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Technical Notes, general Series
Technical Writing made easier
rev. 1.1, March 2002
by 
Bernhard Spuida, bernhard@icsharpcode.net
Senior Word Wrangler
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction.......................................................................................................................2
2. Theory..............................................................................................................................2
3. Readability........................................................................................................................3
3.1 Well formed Sentences............................................................................................................3
3.2 Overlong Sentences................................................................................................................4
3.3 Short Sentences......................................................................................................................4
3.4 Recursion.................................................................................................................................4
3.5 Choice of Words......................................................................................................................5
4. Comprehensibility.............................................................................................................5
4.1 Definition..................................................................................................................................6
4.2 Assumption/Theorem...............................................................................................................6
4.3 Explanation/Proof....................................................................................................................6
4.2 Conclusion...............................................................................................................................6
5. Matters of Style................................................................................................................8
5.1 Title..........................................................................................................................................8
5.2 Big Words................................................................................................................................8
5.3 It's............................................................................................................................................9
5.4 An 'a'........................................................................................................................................9
5.5 Do not use 'don't'.....................................................................................................................9
5.6 Can, could, etc.........................................................................................................................9
5.7 Nativisms...............................................................................................................................10
5.8 Ego Trip.................................................................................................................................10
5.9 When to use 'if'......................................................................................................................10
5.10 This Sentence does overdo it..............................................................................................10
5.11 Time is on our side..............................................................................................................11
5.12 Consistency.........................................................................................................................11
5.13 Editor's pet peeves..............................................................................................................11
5.13.1 Grammar and Logic.....................................................................................................................11
5.13.2 Spelling and Terminology............................................................................................................12
6 Recommended Reading..................................................................................................15
7 Online Resources............................................................................................................15
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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1. Introduction
Technical writing requires clarity of expression and therefore simplicity of language. Technical
writing is intenton expressingcertain key concepts so thatthese maybe understood as easilyas
possibly by the intended readers — be they programmers or users. Writing in a clear, concise
manner makes notonly understanding the texteasier for the reader, italso makes your life as a
writer of technical documentation easier — especially when you are not a native speaker of English.
Whentalkingaboutalgorithms,orsequencesof events inaprogram, absoluteclarityof writingis
not only needed in the code discussed; but also in documenting this particular program for our
fellowprogrammers and users. We need to attain the same levelof clarity of expression in both
cases, otherwisereaderswilltoturntootherprograms,which are more accessibleon the levelof
understanding and therefore easier to use or extend.
Inthisshortguide,wewillcoversomeofthebasicconceptsthatleadtogood(technical) writing.
Youwillcertainlydiscover moresuchrules andconceptsasyoupracticethewritingskillsgained
outofthis setof notes. Andalso,read! Readalot,andreadvariedwriting,consciousoftheways
language isused in the texts you read. Haveyour own writing read and criticised by friends and
fellow professionals. Pay attention to these criticisms.
Youwillseethatourcolleagues,justlikethecomputersweprogram,requireaspecificsyntaxtobe
adheredtoifwewantour instructionstobeunderstood.Andasinprograms,humanlanguagetext
maybestraightforwardorconvoluted,leadingasinprogramstovariationsinperformance.Sohere
we go.
Asthisisintendedtobea'workinprogress',additionswillbemadewhenevernecessary.Iamalso
always happy to receive suggestions and feedback. 
2. Theory
The understanding of written text depends on three distinct components:
• Legibility
• Readability
• Comprehensibility
The firstof thesecomponentsisof no concern to us, asitis aresponsibilityof thelayoutersand
typesetters putting our writing into its final form.
Thesecondofthesewewilldealwith,asitisvitaltohavingthereaderactuallyreadourdocument,
hopefully in full.
Andlastly,thethirdcomponentisessentialtoensurethatourreaderwillunderstandthepurposeof
our writing.
