Tech Writing Handbook
That rule applies doubly if you’re writing for the internet. Chrome, Safari, and Firefox are all called web browsers instead of web readers for a reason. People don’t read web pages. They scan, hunting and pecking for words and phrases that they find pertinent. The average person spends just seconds on a web page, reading only about 20% of the text. The more concise you are, the more information readers actually read.
Even paper manuals aren’t “well read,” in the classic sense. No one curls up at night with a manual. Just like on web pages, people look for the information that they want. The more text-dense manuals are, the less likely people will dig through them.
Check out this example of an actual warranty statement from an actual kitchen appliance:
We suggest you complete and return the enclosed product registration card promptly to facilitate verification of the date of original purchase. However, return of the product registration card does not eliminate the need for the consumer to maintain the original proof of purchase in order to obtain the warranty benefits. In the event that you do not have proof of purchase date, the purchase date for purposes of this warranty will be the date of manufacture.
It’s only three sentences, but it’s dense, impersonal, and wordy. Here’s our revision:
Please return your completed product registration card so we can verify your purchase date. Keep the original proof of purchase to secure your warranty benefits. If you don’t know the purchase date, give the manufacture date instead.
Isn’t that better?
Lead with the most important information: Front-load useful details. Assume that your reader isn’t going to slog through an entire paragraph. When you start with the important stuff, your readers take the essential point with them—even if they don’t read everything.
Get rid of unimportant information: Readers want just the facts, so eliminate any off-topic information. Ditch extra bits and tangents. If you’re teaching us how to rebuild a car engine, we don’t need to hear the production history of the Mustang. Just give us directions.
Check your word count: Example 1 has 76 words. Our revised paragraph comes in at 37 words. Saying the same thing in half the words is a great goal.
Short sentences are your friend: Writers eager to appear smart often use really, really, very quite long sentences. Pro tip: Don’t do it. Overly long sentences are confusing. Aim for sentences that have no more than 24 words. Yeah, we know—sometimes your product name is longer than that. But do your best. Your paragraph will flow better with a healthy mix of sentence lengths.
Here’s a long sentence from a backhoe manual:
Assemble small 90° adapter fitting to outlet port of filter base and orient so that free end of fitting will point toward backhoe and angled about 30° upward from horizontal.
Now, here’s our revision with three short sentences instead of one long one:
Attach the small 90° adapter fitting to the port of the filter base. The free end of the fitting should point toward the backhoe. Angle the fitting about 30° upward of horizontal.
Dump any empty words: Empty words just sit there, like a lump on a long-winded log. Take a look back at the warranty example. The backhoe manual used the phrase “In the event of.” But “in the event of” is just a fancy way of saying “if.” Why use four words when one will do?
Reduce the amount of “to be” verbs: “To be” verbs laze about without actually doing much. Of course, don’t go overboard and weed every single one out of your verb population. Some sentences require “to be” verbs—no way around it. But, where you have a choice, replace lazy verbs with active verbs—ones that move the sentence forward. Fun fact: This paragraph contains no “to be” verbs.
Here’s an example from a car assembly manual: “If you damage any parts, it will probably be because they were either not stored properly or, the wrong tool was used to install them.”
That’s three passive verbs in the same sentence. We eliminated the lazy verbs for our revision: “Storing a part improperly or using the wrong installation tools can lead to damaged parts.“
Use passive voice strategically: Using passive voice doesn’t make you a bad person, no matter what your English teacher said in 10th grade. Just use passives purposefully. Unless you have a reason for using passive voice, switch to active voice.
Here’s an example of passive voice from a user manual: “A booster seat should be used to obtain proper seat belt fit.”
Who is obtaining the proper fit? Who is doing the using? That’s the thing about passive voice: No one knows. Sentence construction isn’t an episode of Murder She Wrote. No one should have to guess who did what. Start with a verb if you’re writing directions.
Let’s try rewriting that using active voice: “Use a booster seat to properly fit the child’s seat belt.”