5 Scary Mistakes Technical Writers Make and How to Vanquish Them 

As the eerie winds of October blow and the veil between the realms of the living and the supernatural grows thin, it’s not just ghosts and ghouls that send shivers down our spines. For technical writers, a different kind of terror lurks in the shadows—the bone-chilling mistakes that can haunt both their work and their readers’ nightmares.

Join me on a journey through the dimly lit corridors of technical documentation, where I reveal the five scariest mistakes technical writers make. From ominous outdated information to nightmarish negligence in clarity, these spectral slip-ups can transform even the most well-intentioned document into a house of horrors.

But fear not, dear readers! As we uncover these eerie errors, we will also shine a lantern of knowledge, helping you exorcise these writing demons and avoid the horrors that lurk in the darkness of technical documentation. So, grab your flashlight, summon your courage, and let us embark on this spine-chilling journey through the realm of the unknown, where the ghosts of technical writing’s past may just lead us to a brighter, more error-free future.

View of walking through a graveyard with above-ground mausoleums.
1. Cryptic Writing: Clarity and Conciseness

This is not the time to show off your vocabulary or high-level writing skills. The purpose of technical writing is to create documents that are easy for the user to understand. Readers should not fear your documents!

  • Aim for clarity and conciseness to ensure readers can easily read, comprehend, and apply the information.
  • Using Plain Language is a safe way to avoid frightening your readers.
  • Conciseness also reduces word and page counts, making for a much less scary tome to read and produce.
  • Key information belongs up front, while dank, detailed discussions should be in the back, with links available for readers who want to take a deeper dive.
  • Don’t force your reader to wade through endless blocks of text. Channel your hidden werewolf to create bite-sized chunks of information to break content into smaller topics that are easier to consume.
  • Lead your readers through the forest by using headings and transition words, like “then,” “next,” “before,” and “after.”
  • Don’t chop off your headers. They should be short, but informative. For example, “Configuration Options” is shorter but “Configure Remote Workload Controls” tells the reader what type of options are discussed and what purpose they serve.
  • Choose your words carefully. This is not the time to unleash your wild inner Roget. If you can say it in five words, don’t use 15.

Invisible person wearing white hate and pink t-shirt against a black background.
2. Am I Invisible? The Phantom Audience

The next specter haunting technical writers is audience neglect. Like a ghost without a grave, documents written without considering the end users can become lost souls in the realm of unread materials. To banish this specter, always identify your audience and tailor your writing to their knowledge and needs.

  • Do you know the knowledge level and expectations of your audience? A common deadly mistake is always writing in the same style, no matter the victims – er, audience.
  • Is your reader new to the industry, or well-versed in it? If you’re writing for people with PhDs in spellcasting, you need to write differently than for an acolyte learning the basics. And remember that just because someone has an elevated level of expertise in spellcasting doesn’t mean they have the same knowledge of potion-making.
  • Failing to consider your audience’s knowledge level, needs, and expectations can lead to frustration, either from not understanding your writing or being bored by reading what they already know. Effective and engaging technical writing requires tailoring the ghoulish content to meet your reader’s specific requirements.
  • One size does not always fit all. Divide (and conquer) your audience into groups based on the type of information they need and how they will use it. An employee trying to submit a haunted vacation request through the graveyard’s HR system probably doesn’t need to know how to run possession reports for that system.
  • Become one with the audience by putting yourself in their boots. Can you, as a reader, clearly understand and follow the instructions or information that you have written? You don’t want to be responsible for a cauldron explosion or a failed haunting. Don’t overestimate the knowledge of your audience. If eyes of newt are needed, be specific.

A full harvest moon bathing a bare forest in an eerie golden glow.
3. Eerie and Antiquated: Inaccuracies and Outdated Information

The phantom of misinformation arises from the depths of ignorance, casting a shadow over your work. Inaccuracies in technical writing mislead and deceive. Like a cursed relic, a single error can unleash chaos, leading readers down a treacherous path. Only the torch of accuracy can banish these specters and guide readers safely through the maze of information. Zombie data rising from the grave is another scary ghoul you want to avoid. Much like the undead, outdated facts can wreak havoc, sabotaging the integrity of your work. Readers depend on your documents for accurate, up-to-date information. Failing to deliver is like failing to secure your fortress against the undead horde.