Thesetwocomponentswillbediscussedinseparatesections,eventhoughsomeoftheissuesraised
may be pertinent to both.
Inaddition,wewillalsolookatissuesofstyle —someof writing’sdo’sanddon’ts ,aseven the
prose of technical writing does not have to be equivalent to a blunt axe when it might be an
instrument of precision.
Should you, kind reader, have suggestions for improvement to these pages, please letme know:
bernhard@icsharpcode.net
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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3. Readability
Theconceptsofreadabilityandcomprehensibilityimplythattheactofreadingbeyondthephysical
act of seeing and deciphering characters and chunks of text is vastly more complex.
Asthenextstepbeyondthis‘raw’levelofinput,weneedtoassumeaprocessoftokenising,akinto
what a compiler does with the source code of a given program.
This process of tokenising is what readability is concerned with. Thus, our writing willneed to
meet a number of requirements to successfully pass this stage:
1. The sentences must be well formed syntactically
2. The sentences must not exceed a certain length
3. The sentences should not be below a minimum length
4. Recursion must be kept to a minimum
5. The choice of words should vary
Ifatechnicaltextisunreadableinthereader’seye,hewillquiteprobablyassumethattheproduct
described in this text also is of inferior quality. Code is a language, just as the language of the
documentation is. Not writing well in documentation implies faults in coding style.
Therefore, readability is an absolute requirement for documentation of successful products.
3.1 Well formed Sentences
By well formed sentences, we do not merely mean that the sentences should conform to
grammaticalrulesoftheEnglishlanguage,butalsothattheyareclearlybuilt.Wewillnowlookat
some negatives and discuss solutions:
This sentence no verb
Glaringgrammaticalerrors such asomittingavitalcomponentofthesentence —inthiscasethe
verb —shouldbe avoidedatallcost. Readoutloud,whenever in doubt. Usually,these mistakes
occur in longer, moreconvolutedsentences. Check these twice when they cannot berewritten in
split-up form.
This sentence does a verb have
Never,ever trytotranspose agrammaticalconstructof your mother tongue intoa literalEnglish
equivalent — even more so in cases of colloquialisms, as above! If you are able to translate a
sentencewordbywordbackintoyourmothertongue,youmostprobablymadeaseveremistakeor
twoinwriting it.Read textsby nativespeakers of English.Rewrite yourowntextnext,and then
reread it.
In this case, we see that there is, as such, a larger than necessary number of commas.
Punctuation should be keptto a minimum. Itis not necessary to put a comma wherever itlooks
right. They often are not. Especially clauses of the ‘so that’ type can do perfectly well without
commas.Thisrule ofcoursealsoholds for allother punctuation.Andnever,ever,trytotransport
punctuation rules from your native tongue to the English you are writing.
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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Ofcourse,manymorecasesofsentencesnotwellformedmightbeconstructed,butquiteprobably
youwillfind enough of these whenlooking throughvarious piecesof writing.Andnotonlywill
you find these in non-native writers of English. Therefore, again — read what others wrote!
Of course, most of the further examples of section 3 also are malformed in our wider sense.
3.2 Overlong Sentences
Often we encounter sentences which run on too long. Understanding such sentences is extremely
difficult, as short term memory has a very limited capacity. Similar to the rule that telephone
numbers may nothave more than 5 digits plus/minus two, sentences should notexceed acertain
length.
Itis given as a rule,whichhowever is notthe only such rule you may encounter,thatsentences
shouldnotexceedadesirablelengthoftentofifteenwords,nevershouldfallbelowsevenwordsor
extend beyondtheultimatelimitoftolerablelength reachedattwentywords, eventhoughlonger
sentencesmaybefoundinhighliterature,whereevenpunctuationasitisusedinthisexampleto
facilitate reading is oft omitted in novel experimental ways.
