Making the World More Understandable

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The Culture of Writing

Do manuals read like this? Could be a culture clash. Image from
Do manuals read like this? Could be a culture clash.
Image from

Especially for larger software companies, documentation is something management easily outsources. The problem with outsourcing writing is that the culture of the writer and the culture of the reader frequently don’t match.

The truth of the matter is that most Americans only go to the documentation when they are stuck beyond all reason. At that point, all the reader wants to know is how to make the software do what it is “supposed” to do. (Yes, I do know that users frequently have no clue about what software can actually do.)

As a Technical Writer, I spent over ten years creating documentation for engineering software applications. As someone self-taught in every application I have ever had the “pleasure” of working with, I wrote the documentation I wish someone had written for me. Meaning: I wrote clear instructions about how to make the software do specific things. I also wrote clear descriptions for why/how the software does what it does.

That’s me: Passionate about Clear Communication.

And the Culture Conflict Would Be?

In my experience, outsourced writing frequently goes to India, or some other heavily populated country. Cultures in countries that have a long history of large populations tend to be conflict adverse. This is perfectly reasonable to me, if there is nowhere else to go, it’s best to keep everyone in the area happy.

Being conflict adverse impacts communications. Writings and conversations tend to be overly polite, flowery, and without a direct point. Everyone knows what’s been said, but it takes many more words and sometimes internal decoding is necessary.

For the American trying to figure out how to get the bleeping spreadsheet to find the average of cells spread hither and yon, flowery language without a direct point is exactly the wrong thing.

On the other hand, it is very likely that my style of writing – direct, to the point, and occasionally sassy – would offend large portions of the population of a conflict adverse culture. Heck, my unfiltered style of writing offends portions of my own culture.

The Lesson Learned

I used to grumble about documents written in India and make blanket statements like, “they can’t write.” But that is not the case. Writers in India write just fine – for their culture. What they need extra training on is writing for the culture of their audience – generally impatient Americans who need to get this thing done yesterday and just want to know what to do.

It was not until I actually worked for a company that did have writers in India (and programmers too), that I realized that there was not some plot out there to make documentation confusing. Instead, the plot is to make more money by getting documentation cheap and to heck with the reader.

Sorry, is my last layoff showing?

-Lorrie Nicoles