Online Technical Writing: Special Notices
Special notices are an important feature of professional technical writing: they highlight special information readers need to know to understand what they are reading, to accomplish what they want to do, to prevent damage to equipment, and to keep from hurting themselves or others.
Your task in this chapter is to learn the different types of special notices, their uses, and format.
Very special notices. State-of-the-art notices with clever comments.
Guidelines for Specific Types of Notices
In this chapter, and in this course, we use a specific style of notices. This style is standard, required format in this course. If you want to use a different style, discuss this with your instructor. Otherwise, follow these guidelines in planning and designing special notices—they are your "specs"!
Deciding on which type of notice to use is not an exact science. Don't use a danger notice when a warning is more appropriate (the same as "crying wolf"). Also, use notices in a consistent way throughout a report. Do not create your own notices, such as putting "Important:" in place of "Warning."
Format for Special Notices
Use the following for specific details on the capitalization, typography (bold, underlining, different fonts, different types sizes), and spacing for each type of special notice.
Note. Use the following format for simple notes:
Example of a note within a bulleted list (not regular running text). This same principle (that special notices align to the text they refer to) applies to the other types of special notices as well.
Notes. Use the following format for multiple notes:
Warning. Use the following format for warnings:
Caution. Use the following format for caution notices:
Danger. Use the following format for danger notices:
Other Formatting Issues
Here are some additional points to consider concerning special notices.
Special alignment. Special notices must align to the text to which they refer. For example, if you have a note that adds some special detail to something in a bulleted list item, you must align that note to the text of the bulleted item. Of course, if the note follows a bulleted list but refers to the whole list, then you can use the regular left margin.
Singlespaced text. All of the examples and discussion in this unit are based on doublespaced text. For singlespaced text, use your document-design "eye" to decide on spacing. Leave either one blank lines between running text and special noticesódepending on what looks best to you. (And of course both running text and the text of the special notices would be singlespaced.)
Placement of special notices. The standard rule is to place special notices before the point at which they are relevant. For example, you warn readers to back up all data before you tell them to reformat their hard drive. However, in practice this applies to serious special notices where great harm to data, equipment, or people is likely to ensue.
One technique used by very cautious writers (maybe those who have been burned) is to place all serious notices (warnings, cautions, and dangers) somewhere at the beginning of the document, and then repeat them individually where they apply.
Multiple special notices. You run into situations where you have three or four special notices, all jammed together in the same part of the text, each one following another. This is a problem because the whole point of the special formatting of the notices is lost: something is special because it is different from the surrounding. The solution to this problem is to create one identifying heading (for example, "Notes and Warnings"), and then list the notices (either bulleted or numbered) below it.
Designing your own notices. The format of the notices shown here is by no means universal. And while there is agreement on the gradation of special notices (from special point to potential fatality), there is no agreement on what to call each one. The special notices shown here are designed on the principle of increasing noticeability. You're likely to notice the note-type special notice, but how can you miss the danger notice? If you want to design your own special notices, check with your instructor. For some, the meanings of warning and caution are reversed (although my suspicion is that the word "caution" derives from the Latin cautere, which means to cut—suggesting minor injury).
The key though is to decide on a naming and formatting style and stick to it. Readers get into the habit of responding certain ways to words and format. Don't confuse them! And don't complicate matters by creating new types of notices such as "Important" or "Please read!" and other such weirdness.
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