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How to Use Verbs in Technical Writing

Posted by
Anastasia in Education on 6/21/20193 min read

Let's talk about verbs in technical writing. We are using them basically in every sentence, so it makes sense to look closer at this notion.

As we all know, technical documentation is meant to be as precise and clear as possible and this can be achieved through the correct usage of verbs, as well. We will start out with the passive voice specifics and then examine more ways to make better use of your verbs.

Passive Voice

This is a big topic, especially for non-native English speakers creating content in this language. Sometimes, the difference between active and passive voices can be very subtle.

A sentence with a passive construction seemingly conveys the same meaning as the one with the active voice. Since the notional (or main) verb remains the same, what's the difference? The difference in meaning in this case is mostly the question of focus shifts and how straightforward something sounds. Nevertheless, this can be crucial.

Let's take a look at example number one, from a hypothetical corporate email:

It was decided to start layoffs. - Our CEO decided to start layoffs.

Do you feel the difference? In the first case, all the attention is drawn to the “layoffs” while in the second case there are two points of focus - “layoffs” and the “CEO”. A lot of managers use this trick with passive voice to lessen the tension when bringing controversial news. It is almost like the responsibility for making the decision about layoffs is partly lifted from the CEO in the first sentence. And, it actually is because when the passive voice is used there's no need to specify the doer of the action. So, as far as sentence one is concerned, we simply do not know who pulled the trigger on layoffs, it could be the CEO or a whole group of people.

Take a look at one more example from a What's New article for help authoring software:

New reporting features were added. - We added new reporting features.

The second sentence sounds weird. In this case, it has nothing to do with responsibility, it just feels like our focus is involuntarily shifted to the “we” pronoun while, clearly, it doesn't matter for the reader who added the new features, some devs did. Everyone is much more interested in the features themselves. So, contextually, the use of the passive voice can be redundant.

Verb vs. Verb+Noun

Examine these sentences:

If you made a choice to follow the second set of instructions, here are your next steps. - If you chose to follow the second set of instructions here are your next steps.

Or, you can even say just “if you followed”.

Here we have a verb+noun construction (‘made a choice’) versus a verb (‘chose’) that carries the same meaning. Using only a verb is the better practice to convey a clear and strong message.This works great in technical writing since it features so many action-driven steps and instructions.

You can stumble upon many interchangeable expressions like this in English: make a decision/decide, set an intention/intend, make a statement/state, come to a conclusion/conclude. When you see some general verb that can take on various meanings (to get, to make) and a noun next to it (especially ending in -sion/-tion/-ment because they are mostly responsible in English for deriving nouns from verbs), you will most likely find a way to rephrase it by using just a verb instead.

Conclusion

User manuals can be more descriptive in nature and still they will convey some action. Software documentation, for example, describes a product and also explains how to use and troubleshoot it. This means that using verbs a lot is inevitable. With our advice, you will be able to make the most of the verbs in your technical documents, make your writing style clearer and more on point.

Good luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

 

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