Omit useless words

A recent survey suggested that the job of technical writer ranked #13 in a “Best jobs for 2010” list:

The Future Of Work: The Best and Worst Jobs of 2010

Commenting on this, a poster on LinkedIn‘s Technical Writer Forum wondered if technical writing had turned a corner and was now a recognised occupation.

Personally, I don’t think technical writing has turned that corner just yet. The profession/trade is in the process of turning the corner, but it’s still difficult for many people to see the value in employing someone to do something when they can kinda still do that something themselves. Or they know someone who’s “a good writer”, who’ll perambulate through their text/documentation; i.e. everyone thinks they’re somewhat able to write and document, with little need to employ someone especially for the job.

(\puh-RAM-byuh-layt\, intransitive verb: 1. To walk about; to roam; to stroll; as, “he perambulated in the park.” transitive verb: 1. To walk through or over. 2. To travel over for the purpose of surveying or inspecting.)

This instinct people have is somewhat true: almost everybody can construct a grammatically correct sentence. But being able to wire a plug doesn’t make you an electrician, no more than removing a thorn from your finger makes you a surgeon.

So, what do technical writers do that makes them valuable? Well, when it comes to editing and re-writing text, they omit useless words. Seemingly simple, yet there’s a little more to it than that. The following link is a chapter taken from a book called ‘Line by Line: How to edit your own writing’ and it contains examples aplenty of what technical writer’s do to make text/documentation more concise and more readable:



5 Responses to Omit useless words

  1. lynwoodjewelry says:

    That table was interesting – I know a few software engineers who’d disagree with that ranking!

    Techncial authors are way undervalued. Constructing readable and informative peices, that also have technical clarity isn’t easy: it’s almost an art.

    Removing a useless word may seem simple, but it is most definately, not!

  2. paulmwatson says:

    When it comes to winning funding there is a fine line between “omitting useless words” and losing the heart of the reviewer. Make it too dry and factual and you could lose the passion behind the proposal and so lose your reviewer.

    After all, our best public speakers have little content but many words.

    That would be a fine skill to have; knowing when to engage the heart and when to engage the mind in technical writing.

  3. Kieran says:

    Another concept that needs to be factored in is that of ‘lexical density’. The more new info (i.e. new content words) contained in a sentence, the more lexically dense it is.

    Such sentences have proven hard for readers to penetrate. And thus, less lexically dense sentences are better received by the audience. This flies in the face of conciseness.

    As you said, and as with everything in life, I think it’s about finding the right balance.

  4. paulmwatson says:

    “lexical density” is a good description. While writing funding proposals you can be fairly concise in sentences but you need to repeat those sentences and paragraphs to reiterate points. People aren’t computers able to reference back effortlessly.

    All of this goes to show that being a good technical writer is difficult and a skill in itself.

  5. […] Pure Prose Kieran's technical writing blog « Omit useless words […]

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