Thisofcourseisanexamplethatrunssomewhatlongerthanwhatyouwouldexpecttofindinyour
own writing. But read your own texts againandyou will quitepossiblyfind one or twoof these
abominations, describing say, a complex chain of events and their handling. A complex train of
thoughtcanonlybenefitfrombeingbrokendownintosentences ofconvenientlength.Temptation
to ramble on in one long sentence may be great. Resist. Your logic will benefit. Also cut out
anything not necessary to the immediate cause at hand. To quote Strunck and White’s third rule:
Omit needless words.
3.3 Short Sentences
Short sentences are easily read, but tend to look breathless and overly excited.
Sentencesmaybeshort.Thentheyareeasytoread.Andunderstand,too.Buttheylookcheap.And
breathless. As well as leaving the reader restless.
Notmuchneedstobesaidhere,astheseabovesentencesillustratethepointtobemade.Ifathing
isworthsaying,itisworthsayingitwell,notchoppinglanguagetopieces.Humanlanguageisnot
a RISC language.
Ingeneral,trytovary thelength ofsentences inthelimits giveninthe negativeof subsection3.2
above.Interestingwritingdependson welldosed variations of lengthand choice of words —for
examples of the latter, see below.
3.4 Recursion
Sentencesoftenturnintoaquasi-circularcaseofrecursionwhilereadingthemwhenthereferences
made in the sentence to the respective objects and subjects are left unclear by using the same
pronoun to describe these subjects and objects.
Itis noteasy to understanditwhen itis unclear whatisreferencedby ‘it’ –itby nowshouldbe
clear what it is supposed to mean, isn’t it?
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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Insuchacase,replaceone—preferablythefirst—instanceof eachsubject/objectreferencedby
‘it’withitsactualname.Thiswillmakereadingmucheasier.Recursionofthistypeoftenalsoisan
indication of laziness on the writer’s part, as ithints at an unwillingness to formulate a thought
properly. This however is onlya shorttermsaving of effort,asreaders probably will contact the
author askingfor clarificationandthuscausing more unproductive workon the writer’spartthan
necessary.
Another form of recursion will take place in the reader’s mind when he is confronted with
convoluted sentences containing insertions, ellipses and other rhetoric figures. All of these will
needsome place onhis ‘stack’ —anda reader’s stackis shallow.‘Pushing’ and ‘popping’more
than three stack levels usually ends in disaster … for the message of your sentence!
The reader, that is, the intended recipient of our text, a hopefully clearly written and logically
structureddocument,will, ifheis able tofullyunderstandour prose,withoutdifficultycometoa
safeassumptionofwhatanygivensentence,suchasthisaone,conveys,tohim,thereader,bythe
way of meaning.
Theabovesentenceisgrammaticallycorrect,butwillmostprobablyprovokea‘stackoverflow’in
our average reader. Such convoluted
1
writing should be avoided wherever possible. Just as
recursive code, textmay be ‘flattened out’. Takea monster such as the one above apart. Shorter
sentences makeeasierreading. If thisisnotpossible,try to keeprelatedparts of thesentencesas
close to each other as possible.
3.5 Choice of Words
Readingisaprocessthattakesitstollonthereader.Thistaskshouldthereforebemadeaseasyas
possibleforhim.Makingreading aneasiertask, ifnota pleasure,can beachievedbyvaryingthe
vocabulary used to describe the topics at hand.
Usingthe same words allover to describe the same things againand again is notpleasanteven
more so when we can use different words to replace those same words we are using again and
again to describe the same thing in the same words.
For any given word, at least one synonym will be available. Do not hesitate to use a thesaurus.
Also,donotusetheexactsamephrasingagainandagainandagain,unlessitisintendedtoconvey
some artistic intention — this however is almost never the case in technical writing. And:
Never use the same opening words in two or more subsequent sentences. Repetitive writing is
the enemy of all reader's interest.
4. Comprehensibility
In the complex process of reading, the step following the ‘tokenisation’ of the textis the actual
‘parsing’—understandingwhatthesesymbolsandtheirrelationsmean.Aclearseparationofthese
two steps however can not be made.