  • Fact-checking is essential to successful technical writing. Ensure your information is as current as possible and double-check data.
  • Providing incorrect or outdated information can lead to mistakes, confusion, and safety hazards that even phantoms and zombies try to avoid.
  • Knowing the bare-bones minimum isn’t often enough to create the best technical writing for your audience. There may be torturous terminology that both the writer and reader might not understand. As a rule of thumb, if you as a reader do not understand a concept or term, define it. Too much information can always be slashed in later reviews.

Spooky room lit in soft red with a ghost in a sheet standing at an old piano.
4. Lost in a Haunted House: Lack of Visual Elements and Organization

Visuals add magic to your content. Just as a potion can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, visuals can turn dry data into engaging and easily digestible content. Charts, graphs, images, and diagrams are elixirs that captivate and enlighten your readers. Organization binds your words and ideas into a coherent narrative, much like wrapping a mummy keeps the whole thing together. An organized document guides readers through complex information, making it easy to understand. It creates a roadmap, ensuring that your readers do not wander lost in the labyrinth of your content.

  • Humans are more visual than ever, and they are easily bored and lose concentration. We must include visual aids such as diagrams, charts, and screenshots to help them visualize instructions. Visuals also help break up all that treacherous text.
  • Proper organization of information is also crucial. (For details, see our Why Document Formatting is Important series.) Information must be organized in a logical manner so that what is learned in the beginning is built upon later. As they say, “You can’t scurry before you shamble.”
  • Add a little “eye candy” with colors, graphics, charts, lists, and tables, but don’t overwhelm your document with too many – you don’t want to suck the life out of your readers! (Not yet anyway.) Ensure they are relevant and appropriate. Too many visuals can be distracting, rather than helpful. They can also increase load time, causing difficulties for mobile or remote users.

A green treefrog wearing a red crown sits on a rock by a waterfall.
5. Cursed Jargon and Haunting Acronyms

Jargon often creeps into human communication, casting a shadow over the intended message. Drowning words in technical terms and industry-specific jargon risks alienating the audience, leaving them to decipher a cryptic code. Jargon can be especially terrifying when your audience is not well-versed in the language of your field. So, beware the curse of overusing jargon, for it can turn your message into a labyrinth of confusion. 

Then there are acronyms, the ghosts of words that once were, haunting your message. While acronyms can save time and space, too many of them can send shivers down the spine of your audience. They might wonder, “What do these letters mean? Are they part of some sinister incantation?” Acronyms should be used sparingly and explained on first use to keep your message clear and accessible.

  • Using excessive technical jargon or acronyms without providing explanations can frighten non-expert users and stop them in their tracks, like tripping over a stick in the woods. Instead, balance technical terminology with clear explanations and ensure all acronyms are spelled out. Do you understand this sentence?
    • Our KPIs for the Q4 costume sales are off the charts, and we’re confident our ROI on those spooky decorations will be through the roof, thanks to our A+ PPC campaign.
  • If it’s likely that some of these acronyms will be understood, but not all of them. Instead, try:
    • Our KPIs for fourth-quarter costume sales are off the charts! We’re confident our ROI on those spooky decorations will be through the roof, thanks to our top-notch pay-per-click (PPC) campaign.
  • If your audience is new to the scary business, try something like:
    • Our key performance indicators (KPIs) for fourth-quarter costume sales are off the charts! We’re confident our return on investment (ROI) on those spooky decorations will be through the roof, thanks to our top-notch pay-per-click (PPC) campaign.
  • Will the reader know a term without looking it up in the spell book?
  • Acronyms like CD, DVD, PC, ATM, etc., are understood by most people.

(Technically ‘KPI,’ ‘ROI,’ and ‘PPC’ are initialisms, not acronyms, but in government and business most refer to both as acronyms. Read our article about abbreviations for details.)

View of a deep well from the bottom looking up to see the sky through the hole at the top.
Parting Reflections from the Abyss

Remember, dear readers: In the spine-tingling realm of technical writing, beware these missteps that can haunt your documentation. From wandering into the labyrinth of jargon to summoning the wrath of ambiguity, these scary mistakes can cast a shadow on your work. As you venture forth in your technical writing journey, remember: a well-crafted guide is your silver bullet against the creatures of confusion. So, with a quill in hand and a jack-o’-lantern smile, banish these writing ghouls, and may your documents be as clear as a full moon on a cloudless Halloween night.

Do you need technical writers who know how to avoid such scary mistakes? Contact MATC Group to help your documents safely lead your readers through even the most complex information.

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