You don’t say: editing technical writing

the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland
Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration: John Tenniel. Shutterstock.

The art of technical writing—or any other writing—isn’t about getting it right the first time. It’s about editing until it’s right. That’s something to keep in mind when you’re having trouble coming up with what to say. If you just write something without second-guessing yourself, you can overcome writer’s block now and edit later. Here are some things I try to get my students to edit out of their reports.

Unnecessary words

Some words don’t need to be there at all. When you edit your report, see whether it might be better just to delete these.

Current/currently. The reader can see from the verb tense that this is happening now. There’s no need to point out the obvious.

On a daily basis. Why not just “daily” or “every day”?

etc. If you don’t want to provide an exhaustive list, start it with “such as,” “for example,” or “including.” If you’re providing a list of your client’s (or the assignment’s) requirements, it should be exhaustive—in effect, it’s a contract.

Needless to say/obvious/obviously. If it really is obvious or needless to say, you’ve got a whole sentence you can do without. Delete it.

In order. You can indicate the purpose just as clearly with “to”; “in order to” is superfluous.

Long-term durability. If something is durable, it will last a long time.

Plan ahead. Planning necessarily takes place before execution. If you’re considering what to do while doing it, you’re improvising, not planning.

The process (of). This phrase may be necessary, but you’re usually better off without it. For example, “the manufacturing process” doesn’t give any more information than just “manufacturing” or “manufacture.”

Misused words

Phrasing that is acceptable in casual speech and writing may not be formal enough for technical writing.

Between. You select between two choices; two people agree between themselves. If there are more than two, use “among.”

Comprise. “Comprise” means to consist of or be composed of, as in, “The United States comprises 50 states.” It’s frequently misused, as in, “The United States is comprised of 50 states.”

Data. “Data” is plural. Use the plural form of the verb.

Fewer/less. Use “fewer” with quantities that can be counted, as in “15 items or fewer” at the express checkout lane. Use “less” with bulk or aggregate amounts, as in “These appliances use less electricity.”

If. “If” is a conditional, as in, “If you want to attend, please sign up by Friday.” Use “whether” to indicate two alternatives, as in, “Let me know whether you want to attend.” The implication is that you may or may not attend, and I want to know which it is.

Literal/literally. “Literal” means you’re taking the word in its most basic sense, without metaphor. Many speakers (and some writers) use “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively.”

One of the only. It’s either “the only (one)” or “one of the few”. If you want to be more specific, you could quantify the latter expression, as in “one of only five”.

Prevent…before it happens. “Prevent” means to keep from occurring. You don’t prevent something before it happens; you prevent it.

Since. When used as a preposition, “since” relates to time, as in, “Since last year our costs have decreased by 10%.” If you want to show a causal connection, use “because” or “as:” “Because we made the changes, our costs have decreased by 10%.”

Overused words

Acronyms and initialisms. Both are abbreviations formed from the first letters of other words. Acronyms are pronounced as words, such as “ASCII,” while initialisms are pronounced as letters, such as “FBI.” Either way, they’re a convenience for the writer. Readers, however, can take a dim view of them, especially when the text is full of them. As a writer, you need to consider what your reader will understand and what you need to explain. If your reader is familiar with a particular topic and you are simply using the standard acronyms, she’ll likely have no trouble understanding them. For less initiated readers, though, acronyms are just an annoying obstacle. Either way, you need to spell out the acronym at first use and in every figure- and table caption that uses it.

Level. “Level” (noun) means elevation or relative position on a vertical scale. You might be better off using a synonym such as “value,” “degree,” or “quantity.” “Level” (adjective) means flat, smooth, or even. “Level” (verb) means to make level or raze. Consider whether another word might be more accurate—or maybe just less stale.

Impact. The noun “impact” means collision; the verb “impact” means to strike forcefully. If no physical impact is involved, use “effect” (noun) or “affect” (verb) or a synonym such as “influence.”

Issue. As (over)used in technical writing, “issue” usually means “problem,” “challenge,” or “difficulty.” Choose one of these or another synonym that more clearly says what you mean.

Inappropriate words in technical writing

I/we/our. Technical writing is impersonal. The emphasis is on what happened and what it means, not who did it. This is why so much technical writing uses the passive voice—it’s a way of eliminating personal pronouns. Both passive- and active voice are correct and appropriate for technical writing, although passive voice can seem rather stilted.

When writing reports for clients, you may be tempted to borrow wording from the client’s website—for example, for the background information about the company. However, this wording is likely to be less than objective. Even if the factual information is correct, the language of marketing is intended to generate excitement. Stick to the objective facts and avoid subjective words. Technical writing should not cross the line between science and advocacy.

Cumbersome words

Upon. Use “on.”

Usage or utilize. Just use “use.” That’s all you need.

Vague words

Above/below/previously. In technical writing, particularly in a long report, it’s a courtesy to your reader to be specific about which section has the information you’re referring to. If you explained something in detail in section 5.3.1, refer the reader to section 5.3.1. Don’t just say it’s “discussed above” or “explained previously” and expect him or her to scroll through dozens of pages to find it.

Recent/recently. How long ago was “recent”? If someone reads your report five years from now, how well will “recently” have aged? If the time is important, give the year (or the specific date) when it happened.

A peculiarity of technical writing is that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a term and its meaning. In most other writing we try to take advantage of the extensive vocabulary of the English language to convey the precise nuance. By contrast, technical writing sacrifices nuance and variety for clarity.

The whole point of technical writing is to convey scientific information as clearly and accurately as possible. That requires choosing your words well and editing out anything subjective or extraneous. Considering your writing from the reader’s point of view will help you focus on what matters to them.