Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 16

Step 3 to More Informative Paragraphs -- Take it Easy Through Technically Dense Passages

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In this Lesson:

Most of us see an example of mind-numbing technical density every day. It's the weather part of the TV news. The format is so familiar that we accept it without challenge. Most weather shows have just two or three minutes to present an incredible amount of information tailored simultaneously to hundreds of different local regions.

The best they can do under such constraints is to present charts and diagrams designed to let each viewer pick out the information that applies to his locality. Unfortunately, these maps are cluttered with numbers and weather symbols that most people don't need or even understand. Instead of extracting the desired information, what most people do is go into a trance. When they wake up, they find themselves asking "What did he say about tomorrow's weather?"

Much scientific and technical writing has the same numbing effect. The more technical terms there are in a passage, the more difficult it is to hold your reader's interest and the harder it is to understand. Most scientific and technical writing packs technical detail so densely that even the most interested and informed reader finds it difficult to follow without rereading.

But how can you eliminate or soften the impact of all the specialized jargon that seems so essential in technical papers, without burdening your readers with prolonged explanations and definitions?

Two relatively easy ways you will practice here are to break up and expand technical terms to decrease their density and to eliminate as many technical terms as possible by replacing them with everyday equivalents.


BREAK UP AND EXPAND TECHNICAL TERMS

You've already found out how to break up and expand technical terms by inserting explanations and orienting material. Go back to the example about the EC-153 aircraft in Lesson 14. Notice how the orienting material that was added to the second version spaces out the technical terms and makes them easier to digest than they were in the first version.

Here's a passage that is so littered with technical jargon that you probably won't understand it unless you're a specialist. Most minds just "blow a fuse" from the overload:

A complete asymptotic analysis is carried out for the flow field produced by the instantaneous release of energy, at a point on the ground, in an isothermal atmosphere. A double-integral expression for the flow is constructed from the Laplace-Hankel transforms of the linearized equations. An asymptotic approximation to the integral is obtained by two successive applications of the method of stationary phase.

What he said was that he modeled the waves from an explosion in the atmosphere using a mathematical approximation to the equations governing the air's motions. The remaining specific details would be interesting to mathematicians, but even they might have to read it twice.

Even if none of the technical terms was changed, however, the passage can be made more digestible just by breaking it up into shorter, active sentences and inserting some plain-English words. For example:

Using a complete asymptotic analysis, I computed the flow field produced in an isothermal atmosphere by the instantaneous release of energy occurring at a point on the ground. Beginning with the linearized equations of motion, I first applied the Laplace-Hankel transforms to obtain a double-integral expressing the flow field. Then I twice used the method of stationary phase to obtain an asymptotic solution.

This may not be the exact meaning the author intended, but this reconstruction using the words he gave us certainly seems less frightening. Why? Go back over the paragraph and underline the phrases that have been added to the first version.

The way the author wrote the first passage above assumed that his audience knew in advance what he was talking about. How often do you write as though you assumed your reader already understood what you have to say?


HOW TO HANDLE MATHEMATICAL FORMULAS

A particular kind of technical density that can be especially intimidating is an unbroken chain of mathematical formulas. Because they are taught that mathematics is the language of science, many scientists and engineers believe that technical ideas are best (if not most impressively) communicated in the rigor of mathematical formulas.

To be sure, both technical terms and mathematical symbols are linguistic shortcuts whose meanings we agree upon so we can communicate without getting bogged down in the language. But when you lay out page after page of solid mathematics, no matter how profound, you end up with technical density of the most impenetrable kind.

How often have you seen pages full of mathematical symbols with nothing tying them together but phrases like:

  • it is obvious that
  • it can be shown that similarly
  • thus
  • it follows that
  • after considerable manipulation
  • define
  • suppose that
  • combining equations (3), (10) and (29), we obtain

If you write with a lot of mathematical formulas, try to put in at least an equal weight of English words to balance out the math. The best words to insert between formulas are explanations introduced by phrases like:

  • in other words
  • what this means is
  • for example
  • that is

Often you face a decision about whether to state an idea or concept in English or in mathematical terms. If you feel more comfortable with mathematical symbols, you might be tempted to use mathematics where English would be easier to follow, and vice-versa. Many technical writers imagine that they're making a point more clearly and precisely by translating it into mathematical symbols. This seldom happens. Imagine instead that you're translating your information into a foreign language. Then ask yourself how many of your readers are actually fluent in that language.

Remember that the original reason for using mathematical formulas was to make things clearer, not more obscure. So the question to ask yourself when you're deciding whether to present an idea in English or in mathematical formulas is: which language is likely to enhance communication with your audience, and which is likely to obscure it?

