Writer myopia

Have you ever been frustrated by technology such as not being able to make your new gadget work as it was advertised?

LindaI suspect the frustration may not arise so much from the technology itself as from the instructions — or lack of them — that accompanied it. Take, as an example, my experience with my new cell phone.

I am a basic cell-phone person. All I really want the phone to do is to enable me to talk to someone when I am on the go. The only feature I truly appreciate is voice mail. All the others, including texting, are things I can easily do without.

However, cell phones today come loaded with all types of features, and since they are available, I want to know what they are how to use them. Once informed, I can then make a decision if I want to use them. So, when my husband and I traded in our two-year-old phones (which had no camera) for a newer model (with a camera), we pulled out the instruction book and began to learn what these phones could do to complicate (or simplify) our lives.

We might as well have left the instruction book in the box. It was worthless. The book’s grammar was correct, but the technical writer made all sorts of assumptions when he or she wrote it.

Here are two examples:

  • The back ‘button.’ When you turn on the display to show the various options (such as log, voice notes, settings, etc.), in the lower right corner is the word “exit.” Hitting the red “key” on the lower right side activates exit. However, once you go to an option, such as “settings,” “exit” becomes “back.” “Back” — to me — means going back one screen.But no, that is not what it means. “Back” means exit. It took (literally) several hours before I discovered where the “back” button was (upper right). It was not specified in the instruction book.  
  • Meaning of each display item. The writer obviously assumed the user would understand the meaning of each item shown on the display, such as “profiles.” Since I have used a cell phone for years, I knew what a profile was. But, every manufacturer defines its various profiles in different ways, and nowhere in the instruction book did Nokia, the manufacturer of my new phone, explain normal, silent, meeting, outdoor, my profile 1, my profile 2, and flight.In addition to profiles, the phone’s settings listed themes, tones, main display, mini-display, time and date, my shortcuts, connectivity, call, phone, enhancements, and security. Few of these were self-explanatory; fewer yet, such as “welcome note” and “flight query” (under phone settings) contained any explanation in the instruction book.

I suspect the primary reason why the instruction book lacked detail was because the writer suffered from writer myopia: He or she was too close to the subject matter and made too many assumptions about what the user would know.

Many years ago I took a graduate-level class in instructional design. The professor stressed we should never make assumptions about our learners. To demonstrate that most people do make assumptions, she had us pick a very simple task describe it step-by-step.

Try doing this. Pick a task, such as using your e-mail.

Did you remember to start by stating, “Turn on the computer”?

The lesson from my cell-phone experience is this: Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Stand back from what you are writing and think like your reader. Ask yourself how much knowledge this person has about your subject matter. It’s better to “dummy down” than to “talk over” the reader’s head.

And when you are done writing, ask someone who knows nothing about the subject to proof it for you — not only for spelling and punctuation, but for meaning. Does your piece make sense? If the person has questions, use the criticism to clarify what you are trying to say.

We have enough misunderstandings in the world. Don’t make your writing like a cell-phone instruction book.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Writing and Editing Solutions

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.