Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Synonyms and Modifiers, or Why your English teacher isn't helping now

I'm still obsessing about the "effective" that was used in the technical writing manual I discussed some weeks back. It's not that I'm opposed to using things like adjectives or adverbs or think that writers should just use nouns and verbs (though I've always thought that "See Dick run. Run, Dick, Run" was a kind of poetry). It's just that technical writing (writing to explain) is different. It's different from business writing (which is often trying to persuade or record facts) and different from creative writing (which is often evocative). In technical writing all that matters is clarity: Does the reader understand what you're trying to say.

Obviously, to achieve clarity, there are things that you must do: use the reader's vocabulary, make it clear to the reader what your topic is (what you're talking about), and ensure that the reader has enough background information to tackle your new material (either because the reader for your writing brings this with them or because you've provided it in your document).

There are a bunch of things you should not do, also--primarily, don't use modifiers or synonyms. If the author of that technical writing manual had decided to avoid using adjectives and adverbs unless absolutely necessary then he/she/it wouldn't have written the words "effective manual". Instead, the author would have to describe what an effective manual would look like--and supply some criteria for other writers to know when they were doing a good job.

And, as long as I'm complaining about modifiers, let me point out that negative modifers (no, not, none) are especially awful. The clarity value of a sentence with two negative modifiers is a negative number. This sentence with two negatives
                   Don't exit Word if you haven't saved your document.
Isn't nearly as good as the positive (or, at least, non-negative) version
                   Save your document before leaving Word.

Synonyms (using several different words that mean the same thing) are even worse. When you put a modifier into your document, the reader knows that you probably meant something. When you start using multiple words to mean the same thing, how is the reader going to know that "computer", "machine", and "server" are all referring to the same thing. In fact, if the reader believes that you're choosing words for a reason, the reader should assume that you mean different things when you choose to use different words. By using synonyms you could send the reader on a wild (and pointless) hunt for a meaning that doesn't exist.

I blame high-school English teachers. Or, more exactly, the impact of high-school English teachers. Teachers, in an effort to increase your vocabulary and make your writing more evocative, encourage their students to use modifiers and to use a wider variety of words. But technical writing is different: use modifiers when you have no choice (and know exactly what your reader thinks the modifer means) and don't use synonyms at all.

Reading or read

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