On Building Trust With Your Words.

All week we here at the Cafe have been discussing how to reveal character through language. Put yourself in the reader’s mind. What should the reader be told, what should the reader be allowed to infer, and what should the reader be assumed to know? A technical writer must also ask those questions, not to illuminate character, but to convey factual information.

It comes down to trust, really, between reader and writer. You, as a writer, must create a space with your words in which trust can grow, in which the reader feels free to say to themselves, “I don’t know where this is going, but I’ll be glad to get there.” It’s a difficult challenge, and an awesome responsibility.

The vast majority of the documents produced by my bureau are written by our techies for the benefit of other techies. It is presumed that the reader has, or can easily obtain, the necessary context to make sense of the information. For most ordinary purposes, that is true. We don’t need to explain every measurement, spell out every acronym (more than once), or describe the significance of the data. To do so would be patronizing and could actually damage the writer’s credibility.


Some of our documents, arguably the most important ones, are not written for techies. They are written for the general public, or legislators, or for other members of our agency whose technical expertise lies in other areas. For these audiences, we must provide the context as elegantly and concisely as possible. We must educate them without either talking down to them or confusing them. Failure to do so can result in a loss of credibility for the entire agency, or worse, loss of funding.

It’s not easy, building a trust relationship with someone you’ve never met, may never meet, and who may not even exist. Unlike bloggers, journalists, or novelists, it’s rare for a technical writer to develop a following, and for credibility to accrete to the byline. The relationship has to be established anew with each document. The stuff I write becomes part of the state’s permanent record [0], and it has to be right, first time, every time.

[0] I wonder if this is what my teachers meant when they said, “This is going on your permanent record?”

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