Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Niggles About Technical Writers

The online thesaurus is a wonderful thing. How else would I discover a word like niggles? By the way, did you know that there's no synonym for thesaurus?

Some of my colleagues in the A/E profession would do well to make more use of the thesaurus or a dictionary. I was reviewing a document recently in which the engineer author spoke of the "objectives of the best insurances that the project will finish as planned."

Another engineer wrote in a proposal, "We have considered that the expansion will not exert additional loading on the nearby existing structures." In fact, he used the word considered several times in the same manner, an apparent synonym for concluded.

But misused words are among the least of my niggles when it comes to the written output of technical professionals. Since I'm currently doing a writing workshop for engineers and architects, I am reminded of various offenses against accepted standards of grammar and style that occur repeatedly in our documents. So I offer my list, not of the most egregious, but of those missteps that for whatever reason bug me most:

Underlining. This is an archaic practice from the typewriter era when the proper means of giving emphasis—boldface and italics—were not possible. Underlining no longer serves a purpose except aggravating me (which may have its own merits). Don't do it!

Over-capitalization. Technical professionals have a tendency to capitalize words that shouldn't be capitalized, like Client or Contract. This practice seems to borrow from the legal profession, which is hardly a good place to turn for writing advice. Better advice is to limit capitalization to proper nouns, meaning names of particular persons, places, or things. 

Hyper-hyphenation. Most prefixes should not be hyphenated, like hydrogeology, multidisciplinary, and antigravity. Many of the hyphenated compound words I see in technical writing (e.g., groundwater) are better either combined or separated. There are no simple rules, unfortunately, so consult the dictionary. 

Improper dashes. Speaking of hyphens, they are intended for either joining words or separating syllables. A long (em) dash should be used when separating a heading or clause—such as this. To make an em dash in Microsoft Office, typically you only need to type two hyphens. If that doesn't work, change your AutoCorrect Options. 

Insulting the reader's intelligence. There are various ways to do this, but let me focus on the persistent practice of introducing every imaginable acronym in parentheses even when it's not necessary. Please don't do this: "We at DUM Engineering, Inc. (DUM) are pleased to provide this proposal." The reader would have to be really dumb to miss the connection, or think you are for making it. And some common acronyms probably don't need an introduction, like EPA or O&M. 

Duplicate numbers. We like to make fun of lawyers and then copy some of their silly practices like writing numbers this way: "twenty-four (24)"? Thankfully, I'm seeing less of this than I used to. 

Arial font. This font, a perennial favorite among engineers and scientists, does have its qualities—if staid and boring is what you're seeking. I challenge you to try finding it used in any professionally produced document. If you prefer a sans serif font, there are better, more modern-looking choices such as the Microsoft standard Calibri.

What? This blog uses Arial font? Oh, never mind.

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