How to Avoid Common Stylistic Problems in Technical Writing

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pencilsTechnical writing isn’t just about writing on technical topics. It also includes writing in a style that allows your readers to quickly and easily understand technical information and put it to work. When writing has errors—grammatical, mechanical, or stylistic—meaning suffers and readers get lost. Many unskilled writers may write grammatically and/or mechanically correct documents that fail stylistically. Unskilled writers may fall victim to any or all of the following common stylistic “mistakes.”

Avoid Using an Aloof Tone

Many of us had English teachers who besotted lessons with rules and restrictions, rather than allowing us to write freely to a defined audience. As your professional documentation reaches your intended audience, your readers must accept the documentation you provide. So, you have to write what they want to read—or at least something they feel they can read and understand easily.

To accomplish this, avoid using that aloof, teacher tone your English teacher drilled into you. Make your writing welcoming to your intended audience. Let your message match your culture, but avoid using a too-familiar tone, too. You aren’t having a conversation with your readers, but you do want them to use the information you’ve provided.

How do you do this? Well, you can begin by using personal pronouns where appropriate. You can also vary your sentence length. Both short and long sentences get your readers’ attention, so use sentence variety as a tool. And say what you mean; leave the thesaurus on the shelf, and relate to your readers with vocabulary they know and sentences they can read efficiently. Telling your readers what you want them to know or do is a much more direct way to get the results you expect. If you rely on your readers to sort through long sentences and academic writing, you’ll be disappointed when they don’t.

Avoid Ambiguity

As technology improves and documentation proliferates, your audience may grow, whether you intend it or not. So, ensure your message is understood by avoiding words or phrases that are easily misinterpreted. Eliminate such grammatical errors as dangling or misplaced modifiers; these faulty constructions allow for more than one interpretation.

Clichés and colloquialisms have run their course. Neither is a direct way to say what you mean. Each of them may confuse your readers—especially as information becomes increasingly global. Not only might you mislead or confuse your readers, but you also may offend them. Not all American expressions translate cleanly, so translations may completely muddy the water or be culturally offensive to unintended readers. Your best bet is to use words and phrases that have only one meaning.

Avoid Problematic Redundancy

One problem particularly proliferate in communication is redundancy. You may have “good” redundancy, or you may have problems. Good redundancy is that which gets your message to your reader in many ways—for example, using the exact words in your brand’s tagline, Facebook entries, blog posts, tweets, etc. Because you say the same thing in many outlets, you’re sure your target market sees it.

Bad redundancy, however, insults your audience. You can avoid this “bad redundancy” by

  • Eliminating redundant modifiers
  • Eliminating redundant pairs
  • Avoiding phrases that overstate the obvious

Redundant modifiers imply the meaning of other words in the sentence, for example pink in color. Redundant pairs use multiple words that mean the same thing, such as first and foremost, totally and completely, and past history. Using these kinds of redundancies only fill space in your document; they don’t further clarify your point. Additionally, when you overstate the obvious, you imply your reader can’t understand it without your help. A good way to avoid this is to remember you’re writing for rational, not dramatic, effect. Using such phrases as it goes without saying or obviously or studies show do not instantly make your writing insightful. Rather, these phrases ultimately end up making your writing much longer than it needs to be. And worse, they make you appear afraid: not assertive enough to express your own opinion and unsure of what you’re writing about.