Reader Awareness, Subjectivity, and the Flu

Photo by timJ on Unsplash

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. [1]

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.

Subjective Words

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

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Follow these five steps every time.


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.

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

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


For some fun practice, try this quiz:

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. 


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