Posted Sept. 3, 2019
Unclear writing is the bane of any reader. That’s especially true for technical writing, whose subject matter can cause confusion, setbacks, and other difficulties for readers if the material is not conveyed clearly.
Imagine a technical report on which executives will base major decisions, but then those leaders walk away with the wrong understanding because the points weren’t clear. Or consider a technical manual that simply fails to facilitate the use of some software or device or, even worse, leads users to make their own problems worse! How can writers clear these hurdles and produce technical writing that is easily and universally understandable? The answer is found in the four pillars of writing clarity.
Use the right words. Specificity and exactness are the writer’s friends here. Imprecise language creates ambiguity and leaves the writing open to interpretation, creating the risk of misunderstandings. For example, avoid saying that something has “changed” if you mean that it has “increased” or “decreased.” Similarly, use targeted terms that apply exclusively to the subject matter. If you’re writing something about MacOS or iOS specifically, don’t use a generic word like “computers” that could imply the material addresses PCs as well.
Technical writers are typically smart people: well-educated, well-read, with strong vocabularies. But that may not be true of all their readers. Avoid lengthy and multi-syllable words if a shorter, simpler one will do (like “he disagrees” instead of “he expostulates”). Similarly, use single words instead of multi-word phrases whenever possible: “decide” instead of “make a decision” (we call this using the real verb).
Similarly, technical writers should favor words and expressions that will be familiar to all readers. When readers encounter words that they don’t recognize, meaning can be lost. Clarity depends on straightforward language. We refer to unfamiliar words as a “language trap” – the writer assumes the reader will know the terms, and then the reader assumes that it means something that it doesn’t. Along these lines, avoid jargon, technical terms, idioms, clichés, and fancy vocabulary unless you’re sure all readers will already know them.
Provide only what is necessary for comprehension. We talk about this in our article “Overwriting is a disease in scientific and technical writing.” The idea is that “overwriting” forces readers to spend excessive time and mental energy processing and parsing what they’re reading. Extraneous information or phrasing makes the writing even more taxing on the reader and risks the readers drawing unintended and possibly incorrect conclusions.
These pillars are a matter of skillHow can technical writers ensure their writing always stands firm upon these four foundational pillars? Clarity is not merely a matter of a writing talent but one of skill that can be practiced, strengthened, and honed. Consider supplemental training in technical writing as a way to boost these skills.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.