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Technical Communication and the Scientific Art of Storytelling

This post is the second part of the series on rhetoric. In case you happen to view this post first and want to read the introductory post on rhetoric, click here.


 

Ever since I became a writer, I’ve experienced a great amount of trouble in answering questions like:

  • Can even I become a writer like you?
  • Does it require any special skill to write?
  • How do you program yourself to pen-down?
  • Or, is there any set of guidelines for writing stories?

I used to write fiction in my school days. But, I was scared to participate in any writing competition. Probably because back then, I did not realize the devil in the details! I did not know about the principles of making my written content effective. I did not realize that at times it is the soul of the story and not just the script that involves, or captivates, the reader.

In Rhetoric and Technical Writing: Bring the soul to the body [Part I of the series; hyperlinked above], I wrote what I understood about rhetoric and its role in technical writing. In this post, I will discuss the five canons of rhetoric – the elements that help bring the soul to the body. I will try to see the canons (and the questions listed above) in the light of the elementary rules of writing. I will connect the basic principle for clarity in writing – the 5Ws and 1H, which stand for What, Why, When, Where, Who, and How – with the canons of rhetoric. ­But this time, I will not adopt the usual Point-Rationale-Example-Conclusion structure for the post.

Accuracy

As [technical] writers, we often get into the typewriter mode. We begin typing everything we know or have gathered from the SMEs. But contrary to what we think, too much information is needless for documentation. Rather than overwhelming readers with information about the products, we should tell only what brings value to them. The first canon of rhetoric, Memory, relates to the amount of information a reader is exposed to (and explains the What in the 5Ws). But if too much of information is not advisable, exactly how much of it is right? The answer lies in our documents. If we can resolve issues by going through our documents, then we are good to go.

Another important factor is the timing or positioning of information, which is called Delivery. It plays a critical role in improving readers’ understanding. Delivery is about When, and should not be confused with Style, which is the third canon.

As if storytellers, we should not inform, but share; not tell, but conversate. By eliminating this bulk of information, I do not intend to tell you to avoid sharing critical information but restructure (reduce?) it in easy-to-understand chunks. Note that if providing complete information is compulsory, one should adopt a tone, language, or form, which is easy to follow. Also, when the information is at either of the extreme ends of human comprehension (either too technical or too obvious) then it is advisable to skip it, as it may confuse the reader.

Actualization

The Style and Arrangement canons of rhetoric relate to three Ws (Where, Why, and Who). This means that the key to effective documentation lies in understanding the needs of the readers. Do not write based on what you know (we just discussed that too much information may not be good for the reader); write based on what you intend to say. Remember reader connect? Try to talk about benefits rather than features. The point is: readers’ comprehension of the content is based on a combination of their knowledge and perceived information. And hence, the challenging part in writing is to get understood in an intended manner.

Writing an involving piece of a story is as if weaving a cloth. And, it takes a lot of practice to become a master weaver. Therefore, as the master weaver of my documentation, I should use (or not use) visual, emotional, and textual techniques, such as graphics, colors, fonts, headings and subheadings, tables, tones, expression, and soul to make my documentation effective. This way, I will weave much stronger warp and weft of communication.

Alternate explanation for the use of the five canons of rhetoric in effective communication
Use of the five canons of rhetoric in creating simple, effective content.

Approach

The last canon of rhetoric – Invention – deals with answering the How of things. Documentation to us can be like a canvas is to an artist – We can paint our imagination (with the caveat that we provide what the reader needs to know). You can, therefore, invent new ways to put your point across. It is possible to create new ways to converse with the readers and connect with them.

Consider the molecular representation, which I’ve prepared just for this post. The Accuracy, Actualization, and Approach molecules revolve around the central molecule of Purpose. And, the molecules (in dark Blue), which represent the basic elements (What, Why, When, Where, Who, and How) revolve around the Accuracy, Actualization, and Approach molecules. Another example that comes to my mind is the dartboard methodology, which I devised and implemented because it helps create documents that are easy to follow.

You too can come up with your own methodology. Whatever way you choose, make sure your documents become easy to understand and implement.

As we approach the end of this post, I will keep my promise (to not follow the usual Point-Rationale-Example-Conclusion format). So, I will end the post with a thought, rather than a conclusion. I agree that anyone can write; provided, we remember to remember the purpose. And, if you do that, you too are the Master Weaver.

Happy writing!

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