With the flu season in full swing–and with the urgent nature of the 2019-nCoV novel coronavirus outbreak– it is time think about public health writing and other types of technical writing in which the writer’s ability to precisely address reader interpretation affects health and safety.
I was reminded of our need to consider how readers interpret words when I got this directive in an email from an administrator who wants to help us to stay well. This administrator wrote:
“Wash your hands frequently.”
Subjectivity and why it can be dangerous for our health
Tech writers will see the trouble with this directive: the word “frequently” is subjective or open to interpretation. That is, the meaning of the word “frequently” depends upon the perspective of the reader. 
Let’s say that we have two readers: Reader A and Reader B. They both read “Wash your hands frequently” but they have different interpretations of that directive.
For example, Reader A might ordinarily wash three times a day–only before eating. Then one winter day, Reader A might read a public service announcement saying to wash “frequently” to avoid the flu. This announcement might cause Reader A to increase hand washing to two more times per day. Reader A feels that washing five times per day is more frequent than three times per day, so the goal of “frequently” has been achieved.
Reader B, on the other hand, might never wash. Thus, increasing hand-washing activity to three times per day during flu season seems “frequent” to that person. The meaning of “frequently” is subjective and, thus, variable.
Reader A’s meaning of “frequently” = five times a day
Reader B’s meaning of “frequently” = three times a day
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), however, give us a much more precise meaning of “frequently” in relation to handwashing:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
Frequency, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder or in the hands of the washer. The CDC has done a great job of making the frequency of hand-washing less open to the reader’s interpretation.
Objective, Precise, Reader-Centered Words
Not many things in this life are truly objective or lacking scope for interpretation, but tech writers generally strive to make their writing as precise as possible. In our definition of “precision,” we, therefore, also include, “carefully addressing possible interpretations.”
Let’s face it, tech writing is not poetry. If it were, I would get my wish, and our gadgets would come to us with a poem that tells us how to use them. Poets are precise: they spend a lot of time choosing just the right words to evoke emotion, sensation, and memory. Tech writers are also precise: we spend a lot of time choosing just the right word to help readers get things done. For example, tech writers use numerical measurements in order to be precise. That is, instead of writing the imprecise, “make a mark at frequent intervals, we write, “make a mark at 1-inch intervals.”
Recipe writers often do a great job of anticipating readers’ needs in order to be precise. Some recipes tell us the exact cooking time: “Bake for 10 minutes.” Some recipes, on the other hand, are more subjective, “Bake until golden brown.” Other recipes combine the two, “Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown.” Nevertheless, any of these directives might fail to help me because my oven thermostat might not be accurate, or my idea of “golden” might look like 24-carat gold instead of the color of well-baked biscuits.
Many cooking magazines, blogs, and websites do the cook a service by proving a photo of what “golden brown” onions look like. However, you may notice that the colors are different in this snip of a Google Images search result on “golden brown onions”:
Color is subjective.
Many of us have learned that “subjective” means “emotion-based” rather than “fact-based.” That can be true, but “subjective” words often can reflect the perspective of the writer in other ways besides emotion. For example, subjective words can tell us where or when something has occurred relative to the speaker.
For example, “today” can be a subjective word. Thus, we avoid writing emails that say, “I’ll see you later today,” because our reader might be reading that message tomorrow and might miss our meeting. Instead we use a date with numbers in it:
I’ll see you later today (Wednesday, February 19)
Some typically subjective words to watch out for are adjectives and adverbs, But remember all words, even the word “wash” can be subjective. That is, when we think of “wash,” we do not all have the same idea: our scrubbing speed, pressure, soap amount, and water temperature might vary.
The CDC offers a solution for the subjectivity of the word “wash”:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
Follow these five steps every time. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html.
Adjectives are subjective. Table 1 shows how we can clarify some subjective adjectives a bit. Notice also in the table that I sometimes use metaphors to clarify adjectives. Metaphors, however, are also subjective because they reflect the perspective of the culture of the writer. Therefore, I have to use metaphors cautiously, applying only those that I know my readers can understand.
For example, “driving time” is relative to the speed of the conveyance. And some people walk rather than using a conveyance. In addition, the metaphors of “fire engine red” and “brick red” are meaningful only to those who live in places where fire engines are red and bricks are red. In some places, fire engines are green and bricks are grey. Moreover, bricks have varying shades of red. Search Google Images for “brick red color” and you will see a wide variety of colors. However, if you experience color blindness, your perception will be different from what I perceive.
One way to clarify color is to use the hexadecimal (“hex”) color code in your writing–“#cb4154.” The hex code will help you to communicate precisely, but only with those readers who understand hexadecimal color codes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_colors
Table 1: Adjectives & Subjectivity
|Subjective Adjectives||Adjectives Clarified for the Reader|
|cold||5 degrees F; until your teeth start to chatter|
|hot||110 degrees F; until you see bubbles form|
|near||10-minute driving time|
|far||10-hour driving time|
|red||…until the fabric is the color of a fire engine, or… until the fabric is the color of a brick…|
|clean||a towel that no one else has used|
Adverbs are subjective, too. For example, my idea of “hold the puppy gently” is not the same as a 5-year-old’s idea of “hold the puppy gently.” Have you ever seen a 5-year-old play “gently” with a pet? That poor pet can tell you that the child needed that “gently” adverb to be clarified in a way that would make sense to a 5-year-old. “Gently” is subjective.
Other notorious adverbs for tech writers are direction words such as “up” and “down.” I show how some subjective adverbs can creep into our instructions, and how those adverbs can be clarified a bit in Table 2.
I try to clarify “gently” and “hard” with metaphors, but you might agree that some of our readers cannot imagine what a feather feels like or cannot imagine what it feels like to knead bread. Perhaps numbers could help more than metaphors for those who have access to equipment that can detect such things as amount of pressure.
Table 2: Adverbs & Subjectivity
|Subjective Adverbs||Examples||Adverbs Clarified for the Reader|
|up||Tilt the unit up.||Tilt the black side of the unit up toward the ceiling.|
|gently||Press gently.||Press with the pressure of a feather resting on your skin.|
|hard||Press hard.||Press down with all of your weight as if you are stapling a thick stack of paper or kneading a big wad of dough.|
|to the side||Turn the unit to the side.||Turn the unit so that you can see the words “Unit Properly Aligned.”|
Call to Engagement
We don’t need to clarify all adverbs and adjectives. In fact, to do so sometimes would be cumbersome, adding too many words to instructions, like “grasp handle firmly.”
However, next time you see a public service announcement telling you to wash your hands frequently, rejoice in knowing that some wise technical writers at the CDC have clarified what “frequently” means. And the next time you see an adjective or adverb that your readers might not interpret in the way they need to, you will be glad that you can clarify it a bit, especially if you have researched your reader carefully.
For some fun practice, try this quiz: https://forms.gle/9DqfdznCnGp461ZS6
Thank you for assisting your audiences no matter how near, far, gentle, wild, small, or large.
 Inspiration for this article comes from Dan Jones’ book, Technical Writing Style, pages 65-66, in which he discusses whether technical writing can ever be truly objective.