If you have written a paper or report with a high concentration of mathematical symbols and formulas, take a page from it and answer these questions about each formula on the page:

1. Was it really necessary to express this idea in mathematical symbols, or could you have made your point more clearly using English words?

2. Have you adequately defined all your symbols?

3. Have you clearly explained the significance of this step in the development of your paper?

4. Does this formula contribute to the mainstream logic of your paper, or is is just a detour in a mathematical derivation that could be in an appendix?

5. Try writing a sentence beginning with This means that ... following each formula. Does that help clarify things?

Here is an example of technical writing that expresses complex mathematical concepts in a nonthreatening way. It is from Wind Waves by Blair Kinsman (Prentice-Hall, 1965).

Suppose that h(t) is the surface elevation of the water measured at some fixed point x for all time (t equals minus infinity to plus infinity). It is obvious that a knowledge of h(t) is beyond human compass. Instead -- neglecting the signature of an imperfect instrument -- what we can hope to know is the truncated function h'(t) given by

h'(t) = h(t) for |t| < or = T

and

h'(t) = 0 for |t| > T

The reference time t=0 has been centered on the sample length, which is 2T. This formulation suggests that we consider that, during the period of measurement, the truncated function coincides with the water elevation and that outside the period of measurement it be defined as identically zero. Do not be alarmed. The equation above does not say that there are no waves when you are not observing them. It is really descriptive of your state of knowledge of the waves, which is zero when you're not looking at them and h(t) when you are. The concept here is certainly much less artificial than the one that repeats the record at exactly at intervals 2T, so that a Fourier series analysis can be made. Since T is finite and the waves, h(t), never become infinite, h'(t) can be integrated.

You may not appreciate the beautiful clarity of this passage unless you have a background in Fourier analysis and have stumbled through fog that pervades almost all mathematical writing. Kinsman's book is a fine example of clear yet precise scientific writing in a personal style that informs by involving the reader.


REPLACE TECHNICAL TERMS WITH ORDINARY EQUIVALENTS

You may be surprised to learn that most of the technical terms you use without thinking in your writing are unnecessary. Look at this technical description of a heat-transfer process:

The heat energy transferred between two bodies is proportional to the difference in temperature between the bodies and the thermal conductivity of the material interface between them.

If your background is in engineering or physics, you didn't have any trouble with the passage, because you've been trained to express technical concepts in that stilted style. You may be comfortable with it, and so may other technical people, but what about the uninitiated?

We can say the same thing without so many technical terms:

More heat flows from a hot body toward a colder body if the temperature difference between the two is large and if they are joined by a good conductor of heat.

To be sure, many technical terms are the only way to make precise definitions and distinctions. But many others are just obscure ways to say ordinary things. How many you use depends on the level of technical precision you need to communicate and how familiar your readers are with technical terms. Writing the above passage for engineers, for example, you may need to mention the concept of thermal conductivity explicitly and even add a formula that quantifies the heat transferred. For a lay audience, on the other hand, both would be superfluous.

As a rule, it's a good idea to use no more technical terms than your least educated reader will understand. You can put more technical details for your sophisticated readers in an appendix or as a hypertext link.

In this exercise, find simpler ways to say what these technical sentences are trying to say:

The composition and homogeneity of the strata are of primary importance.

At its maximum ceiling, the aircraft may exceed its operational safety envelope.

The concentration of contaminants was such that the optical properties of the fluid prevented significant light transmission.

Changing the tuning parameters may result in transmitter emissions that exceed FCC standards for frequency stability.

Electron beam convergence can be optimized by adjustment of the grid potential.

The probability of detecting missiles with the new radar has been marginal because of effective enemy countermeasures.

Nutritional intake has been found to be correlated with physiological hardiness.

The bacterial colony exhibited a one-hundred-percent mortality response.


Find an article you have written that deals with technical concepts and circle as many technical terms as you can. Then make a table that lists each technical term, followed by an ordinary, nontechnical word that means the same thing. List some of your substitutions here:

TECHNICAL TERM..... ORDINARY EQUIVALENT



CHAPTER SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

The more technical terms you put into your writing, the harder it will be to understand. Mathematical formulas are especially intimidating. Eliminate as many technical terms as you can by replacing with ordinary equivalents, and space out the rest with explanations and definitions.

Next, you'll learn some ways to arrange your ideas in the most logical order for your reader to digest. They will help you organize your paragraphs as well as your whole documents.


-- End of Lesson 16 --

Beginning of Lesson 16 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 17