Terminology management – a call for clarity and comprehensibility

When it comes to good technical documentation – such as a manual, online help or a knowledge article in a service database – nothing is left to chance. What should the first chapter of the document be called? What is the maximum sentence length? How are tables for technical data structured? Are the graphics labelled? What is the correct way to structure operating instructions? A modern editing process works to fixed standards for all of these points.

The same applies to your choice of words. Should we write USB flash drive or USB memory stick? Should “plug-ins” be hyphenated or not? In our operating instructions, should we write “click on the ‘cut’ button” or simply “click the ‘cut’ button”?

These are the kind of questions that you will face when venturing into the field of terminology as a technical writer. In today’s post, we will be taking a look at what modern terminology management is all about.

Organising and specifying

Active terminology management is hard work. It involves making clear and binding selections from the almost unlimited options for naming things. In essence, it is about the following challenges:

Making sure your readers understand: A good example of this is the term “tabulator key”, which I came across once many years ago in some software documentation. Do you know what that is? After a bit of thought you might realise that it is what we would usually just refer to by its short name, the “tab key”. But no one should have to think long and hard about the words used in our documents. Which is why it is important to standardise terminology so that the terms used are understood by your target audience.

Creating clarity: Let’s return to our “USB flash drive/USB memory stick” example. Here we have two options for naming the same item (in other words, they are synonyms). Both terms are correct in regard to meaning, but in terms of consistent standardisation, there must only be one valid option. If you are responsible for terminology, you need to/must make a decision in such cases.

If you are taking on a previously unmanaged field, you are sure to come across many such candidates, no matter whether you are dealing with software, mechanical engineering or medical technology. Technical documentation for complex products is abound with terminology that is just crying out for standardisation: product names, parts and components, user interface text, dialogue elements, key combinations, abbreviations, technical terms and so on.

Ensuring consistency: Terminology work is not just limited to the correct terms for things. As our “plug-ins” example shows, it is also about word formation. To be precise, this example is about when and how hyphens are used. Clear rules can also be defined here. Transitive verbs represent another typical element that requires consistency – as in our “click/click on” example. These play a prominent role in operating instructions and as the indicators for action they should be equally as standardised as the indicators for things.

Not for no reason

There are many ways of approaching terminology management and terminology work. And as for all standardisation projects, it is important to understand the point of carrying out this task. What is the benefit of consistent terminology management?

We have already mentioned one important aspect: first and foremost, good terminology facilitates understanding. An understanding which enables those using your information and documents to safely use the products to their full extent. Not only is this beneficial to your company’s image, it saves you money. The more that a user can understand straight away, the less likely they are to need to call your hotline.

As a technical writer – as the ‘producer’ of information and documents – you also benefit from professionally managed terminology. Clear terminology saves time, both when creating information and when carrying out quality control.

As a technical writer, terminology standardisation will also make you popular as it goes a long way towards reducing translation expense. Terms that remain the same in the source text do not need to be re-translated each time. Highly standardised or standardisable information offers huge potential for savings in this regard. The more languages you handle, the more noticeable the cost savings.

A systematic approach

As a technical writer, what level are you at in terms of terminology management? If you are still at the beginning, then you are actually in a very fortunate position: you can draw upon a rich wealth of experience that has been amassed in recent years due to increasing professionalisation of the document industry. Which aspects are particularly useful?

Think in terms of processes
Even if a huge number of ways to improve terminology in your company come straight to mind, develop a terminology process – a method for gathering and standardising terminology and making it available for use within your company.
Who needs to be involved in this process? What tasks does it involve? How will decisions be made? You should think about these questions to ensure that your work proves beneficial in the long term and your commitment does not go to waste. If necessary, you could also turn to a professional advisor.

Start small
When you start combing through your content for spellings and terms that are eligible for standardisation, you can soon end up with several hundred or even thousands of candidates. This is unmanageable when you are just getting started.
It is better to begin with a selection of terms that are pivotal to your content and that – once standardised – will immediately deliver added value. This will also give you a real and immediate sense of achievement and the opportunity to learn and try things out so you can ultimately carve out the terminology process that works best for you.

Use systems
Nowadays, professional terminology management is almost impossible without the assistance of a tool. What you really need is a tool in which you can record your defined terminology with all the information a terminology entry requires (a terminology management system).
Next, you need to think about the best way of making the correct terminology available for authors and technical writers during the text creation process. Our SCHEMA ST4 content management system, for example, offers powerful authoring assistance which helps technical writers use the correct terminology, directly in the editor.

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