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Simplifying for Conciseness in Technical Communication

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  • 1:35 Eliminating…
  • 3:55 Eliminating Unnecessary Verbs
  • 5:28 Eliminating Unnecessary Words
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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.

Documents that are long and wordy are difficult to comprehend and often end up not being read completely through. This video provides strategies for keeping technical documents concise.

May I Have Your Attention?

At a recent school assembly, a speaker gave an inspirational speech on the negative effects of bullying. The teachers were excited about this opportunity for students to hear why and how to stop this growing epidemic. The man began with a story about his own experiences. Then he defined bullying. He proceeded to give facts and statistics. After twenty minutes, I began to see the students squirm. After one hour, hardly anyone was paying attention. The man spoke for almost two hours, but I think our students only heard about fifteen minutes of the message. He lost their attention because his message, though good, was too long.

Did you know that the average attention span for adults is now less than a minute? So many things compete for our attention in today's society that no one seems to be able to stay focused on one task for too long. We must keep this in mind when writing technical documents. The longer the document, the less likely we are to keep our readers' attention, which means valuable information may not be communicated. Instead, we must focus on simplifying our message to keep it clear and concise.

Being concise means that you're using only the necessary amount of words to describe an idea. Writing with conciseness prevents confusion by eliminating wordiness and saves time by shortening the document for easier reading. To achieve conciseness in a document, avoid using unnecessary phrases, verbs, and words.

Eliminating Unnecessary Phrases

It should go without saying that it is absolutely essential to avoid each and every phrase in our writing that generally doesn't have, for all intents and purposes, a specific meaning.

Did that sentence make any sense? Could you find the actual message hidden among the extra information? The problem with the sentence above is that there are so many unnecessary phrases it's hard to sift through the 31 words to find the actual meaning of the sentence.

We somehow believe that if our sentences are long, then they sound more intelligent. This is a false assumption. Phrases that are not specifically important to your topic, like 'it should go without saying,' 'absolutely essential,' 'each and every,' 'generally' and 'for all intents and purposes' only make the message more confusing. If we take these phrases out, we're left with a concise, easy-to-understand sentence:

'Avoid phrases in writing that don't have a specific meaning.' These ten words have meaning -- they express a clear idea, and the message doesn't get lost in the extra language of the sentence.

Here are some types of phrases to avoid in technical writing:

  • Clichés are overused expressions and should be avoided because they can often be misinterpreted. Some examples of clichés are: time will tell, the writing on the wall, and play your cards right.
  • Qualifiers are words that modify the meaning of another word in intensity and should be avoided because they can make your writing sound uncertain and informal. Examples include: kind of, probably, and essentially.
  • Redundant phrases are words that say the same thing twice. Some examples of redundant phrases include: end result, hopes and dreams, and oftentimes.
  • Stock phrases are long phrases commonly used that can be replaced with one word. For example, 'due to the fact that' can be replaced with 'since,' 'in reference to' can be replaced with 'about,' and 'prior to' can be replaced with 'before.'

When looking at your own writing, ask yourself if the language you've chosen for each sentence expresses the specific idea you are trying to convey. If you find that you have added phrases that do not add meaning to the sentence, delete them in order to keep your writing concise.

Eliminating Unnecessary Verbs

When simplifying your writing for conciseness, examine your verb usage. There are two types of verbs: action verbs and state-of-being verbs. Actions verbs express action, such as jump, kick and hide, while state-of-being verbs are forms of 'to be,' such as am, is, and was. Sentences using state-of-being verbs often use more words to express the same meaning. Let's look at an example:

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