Conversational Style in Technical Writing
Posted September 7, 2010on:
Do you think it is ever appropriate to use the word you in technical documents?
At one company, where I was working as a contract freelance writer on a technical-writing project, the company’s lead technical writer decreed that no one was to use the word you in any technical document. Ever. Under any circumstances. For any reason whatsoever. He considered it too unscientific and non-technical.
For example, we were supposed to write: After the user enters the data, he or she should check the form before clicking the Submit button, instead of: After you enter the data, check the form before clicking the Submit button.
The first example sentence illustrates technical or scientific style, which is impersonal and presents content in a way that largely avoids personal pronouns (no you allowed, for example) and does not directly address the reader. This style favors the passive voice (which also helps avoid those pesky pronouns) and promotes nominalization (a process in which verbs are turned, sometimes illegally and indecorously, into nouns).
If you have ever read texts overflowing with words like optimization, monetization and the like—nouns created from verbs by the writer—then you are familiar with the technique of nominalization.
Technical style is frequently used in processes and procedures, which place the emphasis on the sequence of the action rather than on giving directions to the reader. In other words, a step is described, not written as an order or directive. Thus, the user is addressed indirectly and impersonally in the third person as he, she, one, the operator, the technician, the user, and so on.
All of that is supposed to sound more technical and scientific—as well as more objective and authoritative, in the opinion of some.
The second example sentence shows conversational style, in which you write to readers as though you are speaking to them. This style approves of using personal pronouns (you, for example) as well as the judicious use of contractions (don’t instead of do not).
As a bonus, conversational style encourages the use of the active voice, which adds conviction and liveliness to writing, and is almost always more concise than the passive voice. Readers find “action verbs” appealing, because such verbs are direct and show motion.
Using a conversational tone in technical communication can be quite effective and very engaging, as long as you don’t overdo it. Specifically, “not overdoing it” means to refrain from writing in a colloquial or chatty manner, using slang, and attempting to be humorous.
Conversational style is often used when writing directions, because you are telling the reader how to complete an action. Thus, the writer addresses the reader as you. For example: You must not enter a space between the numbers in this field. When writers use the command form of a verb, however, the you is not explicitly stated: Use only clean tools.
Striking a Balance
So, to you or not to you, that is the question.
In my opinion, it is preferable first to define and understand your audience, define the purpose of the document and understand your company’s communications objectives for the document, and then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to use the word you (and by implication, a more conversational style).
Given those parameters, I’m pretty certain you won’t be able to decide to “always” or “never” use the word you. It’s more likely you’ll find it necessary to strike a balance regarding its usage.
Even if your company has a style guide that addresses this issue, I’ll bet there will be times when its rules about when to use the word you will need some tweaking. What matters, after all, is how well you communicate with your audience, your customers, and if you have to bend a rule or make an occasional exception, then so be it. (Just be sure to discuss it with your manager first, of course.)
What do you think? Has the issue of using the word you in technical documents ever become a bone of contention in your company? Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas