On September 30, Brigid Daull Brockway presented a webinar demonstrating tech comm concepts through the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. Brigid has a B.A. in Creative Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Nonfiction), and 15 years of experience as a technical writer.
Although most know Chaucer for writing The Canterbury Tales, he also authored the first English technical document. Written in the 1390s, A Treatise on the Astrolabe skillfully explains how to use an astrolabe by adhering to modern tech comm principles. By examining Chaucer’s success, we can establish five rules to inform and improve our own technical communication.
Rule 1: Have a Plan
Chaucer had a clear plan for his treatise, intending to organize it into five parts. Part 1 of the treatise was a concept doc. As defined by Brigid, “Concept docs describe a product or process so that the reader can understand the background and context of a subject.” In this case, Chaucer describes the parts and functions of an astrolabe. Astrolabes were complex instruments used for astronomy and navigation, allowing one to identify celestial bodies and calculate altitude, latitude, and time.
Part 2 of the treatise consists of task documents, which “describe how to perform a procedure.” This section explains how to operate the astrolabe, covering all the ways you can manipulate its parts to perform calculations. It’s believed that the final three parts were never written. Chaucer had intended for his son or godson to read his treatise, but they passed away before he could start Part 3.
Chaucer’s planned approach significantly increased the usability of his treatise. Chaucer organized the treatise into parts with distinct types of content, making it much easier to navigate. His organization was also very intuitive, allowing inexperienced readers to easily follow along. Although Chaucer never finished his treatise, he still greatly improved his writing by planning the entire project in advance.
Rule 2: Know Thy Audience
It may seem odd that our first English technical document didn’t come until the 1390s. Brigid explains that although English was commonly spoken at the time, formal writing was typically done in more “sophisticated” languages like French or Latin. This made formal writing inaccessible to much of the lower class, who only knew English. Chaucer recognized that the astrolabe is a useful tool not only for the wealthy and privileged, but also for lower-class users like surveyors or sailors. Thus, instead of writing his treatise in fancy French or Latin, Chaucer wrote in English.
Although English was frequently spoken, literacy in English varied greatly. This meant Chaucer had to simplify his writing for users who couldn’t read very well. Some users might be completely illiterate, instead having the treatise read aloud to them. By making his treatise accessible to a lower-class audience, Chaucer made the astrolabe itself more accessible to the lower class.
To better understand your audience, Brigid recommends the use of personas. A persona represents a group of people who will use your product (e.g. tech-illiterate users, or impatient users). Imagining a persona using your product can help you recognize problems in its design. Brigid finds it helpful to use people she knows personally as personas.
Rule 3: Be Clear
Chaucer needed to simplify his writing, but how did he accomplish that? Brigid presented this excerpt from Chaucer’s treatise, translated from middle English to modern English:
For example, to find the Sun’s longitude at noon, March 12, 1391, I find the scale of days on the back of my astrolabe, which I recognize by the names of the months written under the circle. I set the rule over this day and find that the tip of the rule lies on the first degree of Aries and a little. Thus, I have solved the problem.
Chaucer does a few things very effectively here. First, he uses a concrete, specific example. He clearly lists starting conditions (“noon, March 12, 1391”), a goal (“find the Sun’s longitude”), and a result (“the tip of rule lies…”). These details allow the reader to replicate the procedure with their own astrolabe and see if they get the same result. If not, then either they misunderstood the procedure, or their astrolabe is malfunctional. Specific examples like this both illustrate the concept for the reader and allow them to test their own understanding.
Brigid also highlights the structure and word choice of these sentences. Chaucer uses simple, declarative sentences with a straightforward subject-verb-object structure. For example, “I find the scale…,” “I set the rule…,” and “Thus, I have solved the problem.” The simple structure of these sentences makes them very easy to follow, even for a semi-literate audience. (Although, Chaucer probably should’ve toned down the comma horror in the first sentence). Regardless, this excerpt clearly demonstrates how simple, consistent sentence structure can make documents more accessible.
Rule 4: Be Universal
Chaucer’s simple writing style conferred another advantage: ease of translation. Brigid demonstrated this using two passages from Chaucer – one from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, and the other from The Canterbury Tales. She translated these passages from middle English to modern English to Japanese and finally back to modern English. The passage from The Canterbury Tales became nearly incomprehensible and lost its former meaning; in contrast, the passage from Chaucer’s treatise was still easy to follow and its meaning was unchanged.
Fictional stories like The Canterbury Tales often make use of idioms, metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech. These elements make stories more interesting to read. However, they also complicate translations. Idioms in particular vary greatly across cultures and languages, making it difficult to find reasonable translations. Translators must often settle for figures of speech that are similar, but not exactly the same. As Brigid demonstrated, this can rapidly distort the meaning of a passage across multiple translations.
Translations aside, these elements can also make it difficult for inexperienced readers to understand you. Figures of speech can cause significant confusion if taken literally. If the person reading your piece is still learning English, and you use idioms like “elephant in the room” or “cat got your tongue,” they might decide you need to call animal control! To make his treatise more accessible for a lower-class audience, Chaucer needed to rely on literal language rather than figures of speech.
Rule 5: Be Brief
Brigid showed us a passage from one of Chaucer’s sources, “The Letter of Petrus Peregrinus on the Magnet, A.D. 1269.” The passage was just a massive paragraph of text, taking up an entire slide. Brigid contrasted this with a related passage from Chaucer’s treatise, which reformatted the same information. Chaucer’s passage used a numbered list of steps with precise headings and short, manageable paragraphs. Which of these passages would an inexperienced reader prefer? Peregrinus’s gargantuan nightmare paragraph or Chaucer’s neat, orderly list? Briefness isn’t just about saving time – it’s also about presenting a document that won’t scare off potential readers.
Again, this is particularly relevant to Chaucer’s audience. Someone who isn’t skilled at reading English might be terrified by a massive, technical book. By keeping the passages brief and separating the treatise into 5 manageable parts, Chaucer made his treatise much less intimidating for his target audience.
Altogether, Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe provides a useful set of rules to guide modern technical communication:
- Have a Plan: Consider how your document should be organized, and plan its structure in advance.
- Know Thy Audience: Understand your audience’s level of experience and write accordingly. Use personas to help better understand their situation.
- Be Clear: Use specific examples and simple sentence structures to make your document both understandable and accessible.
- Be Universal: Avoid figures of speech to make your document accessible and easy to translate.
- Be Brief: Write concisely to make your document easier to follow and less intimidating for inexperienced readers.
Thanks to Brigid Daull Brockway for presenting this webinar.
[Editor’s Note: A copy of the webinar Navigating Tech Comm with Geoffrey Chaucer is available for purchase through STC.]