What I am not going to do

  • Show you how to write--you learn by doing

    • Hire an editor, take a class, attend a hands-on seminar

    • Join the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and attend meetings and conferences

    • Take self-paced tutorials

    • Read good writing--if you train your ear you'll know when your writing sounds good

  • Show you how to save time

    It takes longer to write shorter. But you can save a lot of other people a lot of time:
    • Expert reviewers

    • Editors

    • Others who are duplicating your efforts

    • Your users!

What I am going to do

  • Define some of the simplified language movements

  • Explain in seven steps how to trim your documentation

  • Point you to some good sources

  • Pontificate (if I can work it in)

What I hope you'll do

  • Give me your feedback

  • Share any tips

  • Recommend other sources

  • Share stories from the trenches

What minimalist writing is
(And what this presentation isn't)

Minimalist writing is a phrase used by John M. Carroll in his famous book,

The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill

John M. Carroll:

  • Has a PH.D in experimental Psychology from Columbia University

  • Is the head of the Center of Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech

  • Researches how people learn software application skills

Minimalists are fond of the word heuristics:

--A speculative formulation used as a guide in investigation or problem solving.

--Educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries made by the student.

The American Heritage Dictionary

The gist of it:

  • Carroll thinks documentation uses a "systems" approach, that impedes learners

  • The system approach defines the flow of tasks that are taught and drilled

  • The structure is too rigid and can conflict with learning styles, because "many learners do not follow instructions willingly or well"

  • He says the most efficient way to learn tasks is to do them, not read about them

  • Learning a tool is a means to an end, not the end itself


  • Get learners doing real work ASAP

  • Minimize overview--provide only what is needed to learn the task, and maybe put it last

  • Set up an environment for trial-and-error exploratory learning

  • Provide good error recovery information

  • Procedures should be modular, and usable in any order

Other writing isims

There are other approaches to writing documentation that is clear, concise, and user friendly.

Plain English, Plain Language

  • A crusade for clear, concise, and well-organized documentation

  • Especially active in the government sectors

  • Joseph Kimble, a law professor at Thomas Cooley Law School, is a well-known advocate for using plain language in legal documents

  • Read more about it in the STC Technical Communication journal Volume 48, Number 3

Simplified English

The European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA) developed guidelines for writing aircraft maintenance documentation. Features:

  • Simple syntax

  • A limited number of words (lists are provided)

  • A limited number of meanings for the words--usually each word has one meaning

  • A limited number of parts of speech for the words--usually each word has only one part of speech

Controlled Language

  • Designed to make translation faster and more accurate

  • Uses one set of terms for a technology





Fine distillation of information


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