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Low-Fat Technical Writing: A Tasty Treat for Customers
Published
2006, Q4 (February 23, 2007)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Technical writing can be a thankless job. Good writing is invisible; bad writing gets noticed. But by doing our jobs well, we make life easier for our readers. Well crafted sentences mean satisfied and productive customers. Poorly crafted sentences lead to confusion and calls to tech support.

Concise writing conveys information to readers without littering their minds with unnecessary verbiage. It also results in lower translation and printing costs. So the technical writer's time is well spent trimming flabby sentences.

Hidden Verbs

Dynamic writing requires strong verbs. The verb is the only part of speech that can serve as a sentence in itself: Stop! Wait! Run! The verb is the action word in the sentence — or should be. Too often, however, the action hides in some other part of speech, resulting in weak, bloated phrasing. Watch out for these hidden verbs:
  • be in agreement > agree
  • take a break > break
  • draw a conclusion > conclude
  • do the calculation > calculate
  • make a decision > decide
  • is dependent upon > depends on
  • cause the destruction of > destroy
  • be different from > differ from
  • hold a discussion > discuss
  • have a grasp of > grasp
  • is an indication of > indicates
  • hold a meeting > meet
  • place an order > order
  • give a sign > signal

Nouns or adjectives ending in -tion, -sion, -ant, -ent, -ment, or -ing are often derived from verbs. If the sentence contains a weak verb, the action may be hiding in one of these nouns or adjectives. If so, recast the sentence to place the action where it belongs.

Wordiness

Wordiness often indicates that the writer is trying too hard. In speech, we'd never say, It is necessary to..., yet this phrase is common in written communication. It's an awkward way to avoid using the second person — yet You must... sounds infinitely better. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends avoiding these wordy phrases:
  • at the present time > now
  • due to the fact that > because
  • in close proximity to > near
  • in excess of > over
  • in order to / in order for > to / for
  • in regard to > regarding
  • in spite of > despite
  • in the affirmative / in the negative > yes / no
  • in the event that > if
  • in the near future > soon
  • prior to > before
  • subsequent to > after

Redundancy

Redundant phrases, often clichés, are an insidious form of word bloat. In a phrase like absolute necessity, the redundant word (absolute) is meant to strengthen the expression. But ironically, intensifiers often have the opposite effect, weakening the sentence with their wordiness.

Bryan A. Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage gives some common examples of redundancy:
  • connect together
  • free gift
  • future plans
  • merge together
  • pair of twins
  • surround on all sides
  • visible to the eye

Clichés like these creep into our writing because we write the first thing that comes to mind. Careful writers look beyond the familiar to make sure every word counts.

Passive Voice

Passive voice is wordier than active voice. By definition, passive voice contains the action verb plus an inflected form of the verb to be. Moreover, the actor in a passive sentence is often the object of a preposition; recasting the sentence to make the actor the subject eliminates the preposition.
  • The catalog numbers are listed in Table 2 > Table 2 lists the catalog numbers
  • The kit is supplied with extra screws > The kit contains extra screws
  • The screws should be torqued to 10 lb-in > Torque the screws to 10 lb-in
  • The coil may be replaced > The coil is replaceable
  • The LEDs are used to indicate operating status > The LEDs indicate operating status

Auxiliary Verbs

Use simple present tense wherever possible. The unnecessary use of auxiliary verbs inflates word count:
  • Pressing the test button will trip the device > Pressing the test button trips the device
  • The terminals can accept two 12 AWG wires > The terminals accept two 12 AWG wires
  • While the program is running in the background, you can use other applications > While the program runs in the background, you can use other applications

Talk may be cheap, but the printed word isn't. And when it comes to translation, flabby text can be costly. Lean writing saves your company money and makes your prose easier to understand — leading to happier customers. When you trim the fat, everyone wins.


Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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