Sunday, March 13, 2011

Forcing the reader, or Less, better?

As I noted earlier, I'm taking another run at Hannah Arendt's book of political philosophy, "The Human Condition". I bought this book almost 40 years ago and periodically (like, every 10 or 15 years) try reading it. For whatever reason, this time I'm "getting it" and am about half-way through. I'll freely admit that this book is at the outside edge of "stuff I can understand" and I sympathize with people who have started the book and abandoned it.

Reading some of the more negative reviews of the book on, I notice a comment that I've seen on other "difficult" books: That the author's style is too verbose. It's a mystery to me how something complicated could be explained better with fewer words. And the reviewer's belief seems to be a common one: Many of the participants in my technical writing course list "writing more concisely" as one of their goals in taking the course.

But I think that this belief is part of  a "cult of conciseness": Concision for its own sake/shorter is always better. Much of this cult can be traced back to "The Elements of Style" and the Plain Language movement. Both of these sources attacked unnecessary words. But, in both of these sources, "conciseness" was not an end in itself (or shouldn't have been)--concision was a means to an end: clearer writing.

Certainly, many writers add lots of unnecessary words--usually modifiers that add no value ("to be done weekly, every seven days,..") or stock phrases ("at this point in time" vs. "now"). And, yes, I also recognize readers are discouraged by long documents so a shorter document is more likely to be read. But the length of the document should be tailored to the readers' needs, not to any arbitrary standard of conciseness.

I do acknowledge that, when a reader is confused, more words won't necessarily help. I'll even acknowledge that my usual solution to confusion--more examples--may not help. But it's not the number of words that is the problem: It's the word choice that matters. The words have to be the right words for the reader and the examples have to be relevant to the reader and germane to the topic.

As an example: I did a technical talk once on Structured Query Language where, using the intialism (SQL) as an acronym, I kept referring to the topic as "sequel." This is an accepted pronunciation in the field, as is sounding out the initialism: ess-cue-ell (in writing, you can often tell which the author uses by looking at the articles: does the author write "an SQL statement" or "a SQL statement"). However, at least one person in the audience for this talk didn't know the "sequel" pronunciation and commented, after my talk, that it was fifteen minutes into my presentation before he knew what I was talking about. Whatever benefits my concision gained (using the single word--sequel--versus the longer, full term or the spelled out initialism) was lost on this participant. Now, when I talk about this topic, I switch between "Structured Query Language", ess-cue-ell, and sequel.

As technical writers our goal is to successfully explain things, to support the reader doing something or making a decision that they would not otherwise be able to do (or do as well) without our help. We should use as many words as required for the audience, their scenario, and our purposes...and then stop. Do the words add value? Leave them in; Otherwise, throw the bums out. And, if you go back to both "The Elements of Style" and the Plain Language movement, you'll find that's their story also.

Concision falls out of doing the right thing for your audience. It's not a separate, parallel process.

And if our reader doesn't need our help (or will never read our documents) then we shouldn't write at all. Now, that's concision.

Reading or read

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