Why bother to field-test your documents?

I recently taught a class in procedure writing. To engage learners, I usually have them build a product with folding rulers that I give them, and they write a procedure to instruct others to build their product. (A procedure is a series of numbered steps that someone must follow to produce a specified outcome.)

After each group finishes writing their steps, they field-test their procedures on potential end users (another group in the class). In most cases, those users can perform the procedures without a hitch. Sometimes, however, the procedure writers have forgotten to specify if the ruler is to be placed on the table with the numbers up or down; in other cases, they have completely left out a step.

Such omissions occur because when we write, we sometimes unconsciously leave things out that are perfectly obvious to us. When we actually see users engage with our documents, we realize that we need to add, subtract, substitute, or reorder our text.

Of course, field-testing a document takes time, but so does ineffective, confusing, poorly written communication that confuses readers!

All writers need to field-test their documents. Recently, my home-town newspaper reported on a local author, Nancy Mervar, who field-tested her first children’s book, Nana’s Silly Goats, on a third-grade class. “When I have kids do the editing and revisions with me, I can do the best job on the story,” she said. “It’s really coming from the kids rather than an adult’s viewpoint of what the kids want to hear about.” An added bonus of this experience is that the students learn more about the writing process, especially since Nancy will share her revisions with them.

Want your own folding ruler? Send me a story about your experience with field-testing your documents to improve them, and if I use it in a future column or blog,  I’ll send you a folding ruler; you can even pick your color!

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