works. Good technical writing will get you in and out, so that you can move on to the next thing. That’s progress, right?

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