By Michelle Corbin | STC Senior Member
In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I love the word gobbledygook. It’s such a fun word to use. Merriam-Webster defines gobbledygook as “wordy and generally unintelligible jargon.” As technical communicators, you might be more familiar with that term “jargon.” Merriam-Webster defines jargon as “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” Did you notice how I switched from using “word” to “term?” That’s because, like the word “jargon,” “term” refers to words in a specialized field and “terminology” is that field’s specialized vocabulary.
Technical communicators work in a variety of specialized fields, such as the computer industry, scientific industries, or healthcare industries, just to name a few. These fields are filled with technical terminology. Often, there are specialized dictionaries that contain these technical terms for their field.
Are all of these technical terms considered to be jargon then? If we look at just the Merriam-Webster definition, then maybe so. I think, however, that the technical communication field has given jargon a different definition: jargon is the set of technical terms that are used inappropriately. (Dan Jones devoted an entire chapter to jargon and technical terms in his book, Technical Writing Style. See Resources.) What defines inappropriate use? Plain and simple: your audience (your reader). But more on that in a bit.
Most style guides for the computer industry, including the Microsoft Style Guide (see Resources), recommend that technical writers avoid jargon, especially for less technical audiences. The Microsoft Style Guide brings in the idea of “familiarity” to the decision of when to use jargon—or really the technical terminology for the computer industry. The Nielsen Norman Group wrote an article on plain language, and in it they talked about using technical terms that are familiar to your users, even the experts (see Resources).
So as technical writers and technical editors, how do we avoid jargon in our communication?
- Know your users
- Define your terms
- Customize your grammar checkers (build a custom technical dictionary)
Know Your Users
Just as I wrote last year (see Resources), everything depends on your users. Every technical communication project should start out with a solid and thorough user and task analysis. You need to know your users and understand their environment and understand tasks. You also need to understand their skill level, as defined by Dreyfus (see Resources): Novice, advanced beginner, competent performers, or experts. When we write a piece of content for advanced beginners, we will have to watch our use of jargon and technical terminology more closely than when we write a piece of content for experts. Also consider Jakob Nielsen’s perspective that we should use jargon “to communicate more precisely and professionally” with our specialized audiences and our expert readers (see Resources).
Define Your Terms
If you use your technical terminology appropriately, and avoid jargon, you will likely need to define your terms in context. You might use a term that is unfamiliar to your audience and then immediately define it so that they can learn it, and it can become a part of their technical or specialized vocabulary. As you work on the content, you’ll likely need to consult specialized dictionaries or word usage lists to help define terms for your users.
Customize Your Grammar Checkers
Today, most grammar checkers (or spelling checkers) have a custom dictionary feature. You can build or import a list of technical terms that are allowed for your project. Any term that does not appear in the custom dictionary would then likely be flagged as jargon for you to either eliminate or define. You can read more about how technical communicators should use grammar checkers in my previous column titled, “(Grammar) Check please!” (see Resources.)
If you do not have or use a grammar checker, then you should at least build a custom dictionary or specialized glossary to use as you write or edit your content.
Jargon Is in the Eye of the Beholder
In the end, one reader’s gobbledygook is another reader’s technical terminology. It is very easy to let jargon slip into our technical writing, especially when we’ve worked in the same industry or on the same project for a long time. We need to build our specialized dictionaries, and if possible build them into our grammar checkers, to help keep us alert to the inappropriate use of jargon.
“Avoid Jargon.” Microsoft Manual of Style. Retrieved 11 August 2019. https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/style-guide/word-choice/avoid-jargon.
Corbin, Michelle. “It Depends…” Intercom 65.6 (2018): 27.
Corbin, Michelle. “[Grammar] Check Please!” Intercom. 65.4 (2018): 28–29.
“Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 11 August 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_model_of_skill_acquisition.
Jones, Dan. “Handling Technical Terms and Jargon,” Technical Writing Style. Allyn & Bacon: Needham Heights, MA, 1998, 118–143.
Loranger, Hoa. “Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts.” Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved 11 August 2019. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/plain-language-experts/.
Nielsen, Jakob. “Use Specialized Language for Specialized Audiences.” Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved 11 August 2019. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/specialized-words-specialized-audience/.