Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Technical Writer as Playwright

I read this headline on my news feed this morning:

"INSTANT VIEW 4-German jobless posts first rise in nearly 3 yrs."

Actually, I read it several times trying to get it to make sense. I almost had to manually diagram the sentence to parse out its meaning. First, ignore "INSTANT VIEW 4." I read the article and it shed no light. I suspect there are a series of these INSTANT VIEW articles in the publication and this one came after the third and before the fifth. I'm guessing on that.

The real difficulty I figured out was that "post" and "rise" can be verbs or nouns and I was interpreting each one incorrectly from how it was being used in this sentence. This is a common trick that clue writers for crossword puzzles use. After mentally diagramming it, I realized that it said:

[subject] German jobless [/subject] [predicate] [verb] posts [/verb] [object] first rise [/object] [adverbial phrase] in nearly 3 yrs [/adverbial phrase] [/predicate].

My problem when I first read the headline was I had parsed it as:

[subject] German jobless posts [/subject] [predicate] [verb] first rise [/verb] [adverbial phrase] in nearly 3 yrs [/adverbial phrase] [/predicate].

Duh! Well that was a lot of mental work to read a headline! It was further complicated by the odd pairing of subject and verb of "jobless posts..." Try to imagine that. It's hard to because it breaks Joseph Williams' caveat that good sentences are like little plays; the actors should be nouns and the verbs should be what they are doing on stage. Imagine this play instead:

"German jobless rate rises for the first time in 3 yrs."

I can only guess what a machine translation would do, but I suspect that my rewrite will come out a lot better than the original.

The lesson is that Help is read in snippets. Avoid ambiguous parts of speech and make each snippet a good little play that you can easily imagine being acted out on stage.

Because I can tell you I put a lot more work into reading that headline than our users will put into reading our Help.

1 comment:

Holly said...

I saw another one of these today and had to read it several times to understand it:
Citigroup Leads Financials Lower.

"Leads" here is a verb, but I was reading it as a noun. Part of the confusion is that you think of "leading forward" or "leading up" instead of "leading lower."

In other words, the economy is going to hell in a handbasket and all we can do is gripe about the grammar.