METM21 Online Chronicles: Karen Tkaczyk

Technical style at issue

After a welcome message from MET Chair Emma Goldsmith, METM21 Online got underway on Track 1 with Karen Tkaczyk’s talk: “Technical style at issue”.

In true METM style, Karen began her presentation with a warm, inclusive shout-out to the audience, taking into account potential differences in location, level of experience and language combination to make everyone feel welcome. With her lovely Scottish accent and cheery disposition, Karen definitely achieved her objective of starting off METM21 with “energy, enthusiasm and a pleasant hour to get everyone in the mood for a really fun, educational two days”. Hear, hear!

During her introduction to the concept of technical writing, Karen shared a genuine pearl of wisdom. She suggested thinking about an analogous topic you’re more familiar with, such as cooking for texts on chemistry or household appliances for industrial machinery manuals. She used a neat little example to show how this can help when translating or editing technical texts:

The addition of lemon juice was done after 15 minutes.

This sentence is clearly awkward to the ears of a native speaker. But if “lemon juice” is replaced by a technical term (“dichloromethane” in Karen’s example), even an experienced translator may fall into the trap of focusing on terminology and neglecting style.

To round off her introduction, Karen clarified the definition of technical writing, pointing out that technical texts are used in many fields, not just science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She then moved on to the second part of her talk, a brief overview of how to make technical writing effective, which she summed up on the slide below.

Slide explaining that technical writing should be accurate, objective, reader-friendly and consistent (concise, clear, precise = effective)

Leaving aside the “precision/accuracy” aspect, which relates more to subject expertise than style, Karen then reviewed various methods for ensuring concision and clarity. Her overview included practical tips and easy-to-understand examples, as well as resources to help us improve our writing (e.g.

Karen then discussed some of the problems that can arise when translating or editing technical texts in the real world (such as ambiguity) and solutions for dealing with them. One piece of advice she insisted on was to “pick a style guide and stick with it”. Karen also recommended creating specific style sheets for key clients and big projects, and then generously shared one of her own as an example. In addition to client preferences in such areas as spelling and date format, her style sheet also includes notes on how to handle things like lists, numbers, units and tables.

During the Q&A session, Karen deftly answered questions from participants on the appropriateness of jargon, the origin of the 21-word rule for sentence length and the use of tools such as PerfectIt to keep our writing up to par. I particularly liked Karen’s refreshingly honest response to a question about “theme-rheme structure”. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only MET member not familiar with this term! (It turns out the “rheme” is the part of the sentence that provides information about the theme/topic.)

After exhorting us all to take ownership of the texts we work on (and rightly so), Karen humbly recognized that sometimes we have to concede to our clients’ wishes, even if we don’t approve. Her anecdote about a client insisting on the use of “valorization” sounded very familiar and provided a fitting conclusion to a perceptive and pragmatic presentation. True to her word, Karen followed up her talk by sharing a long list of useful resources via this LinkedIn post.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Annamaria Schenoni-Millier.

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