word choice

Subject: word choice
From: Rowena Campbell <campbell -at- ANGIS -dot- SU -dot- OZ -dot- AU>
Date: Mon, 14 Feb 1994 15:57:02 +1100

In response to Mike Christie's questions

>are there times when more words are better than fewer? ... Should one always
>err on the side of accuracy even when it means using more words?

I believe there are many, many occasions when more words are better than
fewer (I suppose this is in opposition to the minimalists' case?). In fact,
one of the damned problems with computer help is that SHORT-HAND is the
preferred mode of expression. This is fine if you're writing for people who
are au fait with the subject, but not useful if you're writing for beginners.
If your principal aim is to clarify a question, short-hand is a dubious tool.
The same goes for JARGON. (Of course, the degree of jargon which is
appropriate very much depends upon the audience for whom the document is

Short-hand is, in my view, a piece of carelessness into which we are all
liable to slip. It is NOT a virtue but a kind of self-indulgence. Once we
are familiar with a subject it is almost impossible to avoid short-hand, and
we very soon loose track of the path by which we came to this point of
familiarity. The ever-present challenge for those of us who must write for a
non-technical audience, is to keep the audience's perspective, and not use
our job to flaunt our own fluency.

One should always err on the side of accuracy, POINT BLANK. Of course, it is
possible that fewer words will be just as accurate as more. For example, you
could have said the program "was expensive of system resources". (Whether
people think this is better/as accurate is open to debate. I'm not too sure
myself.) It is more important to be able to convey the (ACCURATE) meaning
immediately to YOUR AUDIENCE, than to be brief; and so, what might be a
succinct description for one audience would be better expressed in a larger
number of simpler (or less technical) words for another.

Do people agree with me that INACCURACY in technical writing is
unforgivable!? (Let me modify that, in case I make an inaccurate statement,
... is reprehensible, but you can always be forgiven [Catholic up-bringing]!)

I accept that it is desirable to avoid a superfluity of words (gasp ;)). But
my point is - that the real end of this type of writing is to get the meaning
across to the reader in the most comfortable way for THEM, the one which
conveys the the most accurate and useful information soonest to their
understanding. Good rules of thumb and useful exercises to improve the
writer's technique (such as minimising the number of words you use); are
excellent things; but they are not an end in themselves.

(Depending upon what you write) the reader is a native speaker. He has an
excellent language of his own. We must tap into his much exercised facility
for his own tongue, and present him with a document in Plain English;
preferably not in officialese, jargon or short-hand.

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