Chapter 14. Writing Style

Table of Contents
14.1. Tips
14.2. Guidelines
14.3. Style Guide
14.4. Word List

14.1. Tips

Technical documentation can be improved by consistent use of several principles. Most of these can be classified into three goals: be clear, be complete, and be concise. These goals can conflict with each other. Good writing consists of a balance between them.

14.1.1. Be Clear

Clarity is extremely important. The reader may be a novice, or reading the document in a second language. Strive for simple, uncomplicated text that clearly explains the concepts.

Avoid flowery or embellished speech, jokes, or colloquial expressions. Write as simply and clearly as possible. Simple text is easier to understand and translate.

Keep explanations as short, simple, and clear as possible. Avoid empty phrases like in order to, which usually just means to. Avoid potentially patronizing words like basically. Avoid Latin terms like i.e. or cf., which may be unknown outside of academic or scientific groups.

Write in a formal style. Avoid addressing the reader as you. For example, say copy the file to /tmp rather than you can copy the file to /tmp.

Give clear, correct, tested examples. A trivial example is better than no example. A good example is better yet. Do not give bad examples, identifiable by apologies or sentences like but really it should never be done that way. Bad examples are worse than no examples. Give good examples, because even when warned not to use the example as shown, the reader will usually just use the example as shown.

Avoid weasel words like should, might, try, or could. These words imply that the speaker is unsure of the facts, and create doubt in the reader.

Similarly, give instructions as imperative commands: not you should do this, but merely do this.

14.1.2. Be Complete

Do not make assumptions about the reader's abilities or skill level. Tell them what they need to know. Give links to other documents to provide background information without having to recreate it. Put yourself in the reader's place, anticipate the questions they will ask, and answer them.

14.1.3. Be Concise

While features should be documented completely, sometimes there is so much information that the reader cannot easily find the specific detail needed. The balance between being complete and being concise is a challenge. One approach is to have an introduction, then a quick start section that describes the most common situation, followed by an in-depth reference section.

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