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09 February 2011

Writing "Warmly"

Reference: I read an article about techinical writing skill, it advised to write in warm words, i have no idea what does the warm words mean? does it mean short sentences, very concise, no big words? Technical Writer group, 18 January 2011.

Jiawei, a technical writer from China, wants to know what "warm words" means. Other writers haven't heard this term used. Jon guesses that it means words that make the reader feel included and able to relate to the article. Doug guesses that it means stating the goal of a procedure before listing the instructions. Nick things it refers to ambiguous words that convey a warm feeling. Ray said it was nonsense. Most agreed that warm words have no place in technical writing.

I think "warm words" can mean writing in a friendly, understandable way. In English, we try to write as an equal to the reader and assume that the reader welcomes the information or instructions we provide. As part of this, it can also mean using humor and conversational words.

I think "write warmly" can mean writing as though the reader is your equal and welcomes your instructions. It can also mean using humor and conversational words.

I learned from my wife's uncle, a Ukranian Jew who survived Hitler's death camps, that many languages such as Russian have different ways to state the same thing to different people.

For example, the same statement, "The thermometer reads 98.6 degrees" might use different sets of words when addressing a superior, an equal, a subordinate, a customer, or a child. Learning such differences can be like learning different dialects. I think this is also true of Japanese.

I've seen attempts to carry over excessive politeness in Asian instructions written to American consumers. English generally lacks such differences. Most English-speakers have a distaste for class distinctions. Writers need not say,

  1. Please use the video cable to connect the DVD player to the TV.
  2. If you wish, you may plug the DVD player's power cord into the wall socket.

Rather, the writer may address the reader as an equal and as somebody who wishes to be told what to do.

  1. Using the video cable, connect the DVD player to the TV.
  2. Plug the DVD player's power cord into the wall socket.

Those who dislike being told what to do (in other words, men and teenagers) will ignore the instructions, so the writer cannot offend them.

A variation on this theme: While you should assume that your readers want you to tell them what they need to know, do not assume that you know their mind. You do not want to alienate readers by making them feel like you judge them or like they are dumb.

Note the mild humor I injected about how men and teenagers dislike taking orders. I do not suggest using humor in cross-cultural writing. It's too easy to make mistakes. I have seen web pages devoted to collections of embarrassing mistakes in English signs designed by non-English speakers.

However, I will often use mild humor (sparingly) to make text more interesting. I believe that when readers enjoy reading my text, they will be more likely to read, will read more of it, and will read more carefully.

Conversational text means using terms easy to understand. Avoid slang, buzzwords, and big words where smaller, more common words will suffice. Use acronyms only after you have spelled out what they mean, only if you need to use the terms more than a few times, or only if "every" potential reader understands them (such as DVD and TV). Above all, never use abbreviations normally used in cell phone text messages! I hate when people do that on LinkedIn! You want your reader to understand without having to interpret.

If you word your technical writing as though you write for equals who want you to tell them what to do, take a risk with a little mild humor once in a while if you know the readers' culture, and use a conversational style as much as possible, your writing will become "warm" and enjoyable.