Simple, Positive Language in Technical Writing


Simplicity and Positivity Key to Effective Technical, Business, and Scientific Writing


In verbal communication, less is expressed in words than in the expression, tone, and emotion conveyed by the speaker. Verbal skills come naturally; on the other hand, developing effective written communication skills can take years and quite a bit of training. Below are two simple, yet effective, tips to help you present a more powerful written piece.

Keep it Simple

As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This is especially true in writing, be it technical, business, or scientific. In the classes we teach, one of the first things we tell participants is that simpler is better; for instance, one syllable words versus words with two or more (a good example is “use” versus “utilize”—why use “utilize”? It’s not a better word, it’s just longer).

In addition, using appropriate sentence and paragraph length can help simplify, as shorter and longer sentences and paragraphs “show” readers how to read the document. In fact, readability studies tell us that readers pay closer attention to shorter, rather than longer, sentences and paragraphs. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should use only short sentences and paragraphs, but it does mean that we should think carefully about how we relay information and if we’re attracting reader attention to the ideas we want them to pay attention to.   

Another way to simplify is to be aware of the difference between concrete and abstract language. Too often, writers will write a sentence that’s abstract, followed by one that’s concrete. In this case, the writer is essentially saying the same thing twice! Concrete language is words and phrases that most readers all define as meaning the same thing; for example, most people would define a word such as “resilience” as the ability to bounce back. Abstract language, however, is up to the reader to define; two examples that I see quite a bit are “very” and “small” (or “large”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with using abstract terminology; rather, the idea is that using concrete language can help us simply our documents, as readers can more easily understand the ideas we’re trying to get across.  

Use Positive Language

A frequent stumbling block in written communications is that the overall tone is negative and/or the reader views the idea being conveyed as negative. To avoid a negative tone, use positive words and focus on what’s possible; help your readers see the negative as an opportunity. I remember that in a class I taught years ago, one of the participants had just been laid off. He said, however, that the letter explaining the layoff was so positive that he didn’t feel bad or angry about being laid off. Now that’s using positive language correctly!

I talked earlier about abstract and concrete language; along these same lines, we should be aware that words have positive and negative connotations. For instance, I can say that I “slapped,” “hit” or “spanked.” While these words all mean roughly the same thing, they all have different connotations, or associations. Thus, if I want to convey positivity, I should ensure that I use words with positive, rather than negative, connotations. For instance, rather than “She failed to complete the project,” I can write “She was unable to complete the project” or “The project couldn’t be completed,” if I want to remove her from the sentence altogether. A statement as simple as ''Don't hesitate to call me'' can infer that you doubt the reader can handle your request and would hesitate to ask for help, implying incompetence. In addition, the widely used phrase, “Feel free to call me if you have questions” can imply that the reader won’t know enough to call you if s/he does have questions and that because you haven’t done your job, the reader will have questions.

Writing effective technical, business, and scientific documents can be a boon to your career and, likewise, can enhance your image. Think carefully and critically about the meaning of the scientific, business, or technical language you use in your writing to better ensure that readers can quickly and easily get through the documents. Use our simple, yet effective tips for techincal, scientific and business writing to properly communicate your message.

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