Not issues: problems, stuff-ups, failures

Technology products no longer stop working or fail. Instead, they have issues. This is particularly true in telecommunications.

We had problems with an Orcon site hosted. The company told me it was having “issues with a server”. The issue meant it stopped working for 24 hours and was flaky for days after.

When customers on Telecom NZ’s XT network had problems with data connections in October, the official company response said:

“Data issues affecting some XT mobile customers earlier today are now resolved. Some customers in the lower North Island and South Island using mobile broadband on the XT mobile network experienced issues from mid-morning.”

Yes, we are back to the crazy world of PR and marketing euphemisms.

Wasteline test your writing

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is a great online tool to improve your writing.

You cut and paste samples of your writing into a box, hit the button and the software scans your writing.

The Wasteline Test counts and highlights the weak verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs and ‘waste words’ in your copy. Then it provides you with an overall ranking from lean, through fit and trim all the way up to ‘heart attack’.

New Zealand academic Sword designed her test to help university students improve their writing skills. She has also written a book, The Writer’s Diet – which I’ve yet to see in any local stores, but I’ll buy a copy if I do. 

The Wasteline Test works just as well for most types of writing and includes a number of ideas I’ve written about on this site.

I’m pleased to report most of my recent stories rank at the lean end of the scale. My old school journalist style uses more be verbs than Sword likes, but not too many.

Avoid these traps for your readers

Your job as a writer is to get your message across clearly and quickly.

One way you can sabotage communication is by laying traps for readers. They stop a reader’s flow as their eye scans over text.

Punctuation – as the name suggests – stops flow. This is why I leave out optional commas.

You can also slow down a reader’s flow when you use capital letters incorrectly. For the same reason you should never write a word entirely in capitals.

Likewise I don’t use the ‘&’ symbol – instead I write ‘and’. The exception to this rule is when the ‘&’ forms part of a company’s name.

The same applies to ‘+’.

It is also better to write out percent in full than use %. Although some newspapers, including one where I work, insists on using the symbol.

Never resort to phone text-style language in anything written for a wider audience. It isn’t funny, clever or useful.

What to do when an interviewee talks like a robot

Interviews are the best way to quickly collect information for any kind of writing.

As a freelance journalist I interview people every day.

Interviews work because other people’s words are livelier and more interesting than long passages of descriptive prose.

Most interviews go well. The best interviewees know their stuff and express ideas clearly. They sound human. That is, they talk like real people using everyday language.

Some interview subjects are anything but human. They sound like automatons.

Nervous interviewees hide behind jargon and officialese because they feel safer or because they, wrongly, think it makes them sound smarter. They may not be confident using their own words.

Another reason is media training. Some interviewees learn or prepare ‘canned’ statements designed to stay “on message”. In some cases a communications professional is standing in the wings.

They sound like they are reading from a prepared document. Sometimes they are.

I’ve three techniques for helping interviewees sound human:

  1. Let them get the canned statements off their chest first. Take notes – this could be all you get. Then ask them questions which get them to say the same things again. They are more likely to speak like humans second-time around. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found even Daleks run out of resistance when you go back for a third try.
  2. Play dumb, get them to explain jargon. Some interviewers fear this because they worry it makes them look stupid. Don’t worry; you can look smart when your copy appears explaining difficult ideas in understandable English. If it really bothers you, say something like: “I understand what it means, but my readers aren’t familiar with the term”.
  3. Put them at ease. Often interview subjects are tense before the interview. Once they think they have delivered the key message in their corporate language they often relax. When this happens chat about their words, go over points casually– but keep your eyes and ears open. If you use a microphone leave it running.
    Once the show is over, interview subjects drop back into human form. I’ve had interviews where the best words came travelling down in the lift or even while unlocking my car to drive home.

Technology writing for beginners

Good technology writing doesn’t always come easily.

Most people can usually produce simple, straightforward copy even if they’ve little experience.

It boils down to thinking clearly — then turning your thoughts into words in a logical fashion.

Start by sticking to basic words and simple sentence structures. Don’t worry if it feels like plodding. You can experiment when you feel more confident.

Inexperienced technology writers often have one of three faults:

  • A pompous and overbearing style. Avoid this by being friendly, although not too chatty. And use active language.
  • Too technical. By this I mean it does not explain technical aspects clearly enough to non-experts. Fix this by keeping jargon to a minimum and explaining tricky ideas in simple terms. Don’t worry if  this makes your writing longer.
  • Trying to be cute. There’s nothing wrong with making jokes or using everyday speech, but beginner writers often take this too far, to the point where understanding their meaning is hard.

Pitching your copy at the right level is the hardest part of technology writing. Experienced technology writers know no one ever succeeds in this business by overestimating the reader’s intelligence. They also know no one succeeds by underestimating readers.

Remember people who are expert in one area of technology, may not automatically understand other areas. And a technically literate readership does not give one a licence for sloppy explanations of complex technical matters.

If you find this difficult, imagine you are writing for an intelligent colleague working in another area of your organisation.

  • Picture that person reading your words.
  • What questions would they ask if you were in the room with them? Make sure your text answers these questions.
  • Have you written something they would find patronising? Hit the delete button and make that point again.

Lastly, always get someone to proofread your copy.

Ask them to point out what doesn’t make sense and to see if you’ve made any obvious errors. Don’t take offence if they find lots of things that need changing, your pride will be more wounded if the rest of the world saw your mistakes.

Update: I’m indebted to Thomas Beagle for reminding me about bullet points. Like the man says, use them where possible to break up block of text and make your writing easier to navigate.

Does spelling still matter?

Erin Brenner at the Writing Resource asks: “Does spelling still matter?

It does. It matters a lot.

Some people think worrying about spelling and grammar is anal and backward. They are wrong.

There are two reasons why spelling and grammar are important and will remain important for as long as people still read printed words:

First: Well-written, properly spelt (I’m British, this is allowable), grammatically correct English is unambiguous.

Poorly written English is more open to misinterpretation.

If being understood is important, then worry about spelling and grammar.

Second: Well-written text flows, it’s a pleasure to read. It sends readers a message about your professionalism and wisdom. It is credible.

Poorly-written English jerks around, causes readers to stumble, they may not realise why this sets off alarm bells in their heads, but it does.

Too much poor English and they’ll question the message. This may not happen on a conscious level. It may not happen with all readers. It will happen enough for it to matter.