10 Minimalist Principles for Good Technical Writing

When More Is Less and Less Is More

Broadly speaking, minimalism is any style or technique that is characterized by an extreme reduction to necessities and radical simplification. A minimalist is a person who strives to restrict the means and ends required to achieve a goal to a minimum. Applying minimalist principles to writing can support the key objective of technical communication: to enable users to learn and accomplish as much as possible, on their own, in as short a time as possible.

The following principles are examples of minimalist writing techniques and approaches to minimalist information design.

  1. Keep sentences simple
  2. Use parallelism
  3. Use active voice
  4. Choose verbs with care
  5. Negate with purpose
  6. Organize information logically
  7. Communicate visually
  8. Aid navigation
  9. Be consistent
  10. Focus on what is important

The list is not exhaustive; these principles are also not appropriate in all contexts. Nevertheless, the following articles give an impression of how minimalist principles can be used to organize and present information succinctly and logically.

Principle One: Keep sentences simple

“Much to learn, you still have.”
— Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)

Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)
English and other languages that are spoken and understood by many people in the world, such as Mandarin, are based on the subject + verb + object sentence structure. subject + verb + prepositional phrase is also common: “The cat sat on the mat” not “On the mat, sat the cat”.

The consistent use of familiar and simple word order can make even complex ideas easy to understand. By contrast, lengthy sentences are inherently challenging and pose a problem for even grammar-savvy readers. A convoluted description of complex concepts that uses highly specialized terminology will confuse and frustrate users.

Simple sentences are also sentences that meet expectations. For example, English-language verbs such as get, put, and set have a specific meaning when used with a preposition (phrasal verbs) and can even have multiple meanings.

Example:

  1. (verb) to set up: to establish, prepare, implement, organize, install,…
  2. (verb) to set off: to trigger, initiate, depart, emphasize, begin,…

If a phrasal verb has an object, for example, verb “set up” + object “solution”, two positions are possible for the object.

Example:

  1. You can set up your solution on a local machine or on a cloud server.
  2. You can set your solution up on a local machine or on a cloud server.

Both sentences are grammatically correct; however, if the object represents a more complex idea, the meaning of the sentence is less clear.

Example:

  1. You can set up the OpenDox document backup and storage solution on a local machine or on a cloud server.
  2. You can set the OpenDox document backup and storage solution up on a local machine or on a cloud server.

The second sentence is less easy is to read and therefore the meaning is less easy to decipher because the phrasal verb is split. Therefore, a better approach is to keep the verb and the preposition together, like in the first sentence, or choose another verb.

When an adverb such as “however”, “therefore”, “in addition”, “furthermore”, and “generally” is used in a sentence with more than one clause, the sentence is often more logical and easier to read if the adverb is placed at the beginning of the sentence or clause, like in the first sentence below:

Example:

  1. Generally adjectives and participles preceded by an adverb are not hyphenated if the adverb ends in -ly, as in “OpenDox is a highly effective solution”.
  2. Adjectives and participles preceded by an adverb are not generally hyphenated if the adverb ends in -ly, as in “OpenDox is a highly effective solution”.

Another method of keeping sentences simple is to avoid ambiguous or dangling modifiers. A sentence with a dangling modifier (also known as dangling participles) contains a participle that is not related to any subject or is related to the wrong sentence.

Example:

  1. Working from home, it seemed a long time since she had seen her colleagues.
  2. Working on her article, the music was playing in the background.

In the first sentence, the participle is not related to any subject; the participle is dangling. In the second sentence, “Working” is again the particle and should go with the subject “she”. Instead it goes with “the music” which wasn’t working, it was playing! We’ll look at another example of an ambiguous modifier in 3. Use activate voice. Other ways to keep sentences short and thereby simple include choosing verbs with care, negating with purpose, and focusing on what’s on important. We’ll look at these principles further on.

The more complex the subject matter, the more critical the occurrence of dangling modifiers because of the ambiguity that dangling modifier add to sentences. Complicated language will inevitably convey the impression that a product or concept is complicated. While something may be complex, technical writing should facilitate and not hinder comprehension, which is why keeping sentences simple is important in technical writing.

Next up:

Principle Two: Use parallelism


About Helen Fawcett:

In a nutshell, I optimize user interface text such as control labels and create on-screen instructions and help documentation for developers & customers. | Helen works as a user assistance lead at SAP SE.
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