The illusion of « minimalist writing »…

No, there is nothing like « minimalism writing » in technical documentation … Neither John M. Carrol nor Hans van der Meij developed anything of that kind. Their research demonstrated the feasability of the MINIMALIST APPROACH (call it methodology or design philosophy) that is now an integral part of ISO 82079 (2019) – art. 5.3.3


Writing for a chatbot?

With new delivery channels spreading like mushrooms (VR, IoT, Information 4.0, Chatbots, etc.), information developers are struggling to provide less bla-bla and more concise, user-focused content. That’s what they call (erroneously) minimalist writing.

The path to Information 4.0

In his webinar « The path to Information 4.0« , the author speaks about « molecular content » that is « Simple in style (minimalist)« . You can apply a minimalist style in fashion or interior design, but you definitely can’t reduce the minimalism design philosophy to using less content or applying a simple style.

 

 

Make it brief?

Within its online courses, STC, the US-based professional society offers a « Minimalist writing » course with this definition:

Brevity vs Minimalism

« [minimalism] is the conjunction between clarity and brevity. »

Typically on the wrong track… Brevity is the first misconception  (« 10 misconceptions about Minimalism« ) explained by John M. Carroll and Hans van der Meij in « Minimalism means brevity« …

« it is typical to see mere brevity taken as the central thrust of minimalism, …simplifying in this way makes minimalism easier for commentators to explain and discuss. Nevertheless, it also yields a view of minimalism that is a caricature. »

Make it plain!

When writing short sentences, using active voice, selecting simple, easily understandable words, the information developer is not practising « minimalist writing », but applying the PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING rules.

 

 

 

Some examples of  Plain English rules include:

    • Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15 to 20 words
    • Use words your readers are likely to understand
    • Use only as many words as you really need
    • Prefer the active voice unless there is a good reason for using the passive
    • Use the clearest, crisper, liveliest verb to express your thoughts
    • Use vertical lists to break up complicated text
    • Cut verbiage

Therefore information developers writing for chatbots are not applying « minimalist writing », but trying to follow the Plain English guide.

Remember, « So what is plain English? It is a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise. »

with the main objective to help the reader understand quickly and without ambiguity the content.

Indeed, the Plain English Guide (Oxford Press – 1995 edition) stresses: « Research shows that documents carefully crafted in plain English can improve readers’ comprehension ».

Summarizing:

  • In technical documentation, minimalism is a design philosophy that is based on 4 principles:
    • Choose an action-oriented approach
    • Anchor the tool in the task domain
    • Support error recognition and recovery
    • Support reading to do, study and locate
  • Mastering your writing (concise style, short sentences, active voice, etc.) means applying the PLAIN LANGUAGE rules currently advocated by Deborah Bosley.

When launching a documentation project, the professional information developer will first ask « WHICH CHARACTERISTICS » should my content have and will go for a minimalism (user-oriented) approach.

In a second step, he will ask « HOW TO » write my content and will follow the PLAIN ENGLISH rules to optimize the user’s comprehension of the message.

Conclusion:

Minimalism and Plain English are 2 different approaches that you can use independently. Applying the PLAIN ENGLISH rules will definitely help reuse your content in a chatbot. They will also help  you in getting a minimalism-based message accross,  but for the content, there is still the need to implement the minimalism design philosophy.

For additional info on plain language, check:

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Établissement de formation à la documentation technique

Formatrice : Marie-Louise Flacke

Graduate of the American
University of Paris
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