10 Minimalist Principles for Good Technical Writing

Principle Five: Negate with Purpose

This article is part of a series of articles entitled 10 Minimalist Principles for Good Technical Writing.

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.

Principle Five: Negate with Purpose

Negate (verb): to use a negative sentence or word with a negative connotation.*

Writers in marketing communications know that it pays to adopt a positive tone of voice. Unlike marketing content writers, software developers are often better at criticizing their work than extolling the virtues of their products. However, in technical writing, negative words and words with potentially negative connotations need to be used with a specific purpose. For example, certain situations call for negative sentences to caution or warn users.

Preventing unwanted effects

A negative sentence contains a negative word like not, never, no, no one, nobody, none, or a negative verb like is not/isn’t or cannot/can’t, doesn’t/does not or will not/won’t.

The imperative is direct and clear.

Negative sentences are appropriate for warning users about the risk of performing or not performing a certain action if the action will lead to unwanted effects and critical issues. In such cases, a negative imperative (“do not”) is effective because the imperative is direct and clear (see Principle Four: Choose Verbs with Care).

Example:

Windows 10 update screen

The Windows 10 update screen provides a good example of a negative sentence in the imperative mood with “Do not turn off your computer”. The information on the screen does not mention the consequences of ignoring the instruction because the imperative “Do not” is sufficiently strong. Furthermore, the screen informs the user about what is happening.

Double negative, double confusion

In situations that warrant the use of negative sentences, grammatically incorrect negatives can cause confusion. A double negative is the occurrence of two negative words in a sentence or clause and can lead to the opposite meaning of the one intended. While some double negatives are acceptable in spoken English, they can lead to ambiguity in technical writing. For example, “Don’t install nothing that might pose a security risk.” implies that you must install something.

hardly, scarcely, barely

Semi-negative sentences containing the words hardly, scarcely, and barely can also cause problems. A sentence such as “If you don’t have barely enough resources to continue with the installation, then abort the process.” is grammatically incorrect.

Solutions are better than explanations

In most cases, it’s best to explain to users what they need to do to accomplish a task and not what they don’t need to do. Developers sometimes have a blinkered view of their own products because they know the ins and outs of all their features or functions. Therefore, they tend to preempt what “users will do wrong” and provide far too many technical details about the cause of an error while neglecting to explain how to resolve the issue or how to proceed. Sometimes input written by developers resembles a negative, wordy, and slightly self-critical monologue. Consider the following sentence:

Example:

  1. Warning! Leaving this page could result in significant data loss if your settings are not saved! If you do not want your settings to be discarded before you leave this screen, make sure that you don’t forget to create a backup. Unfortunately, you will not be able to restore your settings if you don’t make a backup because the data will not persist across page reloads and your installation will fail.

The warning is well intended, yet excessively long with a total of six negative verbs. The example shows that the choice of a more appropriate grammatical form can turn the text into actionable information, for example, “Leave and discard all changes?”.

A simple interrogative question with the option to confirm or to cancel the action and back up the settings conveys the same information. The message is short and direct, which makes it quick and easy to read and act upon the information.

Warning and assisting vs. reprimanding and accusing

In an environment where people work with heavy industrial machinery or dangerous chemicals, explicit warnings that incorrect handling can cause injury or lead to death are appropriate and can save lives. Words such as “bug”, “fail”, “failure”, “lose”, “loss”, “dump”, “crash”, “critical”, and “severe” imply malfunction. Other contexts where “mistakes” on the part of users are less harmful do not warrant the use of such words. Even though the misuse of a software application might result in negative effects, in most cases, an incorrect entry or a missing setting will likely not be life-threatening nor lead to data loss.

Wording influences the user experience.

Most applications rely on input validation checks to ensure data consistency and prevent malicious attacks. For this reason, most scenarios that require user input require message texts and the wording of these texts is crucial for the user experience. In such cases, the frequent use of negative vocabulary (words with negative connotations) might lead users to think that an application is prone to error, difficult to use, and unreliable. Furthermore, words such as “wrong” and “incorrect” make sentences seem accusatory and are rarely helpful.

Example:

  1. Negative wording: Sign-in failed. You’re password is wrong and will be locked after three incorrect attempts.
  2. Positive imperative: Enter a password that contains only valid characters (0-9, a-z, A-Z).
Intuitive user interfaces and good user interaction design

Ideally, intuitive user interfaces and good usability should counter and “forgive” any faux-pas on the part of the user. The purpose of most message texts is to inform users of what has happened or is happening and most importantly to assist users in how to proceed. The task of a technical writer is to impart actionable information and not to reprimand users for a mistake or misunderstanding that may well be a result of poor user interaction design.

“Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the affirmative”

Accentuating the positive is beneficial for all types of communications. If you’re interested in how a positive tone of voice can help promote a brand, freelance writer and editor Harriet Cummings has written quite a nice guide that focuses on multiple aspects of how to shape a tone of voice.

In technical writing, the overuse or inappropriate use of negative language can sabotage the best intentions by unnerving users and obscuring the intended message. Therefore, negative words and vocabulary need to be used with purpose so that users grasp the consequences of specific actions and events with minimum effort.

* Strictly speaking, the verb “negate” means 1) to make ineffective or void (synonyms: nullify, invalidate) 2) to deny or contradict.
For the purpose of this principle, the author has allowed herself some poetic license and challenges you to find a better verb!

Next up:

Principle Six: Organize Information Logically

  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

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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