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Is Your Reader Ignorant?

I have been working on improving my Spanish, so every chance I get I spend a few minutes doing Spanish language exercises. Yesterday I was finishing an easy Spanish crossword puzzle whose theme was food, in a college Spanish workbook. But a few of the words just didn't fit. I was trying to force salchicha (sausage) into a 7-letter space, lechuga (lettuce) into a 6-letter space, and pollo (chicken) into a 4-letter space. I thought the puzzle must be misaligned somehow.

But I finally realized the puzzle wasn't wrong. I was.

Do you know what I was I doing wrong? If you speak Spanish, you may be able to figure it out.


What I had forgotten is that in Spanish ch and ll are considered single letters. So salchica IS a 7-letter word. The same principle applies to lechuga and pollo.

How ignorant could I be? Well, if ignorant means "unaware," "uninformed," or "unacquainted with," I fit right in. I had not realized those "two-letter" letters counted as one in Spanish crosswords. And the author did not inform me or remind me of that fact. He apparently did not see the puzzle from my perspective.

How often do we do the same thing to our readers and documentation users?

Do our readers recognize our acronyms and abbreviations? (Probably not.) Do our readers know the definitions of our technical terms? (Maybe not.) Do our readers recognize our professional jargon? (Maybe, but is it convincing or helpful to them?)

A great way to ensure that our writing is at the right level is to test it with sample readers. As a sample reader, I would have quickly told the puzzle author, "I don't get it! Pollo doesn't fit where it should." 

A good step when editing procedures is to follow the steps exactly, especially procedures online. Several times each week I find myself lost in instructions. For instance, I am directed to click the "Presenter Instructions" link, but the link is actually labeled "Presenter Resources." That type of inconsistency wastes readers' time and makes even a sophisticated user feel ignorant. 

Who is ignorant when it comes to the documents we write? We are, if we don't consider our readers' needs, experience, and vocabulary. 

Syntax Training


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.