If you want to become a technical writer, or you are a new technical writer, this article might help. You could crack open a grammar book and feel childish. Or, you can use this grammar reboot. It might provide some needed clarity and help improve your writing.
One acronym that has been key in my technical writing career is “SVO.”
SVO = “Subject Verb Object” is the basic sentence structure for English. It is the only sentence structure you must know as a technical writer.
Syntax, or the structure of sentences, is critical to master when technical writing. Why? Because technical writers explain, inform, or instruct audiences. If the reader stumbles over sentence structure, they’re less likely to understand the message.
It’s important that each sentence we write begins with a subject, followed by a verb, and an object. Exceptions: If we’re using humor or informal language like the interjection: “Great Job!”
Question: Where’s the subject in this sentence?
Click the blue button.
*Answer: See the bottom of the page.
Which Element is Most Important?
I find the most important element is the verb. The verb, in the middle, bridges the subject and object (also called “predicate”). Your choice of verb, its tense, and its position is critical to the success of the sentence. If it’s a poor choice, your entire sentence fails.
Example of the Power of Verbs
Here’s an example of the power of verbs in fiction.
Here’s the first sentence from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. (The Bold is my emphasis.)
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.
It’s a longish sentence for Hemingway in which he’s setting the scene for his reader. Notice how the verbs (in bold) break the sentence up? They’re not bunched together but spread out. It lets the eye scan the scene. Notice also how the verbs become more active? It starts with “was” and ends with “made.” Seems sleepy, but wait… the verbs are suggesting something is coming.
Hemingway is showing in a very simple but powerful way the force of verbs.
P.S.: The short story is only a few pages. James Joyce called it one of the greatest short stories ever written in English. You can read it here: https://www.wlps.org/view/2546.pdf
How Come this Matters to a New Technical Writer?
By focusing on verbs when you write, you can save time when editing. Understanding the power of verbs also helps when editing someone else’s writing. If the writing is overwritten or verbose, you can identify the verbs. The verbs help untangle the phrases and what the writer is trying to say.
Try It Now!
Visit the website of a large commercial enterprise or law firm in a big city. In trying to sound big and important, some firms go a bit too far and engage in gobbledygook. When you find a large, wordy paragraph, scan it and look for the verbs and see if it’s not easier to understand the sentence structure.
*Answer: The subject is “You.” (It’s implied.)