Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Morality of Definitions or, Effective? I don't think so

There's a strategy in technical writing that concerns me from a moral point of view: using words of dubious meaning to establish credibility. For instance, I sometimes read documents that urge "efficiency": the ability to get the most bang for your buck.  These writers are often interested in cutting costs and unconcerned with the readers' goals.

The problem is that most readers aren't concerned with efficiency, at least not on its own. Readers are more often concerned about "effectiveness": the ability to get what they want. Saving time, money, or energy (the point of "efficiency") is only interesting if the result is something the reader actually wants. However, I often see writers using "efficiency" as a synonym for "effectiveness" because (a) they figure that readers won't notice the difference and (b) efficiency is assumed to be a good thing so anything that achieves that goal is, obviously, a good thing.

Another strategy is to use words with positive associations but with poorly delineated meanings. Up here in Canada (and many years ago) we had a "Family Values" party whose candidates campaigned in provincial elections. The issue is that I know that my family's values are almost certainly different (in detail or in grand design) from your family's values. Heck, I know that there are tremendous differences in values just within my family. For instance, I think that government-assisted daycare is an excellent way to help support families where both parents work; others feel that both parents shouldn't be working and, as a result, daycare is a bad idea. Without a definition of what "Family Values" actually means, the term is simply designed to attract readers without, necessarily, achieving the goals of anyone but the author.

"Effective" is another word that sounds so very good but without a precise definition means anything the reader cares to read into it. I'm reminded of this every time I teach my technical writing course, I tell participants that the course will help them create "effective" documents. I then ask participants what "effective" means and get a list of what are usually regarded as good things in technical writing: concise, clear, etc. For me, however, an "effective technical document" means just two things:

  • It actually gets read by the people it's intended for
  • It makes a difference in its reader's lives

Same word, two different meanings. Interestingly, I think the class' participants are actually more interested in learning how achieve my definition. However, if we taught the participants' definition, we could probably send the participants home happy--we'd have a credible course. But we could do that without ever achieving what should be the real definition of effective.

Reading or Read

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