Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Avoiding redundancy (1)

Another way to achieve clear writing is to make an effort to avoid redundancy. Diligently search out every redundancy and every phrase that appears to be a redundancy.

For example, the web site of Duck Creek Technologies included (see update below) this paragraph:

“Our EXAMPLE Author® product lets users work together collaboratively in an intuitive, graphical environment, to create and store product definitions in intelligent XML documents called ManuScripts™. This tool enables users to visually edit the data elements (rules, algorithms, tables, screens, and documentation) of a product. Author is built with the non-programmer in mind, so it’s easy to use.” (Boldface added.)

Let us imagine an intelligent person reading this paragraph. When he reads the first sentence, he encounters “work together collaboratively” and wonders, “As opposed to what? What other way would people work together? Is this a redundancy? Or is the writer trying to convey some other meaning here? If so, what could that meaning be?”

Finally, the reader gives up and concludes that it is indeed a redundancy. He moves to the second sentence, where he comes across “to visually edit.” The reader thinks, “The word ‘visually’ means using the sense of sight. Is the writer suggesting that other companies’ editing tools rely not on sight but on sound, smell, taste or touch? Or is this just a redundancy, analogous to ‘to physically walk’ or ‘to mentally think’?”

Then the reader’s eye glances back to the first sentence, where he spots a clue left by the writer: “graphical.” The reader thinks, “Ahh. The company’s editing tool is a graphical editor, and the writer is confusing visually with graphically. Therefore, ‘to visually edit’ is not a redundancy; it’s just an incorrect usage.”

And so the reader finishes reading the paragraph, which is only 58 words long but has taken him as much time to read as five or ten clear paragraphs. At this moment, how does he feel about Duck Creek Technologies? Probably disrespected and irritated, because one of the company’s writers wasted the reader’s time in order to save his own.

A redundancy (or an apparent redundancy) is an especially damaging type of error. It’s much more damaging than a “dumb” typo. For example, what if the Duck Creek Technologies writer had used “defunitions” and “algerithms” in that paragraph? Our hypothetical reader might have spent a split-second chuckling at each of the two typos. Maybe he would have mentally assigned a couple of demerits for sloppiness. But he would not have felt disrespected and irritated.

The Takeaway: Respect your readers. As you edit your drafts, try to detect every redundancy and every phrase that appears to be a redundancy. Unfortunately, this is not always one of the easier fixes. If you tend not to notice redundancies, the only cure is to become more sensitive to word definitions. You have to develop a visceral sense of the wrongness of “crisis situation” and “first introduction” – to mention only two of the more popular redundancies. You must also avoid relying solely on self-editing. Often, a second person can instantly spot a redundancy that is almost invisible to the author.

Update, Wednesday, March 11, 2009: Duck Creek Technologies substantially rewrote the product information on its site; in the process, it eliminated the two redundancies discussed here. We applaud the corrections.

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