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Technical Writing: Subtracting to Improve Text

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Subtracting to Improve Text

Broad Empirical Pattern

Whenever people seek to improve something--a policy, a draft, a device--
they search for possible changes to deploy.  An unusual interdisciplinary
team--a psychologist, two public-policy experts, and an engineer, all
at the University of Virginia--recently completed a multi-year study of
how such improvement searches unfold (Gabriella Adams, B. Converse,
A. Hales, L. Klotz, "People systematically overlook subtractive 
changes," Nature, 592:258-261, April 8, 2021). 

They found that across diverse cases "people systematically default
to searching for additive transformations [adding more text, more 
features, more items, more rules] and consequently overlook
subtractive transformations" even if those work better or cost less
(p. 258).  This additive/subtractive difference preference was often
    *revising an itinerary (only 28% subtractive changes),
    *simplifying a geometric layout (only 20% subtractive),
    *"improvement ideas for an incoming college president"
        (only 11% subtractive).

One of the many cases of this additive/subtractive asymmetry studied 
involved improving a recipe (which is a kind of technical document).
People always tried to improve the recipe by adding more ingredients
(bacon, tomatoes, olives) rather than subtracting ingredients,
unless the subjects were "reminded" to consider subtraction (by
using words like "hone" instead of "improve") or if some of the
ingredients were highly atypical (chocolate, spinach, banana).

Relevance to Writing

This additive/subtractive asymmetry often arises in technical writing
when students consider ways to revise a draft--a prototype description
or set of instructions.  Primed by those school exercises in which 
they were asked to "write 500 words on your summer vacation" or pad
out a five-paragraph essay framework on some assigned topic, most
student writers overlook textual subtraction (editing, trimming,
concisely repackaging) as a path to quality improvement.

In practice activities during professional development workshops at
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, K-12 science teachers revise
a short story about making cranberry sauce into an itemized list of
overt sauce-making steps.  The new version is formatted not as a
paragraph but instead as most published recipes are.  One surprising
(to attendees) side effect of this revision is that the improved
version is not only more clear and less error-prone to use, but
it invariably contains 25% to 50% fewer words.  Improvement involved
"subtraction," yielding a still-complete but much more concise nonfiction

STEM Text Application

Since additive improvement is such a dominant default psychological
trend, student writers will rely on you for prompts to consider
trimming, focusing, and condensing their draft STEM documents.
Filling out a textual framework to a specified size (5 paragraphs)
or length (500 words) is really an artificial, flawed goal--additive
improvement run amok.   It ignores the reason that most STEM text
exists at all: meeting audience needs.  

Readers certainly deserve sufficient details and comparisons to
facilitate their tasks and goals (whether they are performing a
procedure or analyzing a problem).  But extra "additive" text just
gets in the way, slowing access to key points and confusing key
claims.  In severe cases, real-life readers will abandon a too-wordy
text (a journal article, for example) before it meets their needs,
in favor of more concise alternatives that they could read more
quickly and actually apply instead. 

The cross-disciplinary Virginia team concluded their Nature study
with a warning about the consequences of carelessly overlooking the
benefits of subtractive improvement: "...[writers] may be missing
opportunities to make their lives more fulfilling, their institutions
more effective, and the planet more livable" (p. 261).  When STEM
text is involved, verbosity and usability are not friends.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See 
For a closer look at how to help your students adapt their
text to audience needs, see ]

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