Technical Writing Basics: Writing Clear Sentences
This article is not intended to replace a full Technical Writing course. It is offered as a quick and dirty guide outlining the basic techniques and styles used within the technical writing field for people who do not normally write technical documents.
For clarity and ease of use I am breaking this information into 5 articles that cover the basic techniques used in Technical Writing including:
• Writing Clear Sentences
• Being Concise
• Using the Active Voice
So far the topics of knowing your audience and top down structure have been discussed and the importance they play in technical writing. The third topic is writing clear sentences.
Writing Clear Sentences
Anybody can write an article giving advice like “To be a better writer, write clear sentences.” Thanks for nothing. No better than a coach telling an athlete to be a better player by scoring more goals. The real secret is how to write clear sentences. To write clear sentences there are five points to remember:
Types of Sentences
Put the Main Point Near the Beginning
Use One Main Clause
Avoid Noun Stacks
1) Types of Sentences
There are four basic types of sentences:
a) Simple Sentence
b) Compound Sentence
c) Complex Sentence
d) Compound Complex
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be an in depth grammar lesson that will leave you scratching your head thinking, is English really my mother tongue? Of the 4 types of sentences, the only two a technical writer needs to worry about are the first two.
a) Simple Sentence
A simple sentence contains one main clause or idea.
The mailbox is full.
b) Compound Sentence
A compound sentence contains two or more main clauses connected with a conjunction. A conjunction is a word that connects two or more ideas, such as: and, but, or, because.
The mailbox is full and the lid won’t close.
The majority of technical writing is done with these two sentence types. There are many good grammar resources that you can use if you want to know more about complex and compound complex sentences but for our purposes you don’t need to worry about them.
2) Put the Main Point Near the Beginning
Anybody who read the article on Top Down Structure knows the importance of this point. By placing the main point near the beginning the reader can access the information quickly. This allows the reader to navigate through the information quicker and read only what they need. See Technical Writing Basics II for more details on Top Down Structure.
3) Sentence Length
Aim to keep the maximum word count in your sentences between 15 and 20 words. This is a guideline and without varying the sentence length your writing will become monotonous but try to keep your sentences below 20 words. If your sentences is a few words (3 to 4) over 20 don't get too worried. If you are 5 or more over the 20 mark, seriously concider breaking the sentence in two.
Use shorter, emphatic sentences when writing the main point.
Use longer sentences to provide supporting information and details.
4) Use One Main Clause
Wherever possible, try to have only one main clause per sentence. For more information see point 1) Sentence Types.
5) Avoid Noun Stacks
A noun stack is a string of 4 or more nouns. As a guideline 3 nouns in a row are ok, but 4 or more are too many and will cause confusion for the reader. If you find noun stacks in your writing, get rid of them by spreading the nouns out in a sentence or simply renaming the object in question.
He developed a Mechanical Engineering Department Employees Design Manual.
Did he develop a design manual to create employees for the mechanical engineering department?
The same sentence without the noun stack is longer but the meaning is much clearer:
He developed a Design Manual for the employees of the Mechanical Engineering Department.
In this example it is easy to figure out that you cannot create a manual for designing humans but with technical writing, interpreting the meaning from a noun stack is not always easy.
The system uses a low noise single frequency, low temperature, signal generator produced with A/C current.
The system has a signal generator that operates at low temperature and uses A/C current to produce a single frequency with low noise.
It is easy to see how noun stacks can cause confusion
By keeping these 5 techniques in mind while you are writing, your sentence will be much clearer and easier to understand. Another technique to be a better technical writer and writing in general, is being concise. How do you be more concise? That will be covered in the next article.