Agreat portion of comprehensibility issues already was covered when we discussed recursion
1
Goahead,lookup‘convoluted’inadictionary.Now.Dothisaswellforanyotherwordyoumaynotknowinthis
or any other text.
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
6
above.
Recursion is the enemy of understanding
An understandable technicaldocumentalways follows a logicalstructure. Any topic discussed is
based on the preceding topics. If a new concept is needed for the topic at hand, it needs to be
introducedbeforeusingitindealingwiththis newtopic.Thisholdstruefor anylevelof detailof
the document at hand, down to individual sentences.
The basic steps are:
1. Definition
2. Assumption/Theorem
3. Explanation/Proof
4. Conclusion
Ofcourse,theclassicstructureof‘thesis,antithesis,synthesis’maybemoreappropriateforcertain
topics, such as discussion of architectural decisions, butgenerally the above sequence is exactly
what we need.
Onthe‘atomic’levelofasentence,itslogicalstructureisgovernedbyrawgrammar.Therefore,a
good working knowledge of grammar is absolutely necessary for getting our ideas across to the
reader as we mean them to be.
4.1 Definition
In this segment of the document, all terms and concepts necessary for the following should be
defined. In some cases, reference toprevious material in the documentis sufficient. Referring to
latersections istobeavoidedatallcost.Ifitshouldforsomereasonbenecessary,thedefinitions
may be placed in endnotes or a glossary at the end of the document. This should be clearly
indicated at the very beginning of the document. Footnotes are not intended for the purpose of
definitions. They are a place for further explanations or material of a ‘non sequitur’ nature
2
.
4.2 Assumption/Theorem
Thetaskofthis segmentisthepresentationoftheideaorconceptthisparticulardocumentor part
of a document is supposed to deal with.
Makeasimpleandclearcutstatementofwhereyourargumentstartsandwhatwillbetheintended
outcome.Nowhy orhowshouldbe given here. The why should beclear fromearlierportionsof
the document, the how is the subject matter of the next section.
In a user’s guide, this is where an indication of the function to be explained should be given.
4.3 Explanation/Proof
Thissegmentof ourdocumentdealswithgivingjustificationfor theideaputforthintheprevious
section.Itmaybe ofpurely argumentative
3
nature —say, defendingarchitecturaldecisions —or
comeclosetomathematicalproofinstyle.Inthecaseofaprogramimplementedpractically,thisis
theplaceforexplainingtheworkingsofitstepbystep.Orinthecaseofauser’sguide,toexplain
the interface and sequence of steps necessary for completing a given task.
2
Latin:‘isnotfollowed’i.e.somethingthatisnotimportantfortheunderstandingofthesubsequenttext,butmerely
a side track of additional information.
3
Just read some classic rhetoric texts to understand what I mean. Socrates should ring a bell even without reading…
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
7
4.2 Conclusion
For the document to be successful, a conclusion must be given, reiterating the above steps in a
shortenedform.This willreinforce theimpactofthematerialpresentedonthe reader.The human
mind, unlike a computer, needs tobe told severaltimes before committing to a certain course of
action.
Repeatthecentralmessageof whatyouwrite severaltimes.Thehumanmindis notateasewhen
confronted with a ‘fire and forget’ type of message.
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
8
Now,withoutlookingbackatwhatwaswrittenabovegiveasummaryofwhatwassaidinsection
4. It won’t be repeated here. Can you recall the topic of the last subsection of section 4? What
number was that subsection?
See?
5. Matters of Style
This section willbe concerned with the little things thatwillhopefully turn acceptable technical
writing into good writing. There is a number of seemingly small and unobtrusive ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’
that need to be watched out for consciously even though they seem to be obvious.
Thefollowingmaterialisnotsortedby relevance.Youwilljustfindthings astheycametomind,
read through it and consider it as a wish list for good writing.
