What motivates your technical writing?

I recently received a letter from my bank that was meant to explain something, but it didn’t.  This reminded me of a fruitful conversation I had with someone on the Ministry of Testing slack community, about what motivations people might have for writing.  In this post I’ll try to dig into that a bit, in case it’s helpful for the next time you need to write something technical.  (I’m afraid I can’t help you with your next novel, or writing something to your sweetheart, valuable though those may be.)

Motivations

My experience of reading (and, I must confess, writing) technical documents has led me to believe that people often have one of three motivations behind what they write:

  1. Grudgingly doing their homework;
  2. Impressing you with how clever they are;
  3. Wanting you to understand something.

The first is writing because you have to, rather than because you want to.  You think you have better things to do, and so just pay lip service to the communication.  Once enough words are on the page, or enough time has passed, you declare it done.  This is writing driven by box-ticking rather than the user (reader) and their needs – once boxes have been ticked, the work is considered done.  Usually this doesn’t result in something that’s easy to read or effective at communicating.  (This is unfortunately the case with the letter from the bank.) 

The second is using the writing as a way to feel good about yourself, usually enlisting the reader in this process.  I accept that everyone needs validation, and a certain amount of self-belief is healthy.  However, this can go too far and stray into the realms of vanity.  Often this produces writing full of jargon, long words, clever (but unhelpful) structure but poor communication.  You may be left feeling that the author knows long words, and probably knows about the subject at hand, but you don’t understand it.  The reader exists only as a source of admiration for the author, and the reader’s needs aren’t really considered.

The third is what I aim for, because I consider it the best.  It’s good manners, and also following the Golden Rule (do to others as you’d like them to do to you).  If I’m reading to learn something, I’d like it to explain things well.  I aim for the same thing when I write.  (There’s too much bad writing in the world already, without my adding to it.)

A list of tick boxes
This is not a good target to aim for when writing; try heading towards the reader instead.

Getting what you want

Ironically, the third motivation is actually a way of getting what people with the other two motivations probably want.

If you put the effort into writing something that explains things, then:

  1. You won’t be asked to keep revising it from a bad ‘only doing my homework’ version towards a better version;
  2. If people understand from reading your words, they’re less likely to bother you by asking you to explain things in person.

So, an investment in writing can produce a return in avoiding future work.  This fits with the ‘I can’t be bothered / don’t bother me’ attitude of the first motivation.

If you put effort into understanding your readers, where they are likely to be currently, where they want to get to, and the best way of making that happen, you will (unfortunately) be doing better than many writers.  The conversation I referred to in the introduction involved a document that someone had found to explain things, that did such a good job that the other person said “It’s as if they actually want you to understand”. This was remarkable, and we both appreciated the skill of the author.

By putting the reader’s needs first, they earned our respect – not as someone who knows big words, but as someone with empathy, humility, and skill as a writer.  Earning respect in this way is a healthier version of the second motivation – it’s due reward for a job well done, rather than attempting to compete with others over who knows the longest words.

Attitude check

Why do I mention all this?  I’m guilty of the first two motivations, and I’m not proud of the results.  I suggest that the next time you start writing something, you do a brief attitude check.  Are you just trying to get through this as quickly as possible, with little or no regard of how good a job you’re doing?  Are you embarking on an ego trip?  If you need an ego trip, don’t force your readers to come on it with you – instead, exercise your skill in crafting words that communicate efficiently and effectively.

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