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Conciseness is Key to Good Technical Writing

by Ron Kurtus (revised 16 March 2012)

One of the most important and difficult parts of technical documentation concerns writing in a concise manner. Technical writing is different than writing fiction or magazine articles, where a mood may be set or—in some cases—where space must be filled. (People seldom buy thin books.)

Effective documentation is important for a business to succeed. This includes both internal documents and those reaching the customers. Care must be taken in technical writing to avoid unnecessary or non-value-added material in the documentation.

Questions you may have on this topic include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Reasons for wordiness

Many writers have a love of words and consider themselves artists. Even among professional technical writers, there are many who are working on a manuscript or screenplay in their spare time.

In much fiction and nonfiction writing, words not only convey information, but they are also used to present emotions and mood. Often descriptions are used to make the reader feel like he or she is actually in the scene. Words are used as artistic tools in this type of writing.

On the other hand, the purpose of technical documentation is primarily to communicate required information.

Technical documents

Technical documents usually consist of sales and marketing material, user and instruction manuals, specifications and requirement documents, and online help or web site material.

Sales and marketing

The purpose of sales and marketing material is to communicate information about the product and/or services available. There is usually limited space in brochures or advertising material, so the words must be concise and to the point to get the message across. Clever wording and words with emotional punch are usually needed.

User and instruction manuals

The purpose of user and instruction manuals is to assist the customer in some process. There is also similar material used internally, including ISO 9000 documentation. The idea is to get to the point in as few words as possible. This is especially important in long or complex processes. Excess verbiage can easily result in losing the reader's attention or understanding.

Specifications and requirement documents

An important element in specifications and requirement documents is to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Everything must be concise, and the writer should make sure there are no possible ambiguities.

Probably one of the greatest problems in trying to be concise in a specification is the use of acronyms. This is especially true in military documentation, where they sometimes have acronyms made of sets of acronyms.

Part of this problem comes from the naming of items. In an effort for clarity, items are given descriptive names of several words. Then, in an effort to be concise, they are made into acronyms. There has to be a happy medium between conciseness and readability.

How can you ensure conciseness?

There is no "magic bullet" for creating a usable document that is both concise and readable. One method is to get the idea on paper and write the meat of the content and then edit or prune the document. If you are a good wordsmith and are thinking in terms of concise writing, you should be able to put things in the necessary form.

If you are going to be concise in your writing, your words should be well chosen. It is not the time to show off your vocabulary of esoteric words and obscure acronyms. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and discipline to select the proper words and describe something in as few words as possible. That is why good technical communicators are at a premium.

Summary

The artistic use of words is best kept to fictional forms. Technical documentation should be concise to enhance effective communication. Concentrate on providing the best phrases possible to get across the point in the least words possible.


Use your writing abilities to help other people succeed


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Society for Technical Communication

Technical Writing Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Technical Writing


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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