As a teaching fellow in grad school I helped undergrads improve their expository writing. Some were engineers, and I invited them to think about writing and editing prose in the same ways they thought about writing and editing code. Similar rules apply, with different names. Strunk and White say “omit needless words”; coders say “DRY” (don’t repeat yourself.) Writers edit; coders refactor. I encouraged students to think about writing and editing prose not as a creative act (though it is one, as is coding) but rather as a method governed by rules that are straightforward to learn and mechanical to apply.
This week I applied those rules to an internal document that announces new software features. It’s been a long time since I’ve explained the method, and thanks to a prompt from Greg Wilson I’ll give it a try using another tech announcement I picked at random. Here is the original version.
I captured the transformations in a series of steps, and named each step in the version history of a Google Doc.
The rewritten headline applies the following rules.
Lead with key benefits. The release features two: support for diplex-matched antennas and faster workflow. The original headline mentions only the first, I added the second.
Clarify modifiers. A phrase like “diplex matched antennas” is ambiguous. Does “matched” modify “diplex” or “antennas”? The domain is unfamiliar to me, but I suspected it should be “diplex-matched” and a web search confirmed that hunch.
Omit needless words. The idea of faster workflow appears in the original first paragraph as “new efficiencies aimed at streamlining antenna design workflows and shortening design cycles.” That’s a long, complicated, yet vague way of saying “enables designers to work faster.”
The original lead paragraph was now just a verbose recap of the headline. So poof, gone.
The original second paragraph, now the lead, needed a bit of tightening. Rules in play here:
Strengthen verbs. “NOUN is a NOUN that VERBs” weakens the verb. “NOUN, a NOUN, VERBs” makes it stronger.
Clarify modifiers. “matching network analysis” -> “matching-network analysis”. (As I look at it again now, I’d revise to “analysis of matching networks.”)
Break up long, weakly-linked sentences. The original was really two sentences linked weakly by “making it,” so I split them.
Omit needless words. A word that adds nothing, like “applications” here, weakens a sentence.
Strengthen parallelism. If you say “It’s ideal for X and Y” there’s no problem. But when X becomes “complex antenna designs that involve multi-state and multi-port aperture or impedance tuners,” and Y becomes “corporate feed networks with digital phase shifters,” then it helps to make the parallelism explicit: “It’s ideal for X and for Y.”
Omit needless words. “builds on the previous framework with additional” -> “adds”.
Simplify. “capability to connect” -> “ability to connect”.
Show, don’t tell. A phrase like “time-saving options in the schematic editor’s interface” tells us that designers save time but doesn’t show us how. That comes next: “the capability to connect two voltage sources to a single antenna improves workflow efficiency.” The revision cites that as a shortcut.
Activate the sentence. “System and radiation efficiencies … can be effortlessly computed from a single schematic” makes efficiencies the subject and buries the agent (the designer) who computes them. The revision activates that passive construction. Similar rules govern the rewrite of the next paragraph.
When I reread the original fourth paragraph I realized that the release wasn’t only touting faster workflow, but also better collaboration. So I adjusted the headline accordingly.
Show, don’t tell. The original version tells, the new one shows.
Simplify. “streamline user input” -> “saves keystrokes” (which I might further revise to “clicks and keystrokes”).
Here’s the result of these changes.
I haven’t fully explained each step, and because the domain is unfamiliar I’ve likely missed some nuance. But I’m certain that the final version is clearer and more effective. I hope this step-by-step narration helps you see how and why the method works.
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