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

We had problems with a site hosted on an Orcon host. 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. That sounds like hardware failure or software problems.

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. Some plain talking might be a better approach.

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is a great online writing improvement tool.

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

The Wasteline Test counts and highlights the weak verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs and waste words. It then gives you a 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.

The Test works just as well for most types of writing.

I’ve nothing but praise for the thinking behind the Writemark Plain English Awards. Getting rid of gobbledygook is a cause close to my heart.

Yet in a case of the cobbler’s children’s shoes, the Writemark site needs fixing.

Here is the section headed “What is plain English?” you can find this paragraph:

Plain English allows people to participate in government, commercial, legal, and leisure activities more effectively because they can understand the information presented to them. Plain English also has proven benefits for organisations that use it in their publications — including significant cost savings.

It could be plainer. And, tut tut, it uses an American-style Oxford comma in a list before ‘and’.

Let’s make that paragraph plainer:

Plain English makes information easy to understand. It means people can play a more effective part in government, commerce, law and leisure. It is also good for organisations; among other things it saves money.

Interviews are the best way to collect information fast. They work 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 descriptive prose.

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

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

Nervous interviewees hide behind jargon and officialese.  They feel safer that way or they 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. Sometimes a communications professional is standing in the wings.

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

I’ve three ways to help 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’ll look smart when your copy explains a difficult idea in plain English. If it still bothers you, say: “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. Often they relax once they think they delivered the key message in corporate language. When this happens, chat about their words, go over points – but keep your eyes and ears open. If you use a microphone leave it running.Once the show is over, interview subjects become human again. I’ve had interviews where the best words came riding down in the lift or even while unlocking my car to drive home.

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.