The most important purpose of any document or piece of writing is to communicate between writer and reader. In more general terms, good writing first conveys a message from sender to receiver.
That means that fewer words are not always better. If the writer needs more words to communicate effectively the intended message, then more words are better. But provided that primary objective is satisfied, better writing usually communicates the same message with fewer words. Short is sweet.
Obviously striking this balance requires some skill, but it’s not some secret magic that only a privileged few can master. Like any other skill, you can learn to produce better writing.
Employ the active voice
Using an active voice has helped me to produce more concise yet effective prose, especially in technical writing. Many scientists and engineers follow the tradition of writing in the passive voice. Passive voice obscures the subject of the sentence, the doer of the action embodied in the predicate which contains the verb. This usage conforms with the desire of the scientific community to communicate results and conclusions independent of the researchers. And since the researchers are often the doers of the action of the sentences in technical writing, passive voice allows technical writers to satisfy that desire.
The downside to passive voice is that it communicates the same essential message with more words. Active voice communicates the same message with fewer words. That’s because the construction needed for passive voice usually requires extra words.
Take a look at the example sentence in the graphic above. This sentence uses the passive voice. While it is grammatically correct and typical of the type of writing common in technical circles, the passive voice adds words. Changing the sentence to active voice improves the sentence considerably.
Make technical writing fascinating to read
Active voice is also typically more enticing to read than passive voice. Thus, writers who employ the active voice can make technical reports, which are typically dry and stale to most readers, both interesting and engaging for readers when writers employ the active voice.
Of course, taking this route sacrifices the common tradition of separating the investigator from the investigation. Active voice gives the doer of the action a prominent place in the sentence. In most cases, however, the trade-off makes good sense.
Sometimes more is less, but only if more words convey the intended message more effectively. Where function is met, compacting the form usually leads to better writing. And better writing always makes a better impression in the minds of readers.