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    Fat-Free Writing (Part 1)

    We're inundated with terminology indicating leanness: light, low fat, fat free. Most of the time, you would associate terms like this with food. In this case, I'm associating them with writing -- technical writing to be exact.

    As a technical writer, your job is to use words to show, describe, instruct, define, persuade, or inform. Your goal should be to communicate only useful information clearly.

    Simple, right? Well, things aren't always as easy as they look. Writers have a tendency to overuse ambiguous or "fatty" words to keep their writing from becoming boring.

    There are approximately one million words in the English language. Some writers think they should use every word only once in their document.

    As a fiction writer, using different words to describe the same action or item works great if you want to capture your reader's attention and draw them into the story. However, as a technical writer, your first goal is to always communicate useful information clearly. Sometimes, that means using the same word more than once in the same document.

    Familiarity keeps the reader of technical documents focused. Lean words help them understand the concept of the subject. This leaves very little room for assumption or misinterpretation that could lead to errors in performing a task.

    For example, if I were writing a romantic novel and wanted to describe the heroine's hair I would write, "Her long, golden tresses glowed with iridescence in the moonlight."

    As a technical writer I would cut the fat from the sentence and change it to, "Her blond hair shown in the moonlight."

    The poet, Alexander Pope, described how writers can get so caught up in writing "words" that they forget to make sense,

    "Words are like leaves and where they most abound
    Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found"

    It's easier for the reader to make sense of your instructions if you remove the fat and leave only the important information.

    Don't distract your reader. One of the best ways to do this is to separate your instructions from paragraph form to numbered steps.

    For example, in the following paragraph, some of the important instructions could be lost to the reader if they were trying to follow along while creating a new folder in Microsoft Windows.

    In order to create a new folder you must first position your mouse pointer to click on the Start button and then when the menu opens click on the Programs option. After the Program menu opens you can move your mouse pointer and click on the Windows Explorer option. The Windows Explorer directory list opens and you can move the cursor to select the My Documents folder on the drive marked C. Then, click on the File menu at the top of the window and when it opens click the New option. When the New submenu opens you must select the option called Folder. After you select the Folder option an icon of a new folder appears with a default file name of "New Folder." This is your opportunity to change the name of the new folder from "New Folder" to your choice of folder names by typing in the new name and pressing Enter.

    A good technical writer can help guide the reader by using numbered steps to instruct. For example, the above paragraph would look like this:

    How to Create a New Folder in Microsoft Windows

    1. Click Start and select Programs.
    2. From Programs, select the Window's Explorer option.
    3. Select the My Documents folder on drive C.
    4. Click on the File menu and select New.
    5. From New, select Folder.
    6. Look for the icon of a new folder that appears with the default name, "New Folder."
    7. Click on the default name and type a new name for the folder.

    Most readers would prefer the second example when performing their task. They don't need the extra words. They only complicate the instructions and distract the reader from staying focused of the subject.

    In Part Two of the Fat Free Writing Series, we'll examine examples of ambiguous phrases and learn more ways to remove the fat from our writing.

    (Microsoft and Microsoft Windows are either a registered trademark or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.)

    Copyright © 2001 Vicki M. Taylor

    Vicki M. Taylor writes thrilling fiction with strong women characters. You can find out more about her at

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