HOW TO AVOID PRODUCING BULLSHIT IN YOUR TECHNICAL WRITING
If you have ever attended a report writing workshop with me, you may remember me saying, “write to express, not to impress”. It’s not an original saying, but it reminds us in a few words that there is no place in technical writing for bullshit, obscurantism or, dare I say it, pseudo-intellectualism. (I’m not being profane. You can read the technical definitions of bullshit and obscurantism in last week’s post.)
Technical writing is about truth as defined within the scientific paradigm. We deal in facts. Or at least we should. In addition, we should be writing with simple clarity that allows our thoughts to be easily grasped.
In my line of work, I often encounter a fear of “dumbing things down”, but in most cases where this point is raised, the example under discussion is one where the writer has produced a flood of words which obscure what he/she meant to say – if he or she even had clarity at all.
This results in what I call the perpetuation of ignorance: You write something that is essentially unintelligible, but the words are big and it sounds impressive so it must be significant, right? Your report then passes from one reader to the next with readers assuming they know what you meant without actually thinking deeply about your words and identifying them as bullshit. Either this or they just skip over the parts they don’t understand.
There is no value in words that cannot be clearly understood. Certainly not in the technical space. Technical writing is, by nature, analytical. You are required, as a matter of course to demonstrate clear, logical thinking.
I wrote last week about the importance of analytical thought in detecting bullshit. I also mentioned the difference between lies, nonsense and bullshit. Consider the following statements:
- It will cost R100 000.00 to build a new bridge over the N1. – This is a lie because it hides the true cost of building a bridge. (Writers sometimes use this strategy with the intention of getting a contract and then negotiating further fees later. Lying is an unethical practice and saying, “everybody does it” is no excuse.)
- Catchments green can take ecosystem precipitation instantaneously. – This is nonsense. It has the look of an ordinary sentence, but it is just a string of loosely associated words with no meaning. Don’t try to figure it out. There is nothing there.
- Sustainability is key to implementation of stakeholder related solutions due to the fact that transformation is a key factor in the execution of this strategic venture. – This is bullshit. It sounds grand, but what does it actually mean? The statement is so full of buzzwords that it is hard to figure out what the writer is trying to say.
All three of these types of statement are unacceptable in technical writing. Don’t try to dress things up to appear fancier or more complex than they are. The profundity of good technical writing lies in clarity and truth. Avoid the temptation to write bullshit, it only perpetuates ignorance.