Sunday, November 29, 2009

Inappropriate Adjectives, Or You use that word so much--I don't think it means what you think it means

I was looking over the "technical writing manual" for a client of a client (it wasn't really a manual, it was more of a style guide).  What amazed me was the number of adjectives they used in the guide:
  • Our goal is to create effective manuals
  • Documents should be organized into a logical structure
  • Documents should have comprehensive coverage of the material
As in most cases, these modifiers don't add any value for the reader. When the author of this document used "effective", "logical" and "comprehensive," the author did one of the following:
  • Just put the words in because they "sound good" (i.e. no thought at all)
  • Assumed that these words mean the same thing to everyone (sadly, not true)
  • Used the words to disguise the fact that the organization couldn't agree on criteria for authors
That last bullet probably requires some explanation: Frequently, in official documents, modifiers are "weasel" words that disguise the fact that the author, managers, and readers don't actually agree on anything: The modifier means whatever the current reader needs it to mean. In my client's client's style guide, if the organization can't establish what criteria to use to judge user manuals then they substitute the word "effective"; if the organization can't figure out how to determine whether or not a document covers everything it should then they say that the document has to be "comprehensive"; if you can't agree on how your writers are to organize their documents then you substitute the word "logical."

Using modifiers like this does give the organization a lot of flexibility: You can change the meanings to do whatever you need when the time comes. You pick the right definition for the documents you want to praise; pick a different definition when you want to punish the author. I can see the discussion now: "Your document structure isn't logical", "Yes, it is!", "No, it isn't!" The winner isn't the person with the right document structure, it's the person with the most clout in the organization--very advantageous if you're the person in charge.

What these words don't do is actually help the organization's authors do a good job (or, at any rate, a job that meets the company's criteria). When you use modifiers in your documents, you--more often than not--do the same thing: You fail to support your readers.

My recommendation: Omit all modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases) unless you have a gun to your head.If you do include a modifier, make sure it means exactly one thing to both you and your readers--or just tell your readers what the word means to you.

Reading or read

No comments: