65.3, August 2018

A Suitable Sense of Style

Sam Dragga, Editor

The subject of style in technical writing is usually summarized as something equivalent to “short and simple” or words to that effect. For the writing of instructions, email messages, proposals, reports, policies, and procedures, the plain style is almost universally advised and applauded. However, for the writing of manuscripts for research journals, is a more elaborate style necessary? Authors of journal articles must establish their credibility as scholars with the right to publish on the subject in question while also making their contribution to the field’s knowledge of the subject influential as well as clear. Although short and simple might serve the mission of clarity, is a more erudite style (of diction or sentence structure) essential to the author’s credibility and the project’s influence? In the introduction and definition of new vocabulary or the adaptation and explication of pertinent theory from a related field, for example, authors must weigh the relative costs of simple versus meticulous and short versus thorough. The article must have enough of the traits of important journal articles to be identified and appreciated as a worthwhile contribution to the research of the field while also winning praise for readability.

This issue of Technical Communication offers five examples of this worthwhile reading, and I invited the authors to explain their decisions about the writing style adopted in their articles.

“Identifying Risk Communication Deficiencies: Merging Distributed Usability, Integrated Scope, and Ethics of Care,” by Amber Lancaster, identifies two standard approaches to the analysis of risk communication—the textual and the socio-cultural—and proposes a third way that incorporates and fortifies the existing practices. While text-based analysis focuses on the failings in risk communication materials, social-cultural analysis emphasizes ineffective dynamics and processes in organizations and communities. Amber’s third way adopts insights from research on usability and ethics in technical communication to consider risk communication in its totality—from information artifacts to users operating in the fraught and limiting conditions of their rhetorical situation. She demonstrates the power and potential of this invigorated and inclusive analysis by examining a salient historical case, the 1999 boiler explosion at the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River facility in Dearborn, Michigan.

In discussing the writing style of this article, Amber explains how she tries to find a voice suitable to the subject as well as to the journal’s audience:

I began working on this project when it served a very different purpose (demonstrating my understanding of graduate course materials). Looking back at the many versions, I see drastic changes in style! I do tend to think about writing style more in the revising stages of my work, mainly because, during my initial drafting, I am concentrating on developing ideas and working through larger organizational writing concerns.

One of the most challenging issues I had writing this article was revising style and tone for a wider circle of practitioner readers. My initial draft contained considerably more theoretical detail, which I later felt needed to be edited and revised to better highlight the facts of the case and the applications of theory. I could see where I used a lot of theoretical terms (especially in the literature review sections), so I targeted passages I thought could be simplified. I became aware of this early in my revising processes. I also tend to write a lot of complex sentences, so I looked for where I could simplify sentence structure.

As a usability researcher, I really wanted to emphasize the concept that meaning (how people perceive information and ideas) is so much more than isolated words, phrases, and interfaces—it is complex, layered, and richly connected to social practices. I think my voice in this piece illustrates this concept through my efforts to connect textual and social aspects and call attention to the victims, the social and political lines of communication, the tangible articles, and the actions of individuals involved in the case.

“Cognitive and Motivational Effects of Practice with Videos for Software Training,” by Hans van der Meij, reports on a four-condition experiment involving 87 students (11–14 in age) to determine the impact of practice on learning in video-based software training. Using six one-minute videos on how to format a document in Microsoft Word, Hans examined practice before video, practice after video, practice before and after video, and video without practice. The findings of this study make clear that the inclusion of practice in video software training is no simple decision. For example, while it might be unsurprising that practice increases training time, the study also finds that practice raises negative feelings about training. Although practice does cultivate the ability to transfer learning to related tasks, especially practice after video, the video-only condition proved almost as effective in the learning of specifically trained tasks. And practice before and after video training was the least effective practice condition. Hans thus delivers a splendid example of a research report with disruptive findings that challenge expectations and encourage continued investigation.

Hans explains his approach to writing style by detailing his persistent sensitivity to audience and the challenges of a non-native writer of English:

I don’t usually experience a big difference between drafting, revising, and editing. The main issue that concerns me in writing is clarity. I try to achieve that with (re)structuring, aiming for short, 5–7 sentence paragraphs (following the advice of Rudolf Flesch), consistently reflecting on the coherence of the text (in which I am chiefly concerned with logical sequence), and advancing constructs in easy to understand terms.

My main aim in writing is to get total clarity myself. I want to understand fully what I am writing. This may seem silly, but for me it’s essential. The aim pushes me to constantly question what I have written.

