This post was written before the passing of William Zinsser.
William Zinsser said it best when he claimed the four principles of good English were “Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.” The author of On Writing Well literally wrote the book on writing ideals, and broke the entire concept down to four simple words. As technical writers, it’s our job to write “good English.” So what do these four principles mean? And how can we apply them to our own writing?
Zinsser’s first point is to be clear. If what you are writing is not understood by the audience, there is no point in writing it. For technical writing, take it a step further. In everything you write, purpose, audience and scope should also be clear. Regardless of how well your prose is understood, they mean nothing without purpose, audience and scope.
Purpose tells your reader why they are reading. If they reach the end of the page and say “so what?” it is just as effective as if they had not read it at all. Find your purpose and write towards it always.
Audience tells a reader who you are writing for. Your audience determines the assumptions brought to the document which can affect readability. It also helps focus a document to a specific angle. Imagine if a document about an Ikea nightstand was written for all audiences: manufacturers, shelf stockers, sales people, checkout clerks, and customers. Each audience views the topic a different way and has different expectations. Without a clear audience, even the clearest prose becomes lost.
Scope determines what topics you will cover. Without a clear scope, some topics may be overlooked and others may be unnecessarily detailed. An unclear scope leads to an unclear message which leads to a confused reader.
Common practice in the business world dictates that the more complex your prose, the smarter you are. However, this is never the case and is usually counterproductive. Large words strung together by complex principles can isolate your audience and reflect poorly on yourself. As technical writers, our job is to break concepts down to allow readers to understand them. Our writing relies on simplicity of topic and delivery. No matter the topic, simplicity is always better than complexity. Remember, if no one can understand you, your prose means nothing.
Many writers forget that documents should only be as long as they need to be. We are conditioned to add fluff and explanation beyond what is necessary. We learn to use bigger words when smaller ones will do. We should all exercise brevity. Cut the fat. Cut the length. Trim down the words until you used every word you need to, and not a syllable more.
While helpful in all prose, brevity is especially important to technical writing. User manuals and processes need to be short enough to keep its audience and focused enough that they must read every word. Additionally, writing fluff takes time and effort which may be better suited elsewhere. Brevity, so long as it does not forsake clarity, should always be used.
Zinsser’s final point is to remember humanity. In his case, he is emphasizing the humanity of the author. He calls on us to write in our own voice and remember that language is a human expression. For technical writers there is a counterpart. Remember the humanity of the reader. So often, text is written with no regard to the fact that a human will be reading it. When we write, we must write to the audience as a human. What do they need to hear? How would they understand? What can I do to speak to the person on the other side of the page?
No matter what is written, it is always by humans, for humans and we can all do a little better with some clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.
About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit her bio page.