5.1 Title
The first thing our reader sees is the title. Therefore, the appearance of the title is of great
importance fortheimpressionourtextleaves.Thedominatingfactoriscapitalisationofthewords
in the title. There are several 'schools of tought' as far as this is concerned:
1. All Words In Titles Are Capitalised
2. Only the first word is capitalised
3. nothing is capitalised
4. First Word and all Nouns are capitalised
Of these, I personally recommend number 4
4
, as it is the style usually choosen for scientific
publications.Numbers1and3areusuallybadforthereadabilityofthetitle.Inany,case,onceyou
have chosen a style, stick with it. No exceptions to the rule!
Whennumberingtitles,consistencyisalsoamust.Ifyousettledforacertainscheme,stickwithit!
Usually thenumberingstylessuggestedby your textprocessing software – bethatLaTeX, Open
Office or what ever else – of choice represent sensible schemes.
5.2 Big Words
Don’tgo above your station. Itmay well be tempting to employ vocabulary gleaned fromsome
obscure manualof language, obfuscating your intentby billowing clouds of rhetoric smoke, this
however will most certainly induct the reader’s total non-comprehension of your text.
Bynowitshouldbeclearwhatthenameofthegameis:inthecaseoftwogivenwordsofthesame
meaning, preferably use the simpler one. With one exception: should the ‘bigger’ word be clearer as
to its meaning, use that.
And when you find yourself in the ‘Big Word Game’, also check the length of your sentences.
There seems to be a correlation between the two.
However,youwillfindthatusingonlythesmallestpossiblewordtorefertoaconceptwillmaking
your writing look dull. A bit of variety never hurts.
4
And use it for this Tech Note.
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
9
5.3 It's...
It’softenamatterofconfusionfornon-nativespeakerstodecidewhentouse‘its’andwhentouse
‘it’s’.Theformeristhegenitiveof‘it’,thelatterisacontractionof‘itis’.Simple.Whenindoubt,
check back here.
Andpreferablywrite‘itis’,asthismakesforbetterstylethan‘it’s’,withouttoomuchextratyping
effort. This way, the problem of what form to use will vanish automagically, anyway.
5.4 An 'a'
It is of course somewhat tempting when trying to write good English to use ‘a’ and ‘an’ in
accordance with the simple assumption that ‘a’ is to be used before consonants and ‘an’ before
vowels.This isnotinaccordancewiththerulesofproperEnglish.Simple(assumed)rulesusually
have exceptions to prove them in general. The exception in this case is with vowels:
An apple
An exception
An idea
• A useless rule but
An uppercase letter
This is of course a mere rule of thumb
5
.For the full story refer to a style manual such as ‘The
King’s English’.
5.5 Do not use 'don't'
Theuseofcontractednegatedverbsissomethingthatshouldnotbedoneingoodtechnicalwriting.
Writing out a negation in full does not take much effort on the writer’s part and leaves the
impression of a writer caring about his style. Should he also be the coder of the program
documented, attention to such details will also affectthe perception of the quality of his coding
style by the reader.
So: no won’t, can’t, don’t, isn’t, aren’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t
And never, ever: ain’t, shan’t
5.6 Can, could, etc.
ComingfromaGermanlanguagebackgroundwillleadtoaveryspecificproblem
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withthevarious
meanings of the versatile German auxiliary verb ‘können’ when translating it into English. 
• Can:the abilitytoperforman action —after havinginitialised foo, wenowcan
call bar(baz)
• Could:apossibility,orrarelyinthecaseoftechnicalwriting,thepasttenseofcan
— in the case of an exception being thrown, we could catch it, or dismiss it.
• May: a speculative possibility — in future versions of foo, we may implement
bar().
• Might: an alternative — instead of calling foo(), we might call bar() when the
following conditions … are fulfilled.
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I guess you see where the general drift goes?
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Problems specific to other languages might be discussed in future versions of this document.
© Bernhard Spuida, 2002
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