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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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You don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age. [...] The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/12/2020

Totals
Posts - 2625
Comments - 2635
Hits - 2,278,553

Averages
Entries/day - 0.42
Comments/entry - 1.00
Hits/day - 366

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 2:56 PM Pacific


  09:24 AM

"Fewer your words": advice, not fetish

A couple of weeks ago, a (virtual) discussion broke out among the writers at work about "empty words" and how these should be eliminated. The original posting was about removing phrases like allows you to, helps you to, is intended for, and some others.

The topic generated a lot of interest, and people came to the conversation with different perspectives. One person: "Fluff should be eliminated." Another: More words make it that much harder for people who use assistive devices like screen readers.

You'd think that as an editor, I'd be delighted to see such keen interest among writers in the topic of "fewering your words," as we editors like to joke. There was a lot of advice that seemed helpful. And there were some nuanced points about reducing text too much.

But a number of issues came up that rubbed me the wrong way. I had to think about why that was, and I thought I should write down what I found.

The first thing that bugged me was a suggestion that we could train a machine-learning tool to eliminate these "unnecessary words." The proposer suggested that if there were a large enough training set that showed the work of human editors, this would be a good approach for suggesting changes. And I thought, how do you think grammar checkers work now?

Another thing that bothered me in the conversation was the confident assertion of absolutes. "The phrase in order to is never necessary," was one opinion. Hard disagree, as I explained a while back in the blog post "In order" to clarify meaning.[1]

For that matter, the original assertion that phrases like allows you to, helps you to, and is intended for are fluff was itself an absolute statement that I disagreed with. Many times I've added these with forethought and for good reasons. For example, many times we add the phrase helps [to] at the request of our lawyercats, who are extremely sensitive to what we might be claiming. Put on your lawyer hat for a second and compare the following:

Using our anti-virus tool makes your computer secure
Using our anti-virus tool helps make your computer secure

… and think about which of those statements you'd prefer to defend in court.[2]

Here's another thought: shorter isn't always clearer. By reducing words, you might make it harder to understand a sentence. Or maybe not harder for you, but for someone who's not a native speaker, or for a translator who sees the sentence with very little context.

My biggest objection, though, was with the whole premise that removing "fluff" and "needless words" was the ultimate good. One writer said they liked to see how many words they could eliminate or how many drafts they could go through. I had to marvel at the time that some writers must have to go over draft documentation again and again, and whether those last couple of passes to squeeze out just a few more words are really the best use of that writer's time.

An unnecessary in order to is virtually never the thing that's preventing the reader from finding and using the information they're looking for.

We're in the business of solving the reader's problems with the least amount of friction. Sure, reducing word count can be part of that strategy. But an unnecessary in order to or allows you to is virtually never the thing that's preventing the reader from finding and using the information they're looking for. As an editor, I am way, way more concerned that a document I'm looking at addresses a real user need, and that the reader can find the information as fast as possible, and that the information is presented in an order and at a level of detail that's correct for that reader, and that the information is accurate and complete. I have edited many documents that initially failed in some or all these ways, and it was far more important to take care of these things than it was to worry about "empty words."

Reduce word count when you can, but don't make a fetish of it, and don't turn it into a set of absolute rules ("in order to is never necessary"). Do not make reduced word count some sort of gauge of editing quality. There's a strong likelihood that there are more important things to concentrate on in your document.

[1] The longer I work as an editor, the less I believe that there are any absolute rules about anything to do with usage.

[2] I am not a lawyer, don't cite me on the legal implications of anything I say here.

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