Two other features that I treasure in writing is the use of parallelism (presenting similar topics with the same underlying structure) and the technique of writing in definition-example pairs. When presenting a concept, I like to first define it and then add one or two examples. As a reader, I like to be able to switch from abstract to concrete and back; as a writer, I try to accommodate likewise-inclined readers.

My writing is moderately adaptive to the specific journal for which a manuscript is intended. For Technical Communication, I like to include more examples and illustrations from practice. For the technical stuff like data analysis, I am hardly affected by audience considerations, however. For such text sections, I prefer to follow scientific conventions. I don’t expect all readers to be able to understand these sections. I do, however, try to make the remainder of the text understandable to the wider audience. In fact, my imaginary audience is a willing reader with a fair educational level. Recently, I stumbled upon a good litmus test for my audience-aware writing when a niece asked me for tips on creating software training videos. She had completed secondary school and worked as an actor and director, but she had no scientific background. I sent her a few articles which she found quite easy to read and follow. Purpose achieved. (Her resulting videos were also well received.)

In short, clarity and plain language are my key considerations. Credibility comes from content that is well-written. Showing off by using posh language is never a consideration for me. As a non-native speaker of English, it would be silly to throw in some fancy terms or sentences just for their own sake at one place in the text, only to make a language mistake elsewhere that a native speaker would never make.

“Using Interface Rhetoric to Understand Audience Agency in Natural History Apps,” by Sonia Stephens, examines five of the leading bird-identification guides for mobile devices. Each offers descriptions, illustrations, and recorded sounds for covered species and the ability to search by location. Sonia’s analysis identifies a series of key considerations awaiting designers of applications for mobile devices. For example, bird-identification apps support audience agency in multiple ways, allowing instructive interactions regarding scientific information, the worldwide community of birders, and the environment. The inclusion of multimedia is crucial as text, illustrations, and sound all contribute essential knowledge about birds. Also important is that bird-identification apps replicate the mobile nature of bird-identification books and build on this tradition of audience expectations and design conventions. In the creation of natural history apps, the lived experiences of users as well as the traits of earlier information materials thus serve to determine the interactive functions necessary to satisfactory audience agency.

According to Sonia, the origins of this research project (as oral presentation and personal hobby) created unusual considerations regarding the writing style for the manuscript itself:

When writing, I typically consider style more during the process of editing and revision than during initial drafting. I tend to begin each manuscript by writing in a similar style and then return to it and consider the style of the journal and its audience. My experience of writing this paper was a bit different, however, because the manuscript started as a conference presentation that also included a heavy use of visuals. So, in this case, my initial text was more colloquial and the “flow” was driven by particular images. Some of my stylistic changes included using more scholarly language and “telling,” rather than “showing,” specific points.

Balancing technical and plain language is ordinarily something I think about during my revision process before submitting the manuscript and again later when responding to the comments of reviewers. However, this particular article focused on a topic that is a personal hobby of mine, and so I was more conscious than usual of the difference between scholarly language conventions and how the people who use the technology I was analyzing (birding apps) talk about this topic. And although I don’t consciously think about trying to develop a unique scholarly voice in my writing, I’m sure there are phrases or structures that I use fairly frequently.

“YouTube Beauty Tutorials as Technical Communication,” by Felicia Chong, examines the 10 most-viewed beauty tutorials on YouTube and finds that the majority adopt practices considered important for instructional videos: a brief introduction, a clear objective, verbal instructions, strategic redundancy, and a mix of textual annotations, audio, and still images in support of the video. In addition, most of the 10 tutorials include personal narratives and humor, prove timely in the topics discussed, and address their audiences specifically and directly. Nevertheless, the tutorials typically look and sound unrehearsed, without effective use of recording and editing tools, and do little or nothing to establish the credibility or product knowledge of the instructor. None try to instill confidence or self-efficacy in viewers and none assure the accuracy of information or accessibility to people with limited vision or hearing. Felicia’s study thus encourages us to amplify the list of essential practices in the creation of instructional videos.

Felicia’s effort to find a suitable and effective writing style was especially interesting because she was trying to address a professional audience of technical communicators while explaining techniques in the video tutorials of amateur instructors:

I considered writing style the most when trying to describe the YouTube videos. Although the beauty profession can be academic, the videos were mostly created by amateurs using makeup/beauty products. For example, I did not know how appropriate it would be to include the profanity or sexist language that was used in the videos. I tried to use a professional and engaging voice that does not sound pompous or cliché. My project was exploratory in nature, and I wanted to motivate other researchers to further investigate the topic, so I posed more questions for readers (e.g., asking them, “What is the cost of following best practices?”) than I usually do in other writing projects.

The biggest challenge in achieving those objectives was when I described the content of those 10 beauty tutorials, since this is not a common genre of online instructions in technical communication. For example, I struggled with the amount of details I should include for each video (e.g., should I include a word-by-word transcript?), knowing that most readers probably would not be watching or would not have watched all the videos. Due to space and medium constraints (i.e., since it would take up a lot of pages to transcribe the videos, and I would not be able to embed the videos in the article), I decided to only include the details that are most relevant to my main research questions.

“All Vietnamese Men are Brothers: Rhetorical Strategies and Community Engagement Practices Used to Support Victims of Agent Orange,” by Rebecca Walton and Sarah Beth Hopton, offers a field study involving interviews, through a translator, of 38 participants across 11 provinces of Vietnam. The study focuses on how the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization, cultivates public participation in its mission of bringing relief to chemical war victims and their families, especially by reducing the stigma of related disabilities and promoting a sense of shared civic responsibility. In their study, Rebecca and Sarah Beth find important similarities but key differences in how American organizations engage their communities versus how VAVA achieves its objective. The resulting advice for organizations trying to engage their stakeholders is unequivocal: Generic strategies are insufficient and a thoroughgoing sensitivity to local conditions and ideals is essential.

Rebecca and Sarah Beth explain their collaborative approach to achieving a unified writing style:

We started thinking about writing style even before drafting the article, actually, because the publication venue is such an important factor in writing an article. Technical Communication publishes scholarship that is useful for informing practice, both in industry and in academia. So, when planning and then writing and revising this article, we were trying to write in a way that was general enough to be relevant beyond the particular research context but was specific enough to clarify and vividly illustrate our findings. This two-part goal was important, we felt, for contributing an article that people could really use to inform action in the world.

One consideration with writing style was trying to achieve a coherent, consistent voice across sections when the purposes of each section differed: For example, the background section started a bit “newsy” or journalistic in voice because we were reporting on history, and the introduction began with a too-scholarly tone because we were positioning the article within a scholarly context. As we revised, we returned to our two major goals for the article, goals to which each section contributed in different ways: conveying generalizable information and illustrating that information clearly and vividly. Revising with those goals in mind shaped our writing style to become more coherent across sections.

We often wrote synchronously using Google docs and our process was a lot like writing jazz: One of us would riff about an idea or concept while the other took notes, transcribed, and responded with other ideas, explication, or illustration. Once we wrestled these ideas to the page, we went back and refined, highlighting sections or terms and connecting them to larger themes/terms/concepts in the field that our audience would recognize, but we kept most of the technical/erudite language to a minimum. We decided to keep, trash, or explicate based on whether the concept/term improved accuracy or increased credibility but very rarely did we make decisions motivated by erudition. We consciously and consistently defined and illustrated terms in plain language so that our work was accessible, clear, and readable to as wide an audience as possible. We were both highly conscious of the ethical and practical implications of our work and wanted it to be read and implemented quickly and easily, so we really focused on writing in plain language and avoiding practitioner jargon or scholarly erudition.

Our unique voice in this article is thanks to our strong partnership; the two of us are good collaborators. We each bring some different strengths, not only to the research but to the writing of it. For example, Sarah Beth is deeply reflective and creative, an adventurous and generous reader of wide-ranging scholarship beyond technical and professional communication (TPC). Rebecca is centered within TPC, knowledgeable about the field’s scholarship and dedicated to bridging particular gaps in its collective knowledge. In general, Sarah Beth’s writing voice is more descriptive while Rebecca’s is more direct. That combination of styles and strengths has (we hope!) created an article with a clear purpose and contribution that is enjoyable and interesting to read.

This issue of Technical Communication thus offers five exciting research projects but also five examples of writing style, each adapted to their separate subjects and purposes but a shared audience, each negotiating the challenges of clarity and credibility. The diversity of authorial voices here serves as a reminder that the “rules” of writing style are neither rigid nor static but as elastic and dynamic as language itself.

As technical communicators, we might enjoy immersion in the rigors of pertinent style guides (I know I do), but we also relish the ability to navigate the curves in specifications and conventions, invigorating ideas and making salient the humanity and vitality of the writer-reader relationship. The tactics with which we exercise this ability deserve scrupulous attention—in classrooms and training sessions, in meetings and conventions, in the magazines and journals of the field. More stories by more writers of “how I composed this” could prove inspiring as well as instructive, highlighting the unlimited ingenuity and ethical sensitivity that brings us to a suitable sense of style.