Simple, Positive Language in Technical Writing


Expression, tone, and emotion play a pivotal role in whether communication is successful or not, even in projects that are technically-oriented. This fairly easy in verbal communication: we’re all naturals at using nonverbal communication to enhance and strengthen our words. It’s more challenge, however, in writing projects. In fact, it can take years and quite a bit of training to develop effective written communication skills that successfully make use of expression, tone, and emotion.

That said, not every such technique is difficult. In fact, two simple yet effective tips can instantly help any technical writer to produce a more powerful written piece: positive and simpler language in writing.

Use Positive Writing

What is positive writing?

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 in writing correctly!

Positive writing can make a tangible difference in outcomes resulting from written communications. Economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman conducted a now-classic experiment in which he presented two treatments that both led to the same result (out of 600 people, the treatment would result in 200 survivors and 400 deaths). One framing was written positively (“saves 200 lives”), while the other was framed negatively (“400 people will die”). Nearly three-quarters (72%) of study participants approved the treatment when it was presented positively; only 22% chose it when it was framed negatively, even though it led to the same result.

How can you use more positive language in writing?

We should first 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.

Keep Writing Simple

What is simplicity in writing?

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 fact, we describe simplicity as one of the “Four Pillars of Clarity in Technical Writing.”

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. In this article about using simplicity in language to power up communications, we discuss how the brain favors simplicity over complexity in language. To make writing clearer, more understandable, and more effective, writers should favor simplicity in word choice, writing style, and document organization.

How can we use simpler language in writing?

1. Use simpler words. 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 the following video, we go into a little more detail why shorter words make for more effective writing. (Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more writing pro tips!)


2. Shorten sentences and paragraphs. 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. For example, a study by the American Press Institute (unfortunately no longer available online) analyzed thousands of articles published in hundreds of newspapers and compared to readability and reader comprehension and discovered that readers understood 100% of the information in sentences with fewer than 8 words but only 10% of the information on average in sentences with more than 15 words!

3. Be careful how you frame ideas. The above point doesn’t mean that writers should only ever use short sentences and paragraphs. It does, however, mean that we should think carefully about how we relay information and if we’re focusing reader attention on the most important ideas.

4. Favor the concrete over the abstract. 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.

In the end, positive writing and simpler language in writing can have a dramatic impact on the readability and, thus, effectiveness of the technical documents you produce. In turn, more effective technical, business, and scientific documents can be a boon to your career and, likewise, can enhance your and your organization’s 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 technical, scientific and business writing to properly communicate your message, and check out our Writing Boot Camp.

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