Technical Writing: The Difference Between Warnings and Cautions
It’s that time of year when television weather forecasters wave their arms around to inform us of yet another winter storm headed our way. The impending doom and gloom are described as watches and warnings, but what do those terms really mean?
The National Weather Service issues a Winter Storm Watch to alert us to the possibility of an impending storm. They issue a Winter Storm Warning when hazardous winter weather is imminent or occurring. But, even they recognize that we might be confused about this distinction (http://nws.weather.gov/haz_simp).
Likewise, in technical writing, the subject matter often calls for warnings and cautions. We need to know the distinction between them and how to write them effectively.
– A Warning explains dangers that might result in personal injury or death.
– A Caution explains hazards that could damage a product, including data loss.
If both results are possible, a warning takes precedence.
To write a warning or caution:
– Start with a simple, clear command.
– Write to the intended audience, for example a machine operator or a maintenance technician.
– Choose your words to be specific, leaving nothing to uncertainty.
– It might be necessary to add an explanation to make the risks clear. This will make the warning or caution longer, but more effective.
– If conditions are necessary before starting a procedure, list the conditions first.
Of course, warnings and cautions should not be buried in the text. They should have headings and graphics to grab the reader’s attention. Waving your arms is optional.