This is probably a problem with process more than it is with writing:
The instructions tell us to click the “Return to My Account” button, but there is no such button.
What happened here?
The writer obviously wasn’t looking at the buttons when he wrote the text. The programmer obviously wasn’t looking at the text when she coded the buttons.
And it may well be that they had no opportunity to see each other’s work. In his youth, the Editor himself spent years writing and editing instruction manuals for electronic devices he was never allowed to handle or even see.
But there is no excuse for such poor organization in our electronic age. If you are a manager managing a production environment in which designing things, making them, and writing about them are all separate processes that take place in isolation, then here’s your chance to do some of that management stuff you were trained to do. Remember all the buzzwords you use all the time, like process improvement and quality and feedback? Now you can make them more than buzzwords. The people above you will be impressed. The people under you will thank you. It’s what you managers call a win-win.
When you write something, what you write has to compete for attention with everything else in the universe.
That’s a bit stark, perhaps, but it’s true. No one has to read what you write. People may need the information you’ve written down, but if you make it hard for them to get they’ll change their definition of “need” and do without it.
But sometimes you need those people to read what you’ve written. If you’re writing instructions, for example, and there’s a fair chance users will kill themselves if they don’t read your instructions, then you need to keep them reading.
But how do you keep them reading?
Transparent grabs for attention don’t help at all. They push readers away. Our natural reaction to the annoying fellow who screams “Hey! Look at me!” is not to look. Warnings should be appropriately big and bold, but there should only be as many of them as you absolutely need. You can’t make everything a warning, or warnings just become background noise.
It doesn’t help to try to entertain people, either. People have wildly different ideas of what’s entertaining. You’ll lose as many readers as you gain if you try to be clever or funny.
But the one thing your readers all have in common is that they all want the information imprisoned in your writing. They may not want it very much, but if they’ve read the first sentence, they do want it.
So the way to keep them reading is to make it as easy as possible for them to get that information. The easier you make your readers’ job, the more likely they are to keep reading until you get your message through.
Who cares whether I follow all the fiddly little rules if I get my point across?
How many times have you heard something like that? (If you’re reading this article, the Editor will bet a nickel that you were the one hearing it, not the one saying it.) And what was your answer?
It’s a hard argument to answer, because it’s absolutely right. No one cares whether you follow the rules—if you get your point across.
But whether you’ll get your point across is the big question.
The rules of grammar, punctuation, and good style aren’t there to exclude the grammatically underprivileged. They exist to help you get your point across. The closer you stick to the rules, the less likely you are to confuse or frustrate people. When people are confused or frustrated, they stop reading. Then you don’t get your point across.
You could ask the same question about any number of other projects. Who cares whether I follow the electrical code as long as the bulb lights up? Probably no one will care unless the house burns down. But the electrical code is there to make it less likely that your house will burn down.
There are some people who use arcane rules of grammar and punctuation to put other people down, and shame on them. These rules are here to help us. The more you know how the language works, the less likely you are to fail at communicating. That’s why you should care.