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Ten Ways to Improve Your Technical Writing
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By Robert Bly



FORMAL TECHNICAL STYLE INFORMAL CONVERSATIONAL STYLE



The data provided by direct We can't tell what it is made of

examination of samples under by looking at it under the micro-

the lens of the microscope scope.

are insufficient for the pur-

pose of making a proper iden-

tification of the components

of the substance.



We have found during conver- Our customers tell us that exper-

sations with customers that ienced extruder specialists avoid

even the most experienced of extruding silicone profiles or

extruder specialists have a hoses.

tendency to avoid the extru-

sion of silicone profiles or

hoses.



The corporation terminated Joe was fired.

the employment of Mr. Joseph

Smith.



* Be concise--Technical professionals, especially those in industry,

are busy people. Make your writing less time-consuming for them to

read by telling the whole story in the fewest possible words.



How can you make your writing more concise? One way is to avoid re-

dundancies--a needless form of wordiness in which a modifier repeats

an idea already contained within the word being modified.



For example, a recent trade ad described a product as a "new inno-

vation." Could there be such a thing as an old innovation? The ad

also said the product was "very unique." Unique means "one of a

kind," so it is impossible for anything to be very unique.



By now, you probably get the picture. Some other redundancies

that have come up in technical literature are listed below, along

with the correct way to rewrite them:



REDUNDANCY REWRITE AS



advance plan plan

actual experience experience

two cubic feet in volume two cubic feet

cylindrical in shape cylindrical

uniformly homogeneous homogeneous



Many technical writers are fond of overblown expressions such as

"the fact that," "it is well known that," and "it is the purpose

of this writer to show that." These take up space but add little

to meaning or clarity.



The following list includes some of the wordy phrases that appear

frequently in technical literature. The column on the right offers

suggested substitute words:



WORDY PHRASE SUGGESTED SUBSTITUTE



during the course of during

in the form of as

in many cases often

in the event of if

exhibits the ability to can



* Be consistent--"A foolish consistency," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson,

"is the hobgoblin of little minds." This may be so. But, on the

other hand, inconsistencies in technical writing will confuse your

readers and convince them that your scientific work and reasoning

are as sloppy and disorganized as your prose.



Good technical writers strive for consistency in the use of numbers,

hyphens, units of measure, punctuation, equations, grammar, symbols,

capitalization, technical terms and abbreviations.



For example, many writers are inconsistent in the use of hyphens.

The rule is: two words that form an adjective are hyphenated. Thus,

write: first-order reaction, fluidized-bed combustion, high-sulfur

coal, space-time continuum.



The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (1), Strunk and

White's "The Elements of Style" (2), and your organization's writ-

ing manual can guide you in the basics of grammar, punctuation,

abbreviation and capitalization.



* Use jargon sparingly--Chemical engineering has a special language

all its own. Technical terms are a helpful shorthand when you're

communicating within the profession, but they may confuse readers

who do not have your special background.



Take the word "yield," for example. To a chemical engineer, yield

is a measure of how much product a reaction produces. But, to car

drivers, yield means slowing down (and stopping, if necessary) at

an intersection.



Other words that have special meaning to chemical engineers but

have a different definition in everyday use include: vacuum,

pressure, batch, bypass, recycle, concentration, mole, purge,

saturation, catalyst.



Use legitimate technical terms when they communicate your ideas

precisely, but avoid using jargon just because the words sound

impressive. Do not write that material is "gravimetrically con-

veyed" when it is simply dumped.



* Avoid big words--Technical writers sometimes prefer to use big,

important-sounding words instead of short, simple words. This is

a mistake; fancy language just frustrates the reader. Write in

plain, ordinary English and your readers will love you for it.



Here are a few big words that occur frequently in technical lit-

erature; the column on the right presents a shorter--and pref-

erable--substitution:



BIG WORD SUBSTITUTION



terminate end

utilize use

incombustible fireproof

substantiate prove

optimum best



* Prefer the specific to the general--Technical readers are inter-

ested in detailed technical information--facts, figures, conclus-

ions, recommendations. Do not be content to say something is good,

bad, fast or slow when you can say how good, how bad, how fast or

how slow. Be specific whenever possible.



GENERAL SPECIFIC



a tall spray dryer a 40-foot-tall spray dryer

plant oil refinery

unit evaporator

unfavorable weather conditions rain

structural degradation a leaky roof

high performance 95% efficiency



* Break the writing up into short sections--Long, unbroken blocks

of text are stumbling blocks that intimidate and bore readers.

Breaking your writing up into short sections and short paragraphs--

as in this article--makes it easier to read.



In the same way, short sentences are easier to grasp than long ones.

A good guide for keeping sentence length under control is to write

sentences that can be spoken aloud without losing your breath (do

not take a deep breath before doing this test).



* Use visuals--Drawings, graphs and other visuals can reinforce

your text. In fact, pictures often communicate better than words;

we remember 10% of what we read, but 30% of what we see.



Visuals can make your technical communications more effective.

The different types of visuals and what they can show are listed

below:



TYPE OF VISUAL THIS SHOWS...



Photograph or illustration ...what something looks like

Map ...how it is put together

Schematic diagram ...how it works or is organized

Graph ...how much there is (quantity);

how one thing varies as a funct-

ion of another

Pie chart ...proportions and percentages

Bar chart ...comparisons between quantities

Table ...a body of related data

Mass and energy balances ...what goes in and what comes out



* Use the active voice--In the active voice, action is expressed

directly: "John performed the experiment." In the passive voice,

the action is indirect: "The experiment was performed by John."



When possible, use the active voice. Your writing will be more

direct and vigorous; your sentences, more concise. As you can see

in the samples below, the passive voice seems puny and stiff by

comparison:



PASSIVE VOICE ACTIVE VOICE



Control of the bearing-oil Shutoff valves control the

supply is provided by the bearing-oil supply.

shutoff valves.



Leaking of the seals is O-rings keep the seals from

prevented by the use of from leaking.

O-rings.



Fuel-cost savings were The installation of thermal

realized through the in- insulation cut fuel costs.

stallation of thermal in-

sulation.

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