Mistakes of Composing Definitions in Technical Writing Video

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  • 0:01 Problematic Definitions
  • 0:49 Simplifying Definitions
  • 2:30 Specific Language in…
  • 5:14 Relatable Examples in…
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Writing definitions for technical documents goes beyond just giving the dictionary definition. This video explains common mistakes to avoid when writing definitions for technical documents.

Problematic Definitions

I remember when I was growing up, my teachers would always tell me to look up words in the dictionary that I didn't understand. But when I'd pull out the dictionary and find the word, the definition was often more confusing that the word itself. For example, the definition of 'anatine' is ''resembling the Anatidae family''. What? That definition doesn't provide any more clarity about the word than I had before I looked in the dictionary. More research reveals that anatine means something that resembles a duck. But businessmen and women don't have the time to research words they may not understand. This means that when we write definitions for technical writing, we need to make sure that how we define the term is simple, specific, and relatable.

Simplifying Definitions

There's a common acronym in writing known as KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Though a little crass, the point is a valid one. We want to keep our diction and word choice simple so that our writing is easy to understand. Let's look at an example of a problematic definition:

Dihydrogen monoxide is an achromatic, inodorous, insipid compound that appears in ternion states in nature.

Was the definition clear? Was it easy to understand? Did the word choice help enhance meaning? The answer to all three is no. The problem with this definition is that the words being used to define the term are just as confusing as the term. Instead of trying to sound intelligent, focus on choosing words that the general public can easily understand. Let's rewrite this definition by keeping it simple:

Dihydrogen monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid that exists in three different forms in nature.

Additionally, you should never use the term you are defining within your definition. For example, you shouldn't write, 'Existence is the act of existing.' Chances are, if your reader doesn't know what 'existence' is, they're not going to know what 'existing' is either. If you find that you want to use a different form of the word that you are defining in the definition, try replacing that word with a synonym or a phrase that explains the meaning.

Notice this definition uses words the general public can understand. Your reader should not have to look up additional words to understand the term you are defining. Keep your definitions simple.

Specific Language in Definitions

My husband will often tell me to 'Go get that thing over there.' Of course, I have no idea what he's talking about or where I'm supposed to go because his word choice is very vague. We often fall into the same routine of using vague words in our writing, which can be an even bigger challenge because writing doesn't allow you to point to the thing to which you are referring.

In a previous video, we discussed that sentence definitions follow a specific format:

  • The word being defined
  • The class to which the word belongs
  • The features that distinguish the term from other words

The problem that writers often run into with these formal definitions is not providing enough specific information about the class or the distinguishing elements.

The first problem to avoid is using vague references when referring to the class of the term. For example, instead of classifying a computer as a 'thing', use a more specific term, such as an 'electronic device.'

Use the most specific language possible to classify the term. For example, you could say that a strawberry is food, but the class of food is so broad, it doesn't provide enough detail to show which category of food a strawberry is a part of. A better classification would be 'fruit.' Now readers have a more specific understanding of the food; this term is going to have seeds and will probably taste sweet. The more specific you can make your term, the greater understanding your readers will have of the characteristics of the word you're defining.

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