Writing clearly vs. concisely

I had a disagreement last week with a technical writer who argues that a sentence should always have as few words as possible. No exceptions, for no reason.

I don’t agree.

In some ways, this comes down to a disagreement that those who study journalism frequently have with those who study English. Journalists strive to write at a grade level somewhere between grades 6 and 8, the idea being that someone who lacks a high school education should still be able to read your work and understand it.

A side effect of that is the message being paramount. The sentence structure doesn’t get in the way of the message.

Students of the language tend to try to teach the language, along with the message. So they’ll work in big words or complex sentence structure.

As one who takes the journalist mindframe, I argue that should be secondary.

Here’s why. I read a short document after this other writer had edited it. It described a fairly simple procedure–something like a password reset. As someone with a college education, about 20 years’ worth of sysadmin experience, and two security certifications, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that I should be able to read that document one time through and understand it.

Several times, I had to stop and re-read sentences. The grammar and syntax were correct, but they weren’t written the way people normally talk. The minimalistic nature threw me.

Going back to the previous, unedited version of the sentence, I found it was a couple of words longer, but much easier to read. It sounded a lot more natural–in fact, it sounded like how Don Hicks, former editor of the late, great Amazing Computing, told me to write many years ago: It should sound like how I would explain it to someone if we were sitting at the computer together. (I didn’t write the original, for what it’s worth.)

Had we been up against a strict word or page count, I could see squeezing those couple of words out if it helped make it fit. But in this case, it didn’t matter whether the document was 10 pages long or 40. So those couple of extra words didn’t hurt anything.

Considering the procedure would be read by an operator who is expected to close a minimum of five tickets per hour, I’d rather leave those words in and save the operator 30 seconds. My job then isn’t to teach the operator how to write as concisely as humanly possible; it’s to guide the operator through good security practices, which protects the system, the owner of the system, and its users.

And the easier the document is to read, the more likely the operator is to understand and follow it. If they don’t follow it, the consequences can be rather severe.

As far as I’m concerned, the writing can stand in the way of that goal, or help it. Why should I get in the way?

I went round and round about this even in college two decades ago. But I’ve published more in the years since than that professor ever did, and probably make more than she did, too. So I think I was probably right.

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