JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Style Guides have long been the focus of quality control for information developers. Most publications professionals rely upon Style Guides to foster best practices in terminology, grammar, punctuation, and writing style. Writers and editors spend considerable time and effort to develop and update their Style Guides. Organizations even adopt Style Guides produced by industry leaders such as Microsoft, Sun, and the former Digital Equipment Corporation. Our February issue of the Best Practices newsletter is dedicated to the process of developing Style Guides and introducing them effectively to our increasingly global organizations.

Language Quality Systems, which provide software tools to evaluate document language quality, have existed since the widespread adoption of word processing and desktop publishing systems in the late 1980s. Recently, however, publications professionals have looked to these systems to support the rules and guidelines of their Style Guides. I believe we are increasingly interested in using software tools to enforce our language quality policies and goals because our teams have become more diverse. The system developers have responded with more usable and effective tools, based upon in-depth linguistic analyses of the problems that make text less readable and more difficult to translate.

Using Tools to Reduce Translation Costs

At the 2006 Best Practices conference in San Diego, Symantec demonstrated how they have used a controlled language tool to support automated translations. Because Symantec must release information about new viruses worldwide in a matter of minutes, they have adopted machine translation tools. However, the quality of the output is dependent on the consistency of the source language. Staff members who produce the source language must use standard terminology, sentence structures, and grammar to ensure that the machine systems produce accurate translations. They report an accuracy of 80 percent for translations in languages like French and German, which means that only 20 percent of the translation must be corrected by a translator.

Software Tools Help Increase Readability

SWIFT, a Brussels-based corporation that develops software for international banking, reports that adding a controlled language tool has allowed them to influence writing quality throughout the organization. Not only have they applied the tools to the work developed by the staff of professional writers, but they have extended the use of the tool to other groups involved in customer relations. They consider clear English to be an “essential ingredient” in customer relationships. Senior management recognizes that effective, clear communications with customers supports a strong brand image.

Software Support Begins with a Linguistic Analysis

The software available today to support effective writing and simplified English is supported by linguistic professionals who analyze the documents being produced, particularly early drafts that reveal the problems that writers have with language. Given global writing teams and staff members who are not native English writers, the problems are related to differences between standard practices in many native languages and standard practices in technical English. An effective analysis of the problems allows the experts to tune the systems to find the typical problems and recommend changes.

In tuning the systems, the experts build terminology databases that are peculiar to the technology domain and the word choices of each organization. For example, a terminology database may begin with the standard terms in the telecommunications industry but add the special terms adopted by a particular company. Writers are encouraged to use the standard terminology and only introduce new terms with care.

The experts also work with the publications professionals to adopt the rules in the Style Guide to the rules enforced by the software. The rules may recommend using active rather than passive voice or simplifying sentence structures to increase readability. The rules may assist authors to write text that is easier and less costly to translate.

Software Supports Writing for Translation

The localization and translation experts who take part in the OASIS DITA Translation Subcommittee have recommended, for example, that product names or other text variables be handled carefully. Many technical communicators advocate text variables to handle product names and technical terms that change constantly or to provide a single source of text for multiple products. The translation professionals pointed out that using text variables can result in poor quality translations. English, they explain, is a very flexible language with almost no differences among parts of speech. Nouns used as subjects, objects, or even the objects of preposition take the same form. In highly inflected languages, however, nouns differ considerably depending on the part of speech in which they occur. A product name that occurs as the subject of a sentence is translated differently than a product name that occurs as an adjective or the subject of a preposition. They recommend that, if we elect to use variables for product names and other technical terms, we try to use them as the subjects of the sentences in which they occur.

If this rule sounds complicated and difficult to enforce in a Style Guide, you’re correct. However, with the support of a controlled language software system, the system enforces the rule.

Software Tools Supplement Human Editors

I have always advocated including human editors on a professional publications team. In fact, one of the best practices we have identified through our surveys calls for one editor for every seven team members. Unfortunately, many publications organizations don’t come close to this ratio. Although we have definitely seen a resurgence in editorial support, many writers never have their work edited by skilled developmental editors. Even basic copyediting may get short shrift.

Language quality tools can help supplement but not replace the work of editors by assisting writers at the draft stage. The tools, properly tuned to support the terminology in the industry and the company Style Guide, provide immediate advice to the authors and enforce the rules. The writing team at SWIFT, for example, found that writers work hard to “beat” the tool, decreasing the number of errors that the tool uncovers. They write more effectively and clearly from the first once they learn what the tool is likely to complain about.

The software is also non-judgmental. Writers who are reluctant to have their work reviewed by an editor until it is “perfect” are more likely to go along with the neutral advice and rules-enforcement of the tools. As they improve their drafts, they are more willing to let the editors take a look.

Of course, we all recognize that no automated system replaces the judgment of a professional editor. Content may meet all the rules and still be inaccurate, unusable, or incomprehensible. However, the increasingly global teams and a more diverse group of writers, the tools help raise the standards for everyone.

Johan Kestens, Head of Marketing at SWIFT, puts it well. “The Style Guide is a fundamental tool that helps us to write consistently and clearly for our busy readers. I urge everyone at SWIFT to use it. Our documentation is our business card to many users.”