Thursday, October 22, 2009

Technical Writing and the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome

smiling bananaI first read about the slender yellow fruit syndrome in the book Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner. The term refers to the over-the-top attempts by some writers to vary the language they use to identify something more than once in a sentence or passage. In general, using a variety of language is a good idea—especially in creative writing. Reading the same word repeatedly can get tiresome. That’s one reason we have pronouns.

However, some writers take this concept too far. When you have to refer to a banana twice in the same sentence, do it! It's not the end of the world. Calling a banana a "slender yellow fruit" for the sake of variation is absurd.

This is even more important in the world of technical writing. Technical writing should follow a clear, predictable pattern, and there should be no problem solving involved for the reader. One way to maintain clarity is to establish terms of reference early on in a document (or even state them explicitly in the introduction) and then stick to them. Shifting terminology is a guaranteed way to confuse readers.

This does not only apply to nouns, but other parts of speech as well. If you tell the reader to "select" the radio button on page one, do not then tell them to "enable" the radio button on page two.

An easy way to avoid shifting terminology is to write out a style sheet for the document on which you are working. You can refer to the style sheet when you are writing. And later, when you perform an edit on the document, you can devote a complete pass to each major term. The style sheet can (and should) contain more than just the important terms that you are going to use in your document. It should also include formatting issues such when to apply bolding, and the font style and size for headings.

A style sheet for each project can complement a company style guide, which in turn can complement a commercial style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. When you encounter a style or usage issue that is not in the style sheet, reference the company style guide. And, when you inevitably have a question concerning language that is not covered in the company style guide, check the manual.

If you are in a small organization, creating a style guide is a very wise time investment. The amount of effort that is spent writing the guide will be earned back in spades later on when time is saved during the editing process. And a document that adheres to a style guide will be more consistent and effective than one that does not.

So, vary your language in creative writing, but not to an absurd degree. And in technical writing, be very careful about ever straying from the terms of reference that you have established.


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