Loopholes in Technical Writing

Published: 05 May 2015

I spend a lot of time thinking about how consistency affects technical documents. Don’t worry, I’m feeling fine…I enjoy thinking about this stuff! Loopholes are one of many enemies of consistency. Loopholes are information gaps that detract from precision and accuracy, confuse and frustrate readers, and damage the credibility of your technical documents.

Here are a few examples of common loopholes:

  • A list of only three items, even though the introductory sentence says something like “Here are four steps…” Using “more than” and “less than,” but not mentioning “equal to.” For example: “One person may lift loads of less than 40 lbs. Use two people to lift loads of more than 40 lbs.” How many people are required when the load is exactly 40 lbs? It’s got to be either one person or two people…right?
  • An unexplained gap in a range. Here is an example: “At temperatures of 82 to 89°F, take a 10-min break after every 60 min of work. At temperatures of 92 to 95°F, take a 10-min break after every 45 min of work.” Readers have no explanation for why the ranges don’t include 90 and 91°F!
  • Leaving out the other possibilities. For example: “When you arrive at the job location, tell the customer that you are on site and explain the reason for your visit.” What should readers do if the customer isn’t home? Come back later? Leave a door hanger? Who knows!

Loopholes are confusing and frustrating to readers. They don’t know if a loophole is a careless mistake or something important that they missed. Many times, no one is there to answer a reader’s questions when they read a technical document. Closing loopholes makes your documents more consistent and improves your credibility.