A Tech Writer’s Inadvertent Memoirs

Years and years ago, I taught technical writing at the University of Tulsa. I wore out my students by telling them again and again that they should aim for voiceless writing. What I meant was writing that didn’t hint at the person behind the writing.  “Imagine yourself as the reader,” I would say. “When you’re trying to follow the instructions to put a gas grill together, you want the manual to be about the gas grill, not the person who wrote the manual.”

It’s sound advice for aspiring tech writers, easy to give but sometimes more difficult to follow. Voiceless, for example, is not the same thing as nonhuman! Consider this gem selected more or less at random from the instructions for IRS Form 1040:

If your economic stimulus payment was directly deposited to a tax-favored account and you withdraw the payment by the due date of your return (including extensions), the amount withdrawn will not be taxed and no additional tax or penalty will apply. For a Coverdell education savings account, the withdrawal can be made by the later of the above date or June 1, 2009. See the instructions for lines 15a and 15b, 21, and 59.

All those passive verbs invite me to imagine faceless drones swarming in a glass and steel hive. For all I know, of course, tax form instructions may really be machine generated. The IRS as The Borg.

At the other extreme, the writer becomes fully visible on the page. I sometimes like it when it’s done deliberately. In a professional journal I edited for several years, the author of a particularly complex article added a footnote about three quarters of the way through that said something like “If you’re still with me here, please let me know and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee!”

The problem I tried to warn my students about, however, was more subtle.  Last Christmas, for example, I was given a new alarm clock that has features the manufacturer is pretty excited about. The writer of the owner’s manual pretty obviously was charged with emphasizing these features, particularly the fact that the clock sets itself. Here’s what the manual says:

We all know how annoying it is to wake up in the morning and see the dreaded flashing “12:00” display on our clocks or clock radios. This means that your power was interrupted some time during the night while you were sleeping and your clock doesn’t know what time it is anymore. Unfortunately, it probably also means that you are late for work, or for school, again.

What do we know about the writer here? I think the story is mostly told in that final again.  The writer is someone who has no chance of waking up on time without an alarm, perhaps as a result of staying up too late. It’s also someone who has tried the “my alarm didn’t go off” excuse a few too many times. When I consider this in combination with the sloppy and abrupt pronoun switch from we to you after the first sentence, I get a pretty clear picture of the writer:  habitually running late, lacking focus, desperately striving to please but unwilling or unable to give the work the final edit it needs.

This is someone I would probably find exhausting to have around, and that’s a thought I shouldn’t be having at all as I read the manual. After all, I’m just trying to figure how to use my new clock! I don’t want to hear about roommate troubles, sleep issues, the saga of a psycho ex, and so on.

And that’s why all those years ago at TU, I used to sound like a broken record: “Get the information on the page, kids. Keep yourself off the page.”

One Reply to “A Tech Writer’s Inadvertent Memoirs”

  1. Thank you for a good lesson in writing. I am sure I am guilty of inserting my opinions when writing instructions. I am especially guilty when giving instructions to a family member. I think in blog terms this is a ‘me me’.

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