2. Style

A good technical communicator___

  1. understands the genre s/he is contributing to and complies with its conventions;
  2. knows the expectations, vocabulary, and relevant concerns of the discourse community receiving his/her work;
  3. values economy and accuracy;
  4. leaves well alone;
  5. applies consistency (and variation) accordingly;
  6. never compromises correctness in style or language;
  7. never allows ambiguity;
  8. selects tone and register sensitively;
  9. favours the neutral, active, unnoticed voice; and
  10. is competent in the art of instruction writing.

‘Style’ is an abstract term for the gestalt that is the sum of writing technique and the conventions of presentation – the latter being more dependent than the former on the particular discipline or subject area the writing is about (1. and 2.).

Good technical communication never breaks the fundamental rules, all of which apply irrespective of genre (6.); nor does it bind itself to rules at the cost of good copy. Style guides can easily be overused by weaker writers, and become a distraction from sensible insistence on strong, simple, univocal (7.) writing.[1]

Technical communication delivers content, not style. This is most plainly exemplified in instruction writing, where misinterpretation cannot be permitted and steps must be singly and unambiguously described (10.). Provided his/her writing has syntactic and phrasal consistency (5.), the technical communicator need be concerned only with how to craft his/her writing to make it as unobtrusive and transparent as possible (9.). Such a (non-) style can be largely achieved through economy (3. and 4.). Many reference works contain lists of redundant or trite expressions,[2] and good technical communicators require familiarity with such information.

In order to voice a document appropriately, technical communicators can benefit from ‘role playing’ methods that evoke audience empathy by way of the writer interacting with his/her document in the role of the intended audience.[3] Park (1982) noted that technical communicators tend toward ‘intuition-driven audience analysis’; that is, document designers intuit an elaborate construct (consisting of estimations, inferred responses, and attitudes) of their readers. Such methodology is inferior to other (albeit more costly and time consuming) approaches to audience analysis, which are proximal to ‘feed forward’ – whereby as much information as possible about the audience is gathered previous to commencement of the communication (Rogers, 1973).

[1] Style guides can generate more problems than they solve. Many state and restate the obvious ad nauseam, and break their own rules while doing so (Chicago). Moreover, they cannot, despite what many corporate institutions believe, replace a good, preferably experienced writer.

[2] For example: Skillin et al 1974, Words Into Type p. 407ff; and Rowland, D. H. 1962: Handbook of Better Technical Writing chapter 14.

[3] Such methodology is however, due to its inherently suppositional nature, at best hypothetical and at worst generally flawed.