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The Goal of Making Readers Feel

Anyone can write procedural instructions on a topic they understand. Maybe not write well, sure, but they can put some bullet points to paper for someone else to attempt to follow. Part of what separates a pro tech writer from someone someone stabbing together bullet points is an understanding that we aren’t writing to ourselves. We know how to take reader assumptions into our work rather than try to force our own assumptions onto readers.

But there’s a layer of understanding beyond that, at least to me. Technical writers are like other writers; we’re facilitators of emotion. Docs we make will resonate with readers in one direction or another, which we can either use as an asset or let hinder us.

I’m not talking about the sort of deep emotion a novelist seeks to elicit, but the reactions people have to foundational or instructional text are still emotions—namely of confidenceapprehension, or frustration.

Often, our goal is to create a sense of confidence in readers. We write something clearly enough that our primary target audience understands what we’re on about (and maybe even secondary and tertiary audiences). In turn, they feel like they can use this newfound knowledge to perform some task or hold some conversation.

But sometimes I actually want to create a sense of apprehension in readers, because the instructions I’m detailing need to come with a healthy “screw this up and say goodbye to your data” sort of caution. You can’t just say “Warning: be careful!” at the top of your doc and hope that means anything. Instead, you have to build into the language you’re using a sense of caution and respect for the process being described.

If I’m going for one of those goals and I actually get the other, that’s a failure point. Similarly, if I ever cause frustration, I’ve failed as a writer. Once the reader is frustrated with your docs, now there’s an emotion getting in the way of further attempts to digest the material. You can’t use frustration as a tool—at least, I don’t know how you’d go about doing that.

These emotional responses aren’t necessarily large, and may not even be consciously noticed by the reader—one could argue that being consciously noticed would even be a detriment—but they’re there and they’re important. That’s just as true for writing (drawing?) IKEA instructions, tips for InDesign, rules for a tabletop game, and so on.

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2 Responses to The Goal of Making Readers Feel

  1. Alistair says:

    That’s an intriguing post. I might share it with my class in the new year. Not often, when teaching kids to write procedural instructions do we think about the emotions we’re aiming for. Thanks Ryan.

  2. Lironah says:

    Reminds me of the book Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML. Used lots of humor to make the stuff stick. Also, pretty pictures. ;D