Technical Writing: Is This Jargon?

Q. I work for a company provides technology, construction, and other services for a wide variety of industries-—each with their own vocabulary. Plus the company I work for has many specialized, technical products. When we talk about, say, a process analytical technology, that’s a real thing that our customers are looking for, not made up jargon. I want to write clearly, but how do I distinguish jargon from not-jargon?

A. Technical writers and technical companies often rely on jargon in an attempt to be brief. They try to pack the maximum amount of information into one phrase.

However, your first obligation as a writer is to be clear. You want customers to grasp your product and services quickly, and they can’t do that if they’re deciphering jargon. You might as well write in a secret code.

One of my customers boasted online about his software company’s “compatible knowledge component portfolio.” Would you know what you were getting if a company offered you a portfolio of compatible knowledge components? When I asked my customer to describe what the company was selling, he explained in clear simple language: software that helps transfer information smoothly from one program to another. So we replaced the jargon on his website with those clear words.

My customer’s original phrase illustrates some of the criteria for identifying jargon. You are probably reading or writing jargon if a phrase:

  1. Describes something that cannot be immediately diagrammed or understood by your colleague in the next cubical.
  2. Consists of three or more nouns in a row: knowledge component portfolio.
  3. Contains a majority of three- or four-syllable words: in this case, three out of four (compatible, component, portfolio).
  4. Ends with one or more of the following generic nouns: functionality, process, system, capability, service, solution: enhanced reciprocal functionality.

Sometimes jargon marks an attempt by companies to differentiate themselves. You may need a unique phrase to identify a unique product or service. But you should first explain your product or service in everyday English. Once customers understand what you mean by “enhanced reciprocal functionality” or ERF, you are free to talk about it in that shorthand—if you still want to. But make sure the definition is clear in every new document.

Sometimes jargon uses everyday English but is still incomprehensible. We may believe we know what a company means by offering a “strategic planning roadmap process.” The meanings of the individual words are well within our grasp. But in reality, we have no idea if this company creates, delivers, reviews, carries out, or consults upon strategic plans.

If you aren’t sure whether you are writing jargon, please contact me. I will help you communicate clearly, even about the most technical products and services, so that customers truly understand what you offer.