Is it time for a new writing style in technical communication?

While there have been huge leaps in the technology used to create and publish user documentation, it’s been quite a while since there were any serious changes to the writing style in technical communication.

Here is a rough timeline for technical communications standards, according to xml.org:

  • 1961 Quick Reader Comprehension (QRC)
  • 1963 Hughes STOP – (Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications)
  • 1967 Information Mapping
  • 1974 SGML
  • 1982 Information Types
  • 1990 Minimalism and task orientated instructions

See also History of technical communication in 7 minutes video.

The writing style has essentially remained the same for at least 20 years.

So what about DITA – isn’t that new? DITA was introduced around 2002 (and approved as a standard in 2005), but it’s more about structuring and organising information around Information Types such as task, concept and reference. Is the style of writing for DITA any different from the writing style for minimalism?

With the new insights we can gain from web analytics, psychology and other data, is it time to see if we can make improvements to the writing style used by most technical communicators?

See also:

The best book for Technical Communicators in 2012

The best book I’ve read in 2012 wasn’t written for Technical Authors. It wasn’t even published in 2011. It was written by one my fellow speakers at the STC Conference in Chicago, and it was one that was the most thought provoking books I’ve read this year.

One of the subjects it explores is curiosity:

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When Mercedes made emotional owner’s handbooks

In this week’s Autocar magazine, Chris Goodwin bemoans the fact that Daimler AG has taken the romance out of its owner’s handbooks.

He refers to the handbooks for Mercedes cars built in the 1980s, and how they congratulated the owner on their wise decision to purchase an expensive, high quality car:

1980s Mercedes handbook

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New – Affective Assistance and marketing writing services

Cherryleaf’s announced a new service today – Affective Assistance and marketing writing services .

With technology becoming part of everyday life, sometimes the traditional approach to writing user documentation just doesn’t meet users’ needs. It can be the case that the formal and succinct approach to writing User Assistance isn’t right for users of your product or service.

It’s often about adding an emotional factor, being more conversational and less formal. It’s something we call “Affective Writing” or “Affective Assistance”. You can see this approach being used in the online User Assistance for applications such Firefox, where they reported a 13% reduction in the number support calls as a result of adopting this approach.

Consumer technology today:

Consumer technology in previous decades:

See Affective Assistance and marketing writing services .

13 is a lucky number for some technical authors

In research for my presentation today on the emotion factor in technical documentation, I came across a recent case study in the US where changing the writing style had resulted in a 13% increase in readership. It took me a few days to realise that a 13% increase must have quite an impact on the business.

Let’s assume that results in an extra 10% reduction in support calls. That means you could demonstrate your work as a technical author will result in a 10% saving in support calls. That’s quite an improvement to be able to offer, particularly in the current economic climate.