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.

Note: Students enrolled in Online Technical Writing are ecouraged to take the reading quiz on this chapter. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)

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"!
  1. Use special notices to emphasize key points or warn or caution readers about damage or injury.
  2. Be careful to use the types of special notices precisely, for their defined purposes. Use the four types of special notices in the following ways:

    Note—To emphasize points or remind readers of something, or to indicate minor problems in the outcome of what they are doing.

    Warning—To warn readers about possible damage to equipment or data or about potential problems in the outcome of what they are doing.

    Caution—To warn readers about the possibility of minor injury to themselves or others.

    Danger—To warn readers about the possibility of serious or fatal injury to themselves or others.

Deciding on which type of notice to use is not an exact science. Don't use a danger notice when a caution 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."

  1. Place special notices at the point in text where they are needed. For example, place a warning notice before discussing a step in which readers might hurt themselves.
  2. Avoid having too many special notices at any one point in the text. Otherwise, the effectiveness of their special format will be lost. (If you have too many, combine them.)
  3. With warnings, cautions, and danger notices, explain the consequences of not paying attention to the notice. State what will happen if the reader does not heed the notice.
  4. The following examples use bold. If you have no access to bold, use underlines instead (but don't use both together). Avoid all-caps for the text of any special notice.

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:

  1. Type the word "Note" followed by a colon. (Underline the word, or use bold if you have it.)
  2. Begin typing the text of the note two spaces after the colon. (But don't put the text of the note in bold.)
  3. Singlespace within the text of the note; skip two lines above and below the note.
  4. Start run-over lines on the regular left margin.
  5. Align the note with the text to which it refers (as illustrated in the second example).

    Figure 6-1. Example of a simple note.
    Figure 6-2. 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:

  1. Type the word "Notes" followed by a colon. (Underline the word, or use bold if you have it.)
  2. Use a numbered list for the individual notes; in it, follow the rules for numbered lists. (Do not use bold for the individual notes.)
  3. Align the notes with the text to which the refer; skip two lines above and below the notes.
  4. Use this format when you have so many notes that they would distracting to present individually.

    Figure 6-3. Example of a multiple note. Use this format if you have lots of notes and want to collect them all in one place to prevent distraction.

Warning. Use the following format for warnings:

  1. Type the word "Warning" followed by a colon. (Underline the word, or use bold if you have it.)
  2. Begin the text of the warning two spaces after the colon (but don't use bold for the text of the warning).
  3. Singlespace the text of the warning; skip two lines above and below the notes.
  4. Use the first letter of the text of the warning (not the label "Warning:") as the left margin.
  5. Align the warning notice with the text it refers to (see Figure 6-2 where a note occurs within a bulleted list).

    Figure 6-4. Example of a warning notice. Use these to alert readers of possible damage to equipment or problems with the procedure.

Caution. Use the following format for caution notices:

  1. Type the word "Caution" followed by a colon. (Underline the word, or use bold if you have it.)
  2. Skip a line and then type the text of the caution notice on the regular left margin. For the text of the caution notice, use bold if you have it.
  3. Align the caution notice with the text it refers to.
  4. Singlespace the text of the caution notice; skip two lines above and below the caution notice.

    Figure 6-5. Example of a caution notice. Use this one to alert readers to the possibility of minor injury.

Danger. Use the following format for danger notices:

  1. Type the word "DANGER" in all-caps. (Underline it, or use bold.)
  2. Align the danger notice with the text it refers to.
  3. Singlespace the text of the danger notice; skip two lines above and below the danger notice.
  4. Use bold on the text of the danger notice if you have it (but never all-caps).
  5. If you have graphics capability, draw a box around the danger notice (including the label).

    Figure 6-6. Danger notice. Use this one to alert readers of the possibility of serious injury or fatality.

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 or two blank lines between running text and special notices—depending 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. 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.

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.


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This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail hcexres@io.com.