Explaining complicated stuff using simple words

Book coverRandall Munroe’s latest book Thing Explainer will be released tomorrow. In the book, Munroe uses line drawings and only the thousand most common words to provide simple explanations for complicated objects.

It’s good practice to use words that are commonly understood. In some industries, Technical Authors have to write using only a limited list of approved words  (a “controlled vocabulary”). For example, there are controlled vocabularies for aircraft maintenance manuals, because some maintenance engineers have a only limited amount of English.

Sometimes, the word “stuff” doesn’t help the reader to understand. So what do you do when readers need to understand the small differences between objects, particularly when they can have a big effect on what happens next?

XKCD cartoon

In order to write clearly, there are times when you need to use more than the thousand most common words. Technical Authors deal with this issue by using concept, terms and references topics. When they need to use words that some users might not understand, Technical Authors provide a link (or cross reference ) to another topic. This other topic provides an explanation or a definition of the word or concept. The topic can contain words, images, diagrams, animations or videos to help the user grasp the meaning.

It’s good to use simple words, but it’s more important to make sure the information is clear.

Presentations at Technical Communication UK Conference, Autumn 2015

Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking at Technical Communication UK 2015, which will be held between 29th September and 1st October 2015, in Glasgow. Ellis will be speaking twice, about:

  • Creating an academic course in technical communication, and
  • Help in the User Interface – a case study in first user interaction and embedded Help formats.

If you’re planning to attend the conference, we look forward to see you there.

What should be on our roadmap for training courses in technical communications?

We thought it would be useful to reflect on our plans for topics and courses in technical communications. In the past, some of the best suggestions have come from customers and prospects; it’s great to pick up useful ideas from others.

Today, you’ll find classroom or elearning training courses in:

We have a separate roadmap for business writing courses, which is where our policies and procedures training course (and again, Introduction to content strategy) fits in.

Our current thinking is to offer more topics around managing and planning technical documentation projects. In the past, we’ve offered an course on estimating projects. We also know managing project time is another important topic. Perhaps there are other topics that would fit under this category?

There’s also the issue of which courses should be online (recorded) courses, and which ones should be classroom-based (live) courses. Delegates say really like the two training venues we use in central London (we struck gold there), but online courses enable people to take a course pretty much anywhere and at any time.

If you have any thoughts, you can email us your thoughts, or you can use the comment box below.

What it’s like to be a Technical Author

We’re planning to carry out a number of videoed interviews with a range of Technical Authors this week. This is to help promote the profession. We’ll be asking questions such as what their role is inside their companies, and how they became a Technical Author.

The videos will be uploaded to the YouTube Channel for the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, once we’ve edited and published them.


“Bad information is Marketing’s fault problem. Good information is Tech Comms’ specialty. Let’s do the maths.”

inbound marketing and technical communicationsThe quotation in the title is from Roger Hart’s presentation at last week’s TCUK14 conference. Roger is a product marketing manager who spent a few years as a Technical Author. In his presentation, Collateral damage: do marketing and tech comms have to fight when users get informed?, he explained some of the most powerful marketing content today is high quality user information – especially the content that Technical Authors produce.

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Your policy and procedures manual as software

Jared Spool tweeted this morning:

HyperCard was a hypertext program that came with Apple Macintosh in the 1980s. It allowed you to create “stacks” of online cards, which organsiations used to create some of the first online guides. It also contained a scripting language called HyperTalk that a non-programmer could easily learn. This meant HyperCard could do more than just display content: it could be used to create books, games (such as Myst), develop oil-spill models, and even dial the telephone.

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