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Technical Writing Trends : Substance vs. Style?
As a technical writer, you strive for accuracy, clarity and readability. But where do you strike the balance? Although the definition of substance should not change, it is Influenced by evolving trends in style.
Substance, of course, is the most important part of technical writing. But the style keeps the reader awake!
Substance, here, includes purity and clarity.
Style, here, means smooth, interesting, legible – all of which can be lumped under readability.
Accuracy no longer means mind-numbingly detailed writing. Clarity, in fact, forbids it. Readability ensures that technical information is actually read. If one is not able to plow through a piece of technical writing, then the information simply does not come out.
There is no tragedy with such an article. But suppose a bridge construction crew threw out a technical bulletin because it was illegible. What if the loss of that information causes a locomotive to fall into a ditch and kill hundreds of passengers?
(Of course, a resulting headline pun might read: “Hundreds die with style.” But you, as a technical writer, don’t write that.)
All writing styles evolve over time; Technical writing is no exception. Suppose we look at a short piece of imagined technical writing written in what would be an acceptable style in the early 1950s, then in the style of the 1980s and again in what some fear may become the style of the 2010s.
All three styles describe a right triangle.
Technical writing style, circa 1950
The reader will be well acquainted with the fact that the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is defined by the square root of the sum of the other two sides. This quadratic relationship proves that the hypotenuse must always be longer than the base or altitude. The length of the hypotenuse cannot be as long as the sum of the lengths of both the base and the height. These relationships are clearly seen in the following formula:
c-squared = a-squared + b-squared, where:
- c = length of hypotenuse
- a = length (height) of a foot
- b = length of other leg (base)
A right triangle is defined as a triangle where two legs, or sides, the altitude (a) and the base (b) meet at 90°.
(This style was slow, but still greatly improved from the technical writing of a decade or so earlier. The requirements imposed by World War II had suddenly changed attitudes. Information needed to be accurate. Also, it needed to be clear. Lives often depended on . in information easily understood by hastily trained military technicians. But the style was still very much a stage child in the technical writing of the 1940s and 1950s.)
Technical writing style circa 1980
The length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle (c) is always longer than the length of the altitude (a) or the length of the base (b). However, the length of the hypotenuse (c) will not be as long as the sum of the lengths of the other two sides (a + b).
The quadratic relationship of the lengths of the three sides of a right triangle can be seen from:
c-squared = a-squared + b-squared
Two short sides (a) and (b) meeting at exactly 90 degrees form right triangles.
(Technical writers were rapidly adopting a crisper style because business and technology were now international business concerns. Clarity was catching up with accuracy. You could no longer assume that your customers were native English speakers. Also, ordinary people were buying personal computers and interested in learning about technology. Increasingly. readability was increasingly important.).
Technical writing style circa 2010 (?)
The longest side (the hypotenuse) of any right triangle is always longer than either of the other two sides, but interestingly, the two shorter sides are never longer until they are joined together.
Right angles were used by the ancient Egyptians to make their buildings square. They knew that if one wall was 30 cubits long and the other 40 cubits long, the kitty-corner that spanned the room would have to measure exactly 50 cubits. If not, the corners would not be square.
In a right triangle, the two shortest sides meet at right angles.
Watch a flash animation of the famous Pythagorean theorem:
(Bulgs and sound bites are supposed to be short, simple, and silly, pushing style to the fore. Although this third “article” is more or less precisely and clearly written, where is the substance? In places, it abuses readability. Human interest and historical perspective In form. It can be good entertainment, but as technical writing, it is flawless. It can also be misleading. Note “any right triangle”; have they discovered other right angles Not exactly 90 degrees?)
Good technical writing should contain factual substance expressed in an appropriate style. It should provide specific information suitable for increasing knowledge or awareness within the target interest group. The function of technical writing is still to impress, not to impress.
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