Back to the Future – Simplified Technical English

For many years I’ve regarded Simplified Technical English as an outdated legacy from the Aerospace industry. But that opinion has changed radically recently, and I’m becoming a big fan.

Whilst I’ve been aware for many years of Simplified Technical English and we touch on it in our Technical Author Training Programme, I’ve never been asked to use it in over 35 years in the documentation industry.

One of our popular courses is Plain English. I looked back over a 12-month period recently, and found I delivered it 70 times. There is a big appetite amongst organisations to have their staff write in Plain English. It makes them seem more professional and easily understood.

But Plain English is not the same as Simplified Technical English. Plain English isn’t designed for technical communication. It’s a set of principles rather than a standard. These points are well made by Mike Unwalla and Ciaran Dodd in their excellent article ‘The case for ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English’ in the book ‘Current Practices and Trends in Technical and Professional Communication’ by Stephen Crabbe.

Unwalla and Dodd make the point that the ASD-STE100 standard has the flexibility to be successful outside Aerospace and Defence. Indeed, it is claimed that over 50% of requests for ASD-STE100 come from industries other than Aerospace and Defence. So I obtained the latest issue of ASD-STE100 and studied it in detail. It’s Plain English on steroids, but developed specially for technical communicators.

What do I like so much about it?

  • The grammar rules outlined in Part I of the specification are brilliant. They encapsulate the rules every good technical author should understand and practise.
  • It’s flexibile. Contrary to my previous view, it can be adapted to different industries and different situations.
  • It imposes structure and consistency on an organisation’s writing. No longer can a manual look as if it has been bolted together from different sources, with all the distractions and problems this causes.
  • When documentation is a global asset, Simplified Technical English is easier to understand for non-English native speakers. It’s also easier to translate.
  • Responsive documentation is now the norm, rather than the exception. Users need to read documentation on mobile devices as well as their desktop computer back in the office. Simplified Technical English works beautifully on projects like this where space can be limited.

I no longer believe Simplified Technical English to be a legacy approach; it may even be the future.

I’m off to study it in greater detail and then look for a project on which I can use it. I’ve got a few in mind.

Nigel Platts

About the author

Nigel is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Armada Technical Authors with over thirty five years’ experience in user-assistance in a wide range of roles including Technical Writer, Manager, Consultant and Trainer.   Nigel continues to undertake projects from time to time to keep up-to-date with the latest technologies and practices. His areas of expertise include software for local government, accountancy and finance.

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