Minimalist Writing for Maximum Communication – 2 Mar 2017 [Meeting]

The information age is also the age of the short attention span. We typically write for people who must spend much of each day reading. Many readers would prefer a pill that puts the information in their brain. We can’t give them that—but we can strive to give them the prose equivalent of a pill, rather than the prose equivalent of a meatloaf.

This talk outlines the basics of minimalist writing. Technical writers will find most of the concepts familiar—active voice, short sentences, etc. Minimalist writing stresses these concepts even more than general technical writing. Understanding and practicing minimalist writing benefits any kind of communication, including marketing.

About Our Speaker

BruceP1Bruce Poropat has worked on content projects for Bank of the West, William-Sonoma, Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo, PG&E, University of California, Safeway, Gap, and many other organizations. He worked on plain language conversion for Caltrans and the Port of Oakland—converting dense legalese into normal language.

He lived the first part of his childhood in Haiti, and moved to California at age 11. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife, who is a scientist for a biomedical company. Bruce plays guitar, and he, his wife, and two children all play with the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers.

Meeting Logistics

Date: Thursday, 2 March, 2017.

Meeting Recap

by Liz Miller

Bruce Poropat is a practitioner and advocate for converting dense legalese into language that people can understand the first time they read it. In technical writing, the minimalist approach is reminiscent of Plain Language (see the federal government’s definition).

To the minimalist, it is the content’s message that is the priority, not the prose. In Bruce’s presentation on March 2, he first shared examples of minimalism in representational art, music and poetry, including a renowned example of minimalist fiction writing: “For sale: baby shoes never worn.”

In the remainder of his presentation, Bruce made more than a few great points that stimulated lively interactions around the dinner table. Below are a few memorable moments:

  • One slide featured a photograph of a shiny brown textured roll that somebody actually recognized as a deep fried Hostess Twinkie! This is how Bruce illustrates “word fat.” He demonstrated through audience participation and incremental slide animations how easy it can be to trim an overly wordy sentence to its message essence.
  • Technical writers are familiar with the concept — if not Bruce’s term — “word soup,” the verbose fluff and phrases that we would replace with one succinct word. Bruce shared a before-and-after list that included “manner in which” (way) and “demonstrated the presence of” (verified or showed). What does “engaging in agriculture” mean? Farming of course!

Even single words can hint at minimalism issues within content. Bruce is always on the alert for forms of to be (is, are, was, were, be, being, been), which are indicators of passive writing. Words in future tense (will or would) have no place when documenting a system’s present condition or capability.

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