One of my favorite technical communication theories can be found in Chapter One: Understanding Readers of the book Techniques for Technical Communicators. This chapter, written by Janice C. Redish, considers a more active role of the reader and how technical communicators can use this knowledge to create more efficient and useful documentation.
How Readers Work with Documents
Redish outlines four major ways that readers interact with documents:
- Readers decide how much attention to pay to a document.
- Readers use documents as tools.
- Readers actively interpret as they read.
- Readers interpret documents in light of their own knowledge and expectations.
If we consider these four ways while creating documents, we can better understand how we can adapt our writing to our readers’ habits.
Readers Decide How Much Attention to Pay to a Document
Elaborating on the first way that readers interact with documents, we can’t rely on our readers to pay full attention to a document. As Redish wrote, “they skim; they read just enough to reach a personal level of satisfaction with their new knowledge or until they reach a personal level of frustration with the document or product.” (3) To combat this, we can make sure that we are writing the type of document that would be preferred for the reader.
Readers Use Documents as Tools
The second point discusses that we do want our readers to read the document, but more importantly to actually use it. People usually come into technical documents with a specific goal or task to accomplish. We should be thinking about how best to help them find the information they are looking for. Good tools, such as a clear table of contents, are critical.
Readers Actively Interpret as They Read
In Redish’s description of the third point, she wrote, “Meaning does not reside in the document; it exists only in the minds of communicators who provide documents and readers who use documents.” (7) Readers will construct their own meaning for the document, which will be made up of their own needs and expectations. We can work with this idea by utilizing the “scenario principle”, which writes regulations in scenarios and uses active voice and action verb sentences.
Readers Interpret Documents in Light of Their Own Knowledge & Expectations
Considering readers’ schemata, which is “a mental model, a way of understanding”, can help us think about how our readers are organizing information. We can try to make connections to the expectations and knowledge that our readers are bringing to the document. We can provide explicit schemata (include titles and headings that contain the schemata we want to invoke), follow a given-new contract (present new information in a framework that readers are already familiar with), maintain coherence and consistency, and provide multiple pathways through a document.
These points seem very clear and straightforward, but they’re ideas that I find sometimes slip my mind. It’s important to review them frequently and realize that considering the habits of readers in creating a document is just as crucial as working on the content and design.
Redish, Janice C. “Understanding Readers.” Techniques for Technical Communicators. New York: Macmillan, 1993. 1-23. Print.