5 Ways To Stop Being Fancy
There is nothing that takes away more from a formal technical document than when it’s obvious you are trying too hard. I spend much of my week editing engineering journal articles, blog posts, proposal and even resumes. I’m sharing with you my top five ways to stop being fancy when you’re writing your technical documents.
To explain where my frustration lies I’d like to direct your attention back to an old Friends episode, where Joey is writing a letter of recommendation to the adoption agency. Instead of writing that his friends have “giant hearts” he writes that they have “oversized aortic pumps.” This is what happens when you go a little crazy with the thesaurus, my friends. It takes away from your credibility, and we don’t want that. We want your work to be read and understood!
So let’s get to it. Five ways to stop trying to be fancy, which will actually increase the formality and effectiveness of your technical writing.
Throw out the thesaurus
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read through a sentence and thought, “Wait, what?” This is what happens when you blindly go to thesaurus.com and choose an alternate word apparently at random.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that what you really want to convey goes a little something like this:
The simulation evaluated the fatigue life of the design.
But what you write goes a little something like this, thanks to the thesaurus:
The simulation weighed the exhaust life of the design.
Just because you feel like you’re using the words “evaluated” or “fatigue” too much in an article does NOT mean that you should stop using them. These are proper technical terms, and if you need to repeat them, please do. Don’t worry about needing new words for every sentence.
2. Cut the conjunctions
In most papers I edit, I delete 20-50 conjunctions that are used unnecessarily to start sentences. You know, the “moreover,” “however,” “on the other hand,” furthermore,” henceforth,” etc. PS. Don’t use “henceforth,” you aren’t a 70 year old professor at Oxford.
Writing a technical paper does not mean you should jam as many stuffy conjunctions into it as possible. Very rarely are these words used correctly. Most times, people think they need to “link” every sentence to the one before it. Not so. Concise sentences that get to the point are so much better than ones that waffle to link your ideas, which brings us to tip number three.
3. Shorten your sentences
Here’s how you’ll know if your sentence is too long:
it’s longer than two lines
you are trying to bring together more than two ideas
you need to take a breath halfway through as you read aloud (see point number five)
Long sentences make it difficult to follow your train of thought. Even if it is a very complicated technical finding you’re trying to communicate, the most effective way to do so is by using the fewest number of words. It shows that you really understand the heart of the matter.
4. Dumb down your terminology
This might sound a little counterintuitive, but it can really help you to get your point across. Instead of using the word “ubiquitous” to describe your mobile app, the words “available worldwide” might actually better describe it, and your readers will know what the heck you mean. Most readers aren’t likely to look up a word in the dictionary (even online).
Another example I see all the time refers to specific technical jargon. If what you actually mean to say is that you conducted a “mesh dependency study,” but you instead say that you conducted a “cell sensitivity analysis,” you’re going to expose your lack of knowledge in the subject area.
Stop trying to be fancy, and just say that you altered the cell size in order to determine the effect on the results. People will know that it is a mesh dependency study, but they aren’t left scratching their heads wondering what you mean by “cell sensitivity.” Literally writing what you mean, rather than inventing fancy words to describe, it will always serve you better.
5. Read your writing out loud
If you find yourself getting tripped up by your own words as you read your document out loud, you need to simply your sentences. Think about it - someone just like you is likely going to be reading this document, with similar levels of education and technical expertise. So, if you are confused by your own writing, imagine how confused someone else will be, not knowing the intent behind your writing.
And yes, you should be reading your work out loud before you publish or send to an editor. This one step will make sure that your work is saying what you want it to say. When you publish it or send it off to an editor or manager, it’ll be much easier to edit and approve.
Take the Pressure Off Yourself When Writing Technically
The next time you sit down to write a journal article or a report containing your engineering results, take the pressure off yourself. Just start writing, and forget about trying to be fancy. You’ll find that you can better communicate by just letting it all flow naturally.