'Clear Sentences' - Technical Writing One - Google

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Introduction permalink

This is the third of several posts about the Technical Writing course provided by Google. They will each be tagged Technical Writing.

This particular post covers the unit:

Clear Sentences

The course itself goes in to more detail in each topic, these notes aim to be a brief review in order to better fortify the concepts covered.

Learning Outcomes

"Technical Writing One teaches you how to write clearer documentation."

According to the welcome page this course teaches the fundamentals of technical writing.

This post covers the following learning outcomes:

  • Develop at least three stratgies to make sentences clearer and more engaging.

Clear Sentences permalink

Comedy writers seek the funniest results, horror writers strive for the scariest, and technical writers aim for the clearest. In technical writing, clarity takes precedence over all other rules. This unit suggests a few ways to make your sentences beautifully clear.

The aim in technical writing is to 'show the thing' ↗.

Clarity takes precedence over style and 'all other rules' - to ensure clarity you should not dress up the thing you are presenting. Don't use metaphors, and explain clearly what the thing is and how it works.

Choose Strong Verbs permalink

The verb can be the most important part of a sentence. Choosing the correct verb allows the rest of the sentence to take care of itself. Take a little more time while writing to pick the right verb for the situation and your writing will yield more satisfying results than sticking to a small set of safe and widely re-used verbs.

Some examples of widely used and repeated verbs are:

  • forms of be: is, are, am, was, were etc.
  • occur
  • happen

And some examples of switching these for a stronger, more precise, verb are:

Weak VerbStrong Verb
The error occurs when clicking the Submit button.Clicking the Submit button triggers the error.
The error message happens when...The system generates this error message when...
We are very careful to ensure...We carefully ensure...

Reliance on forms of be is very common in writing. Using different verbs can help your writing to be more direct, readable and informative. However, remember that a form of be is sometimes the best choice of verb - it does not need to be eliminated completely from your writing.

Note: Generic verbs may also be a signal of other issues with your writing. They can indicate an imprecise or missing actor in a sentence, or a passive voice sentence.

Examples

1 When a variable declaration doesn't have a datatype, a compiler error happens.

2 Compiler errors occur when you leave off a semicolon at the end of a statement.

1 "When a variable declaration does not specify a datatype the compiler generates an error."

2 "A missing semicolon at the end of a statement triggers a compiler error."


Reduce There is / There are permalink

Using There is or There are at the beginning of a sentence can sometimes be simply unneccessary, and at other times be too generic. For example:

There is a variable called met_trick that stores...

In this situation There is can be removed by simply referring directly to the variable:

A variable called met_trick stores...

In a different situation removing the There are can be achieved by moving the true subject and true verb from the end to the beginning:

There are two disturbing facts about Perl you should know.

You should know two disturbing facts about Perl.

Or in some cases the inclusion of There is or There are means the sentence is omitting the true subject or verb. In this situation, consider creating a subject:

There is no guarantee that the updates will be received in sequential order.

Clients may not receive the updates in sequential order.


Minimise Certain Adjectives and Adverbs permalink

Adjectives and adverbs have their place in language and writing - they perform very well in fiction, poetry, drama and speech for example.

Thanks to adjectives, plain old grass becomes prodigal and verdant, while lifeless hair transforms into something silky and flowing. Adverbs push horses to run madly and freely and dogs to bark loudly and ferociously.

They do not perform so well in technical writing. In general they are too loosely defined and subjective to be useful for technical readers. Their use can make technical writing read too much like marketing material.

The example and explanation which the Google training module uses is:

Setting this flag makes the application run screamingly fast.

"Granted, screamingly fast gets readers attention but not necessarily in a good way. Feed your technical readers factual data instead of marketing speak. Refactor amorphous adverbs and adjectives into objective numerical information."

Setting this flag makes the application run 225-250% faster.

"Does the preceding change strip the sentence of some of its charm? Yes, a little, but the revamped sentence gains accuracy and believability."