© 2012 by Marv Goldberg

If you don't know the word "sesquipedalian", you should. It derives from the Latin "sesqui", meaning "one and a half". A sesquipedalian tends to use words that are one and a half times longer than necessary (such as the word "sesquipedalian", for instance).

It's a good word. I heartily endorse its use (as well as its theory). Nothing wrong with sprinkling your text with a few "big words". What the heck, you're Tech Writers, aren't you? Show them you're more literate than they are! Two caveats, however: it should be reasonably evident from the context what the word means and it should be a word found in a dictionary that the reader might actually own. Thus, "owling" is a no-no (since no lucid person would ever guess that it means "the crime of smuggling sheep out of England", nor does it appear in most dictionaries).

In order to put customers first, keep your manuals from putting them to sleep. There are no end of verbal tricks you can use to keep readers on their mental toes.

For example, zeugma (ZOOG'ma) means applying a verb's different meanings to a series of nouns. That barely makes sense to me either, so here's an example: Fred took his time, his leave, the 10:15, and my umbrella. Notice that it uses four subtly different meanings of "took". The only thing wrong with zeugma is that I've never seen a single non-humorous instance that was even vaguely interesting. (This will not, however, be a problem for you if you don't feel constrained to use boring examples.)

An acromonogrammatic is a device usually found in poetry: verse where each line begins with the letter the preceding line ended with. Have a go at it by creating whole paragraphs where each sentence begins with the last letter of the prior sentence. Every time you use it, think of the fun our customers will have spotting it (and I'll bet it sails right past the Evil Editing Police).

Since we usually only barely understand what it is we're writing about, at least our deathless prose should be top-notch. Therefore apply amphigory as often as possible. This is a term meaning writing that sounds good, but that lacks sense. (Does that sound familiar? If it does, you've probably read some of my manuals.)

When you can't, for the life of you, figure out what the developers are talking about (which happens occasionally, I'm told), it's time for parisology (deliberate ambiguity). What the heck, there's always the chance that the product was ambiguously programmed.

Here's one I know you're all familiar with (even if not the name): anaphora. This is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several consecutive sentences. You've all seen it; you've all probably done it (I just did!): "You can select.... You can select.... You can also select...." Excessive repetition, in general, is called battology. (By George, isn't it exciting to learn that there are words for all these things?) However, when you repeat a word or phrase at the beginning of several consecutive sentences deliberately, for effect, we're talking epizeuxis.

Here's a nifty one for you to try. See if you can make an entire document (or just a chapter, if you're pressed for time) into a lipogram. That's what you get when you deliberately omit a particular letter. No big deal not to have a "q" or "z" in your doc, but it gets a little more problematic when you work yourself up to "a" or "e". Focus on the fun you'll have. A variant is a univocalic, which only uses one of the vowels throughout the entire document. (You've got my respect if you can write a whole manual using only the vowel "u".) If you want to approach it from the other side, work on pangrams. These are sentences containing all 26 letters.

Another skill you might want to develop (simply to keep awake while writing) is the rhopalic. This is a sentence within which each word is one letter longer than the word before it. Once again, literate customers will appreciate the time and trouble you took (while the Evil Editing Police will just scratch their unwashed heads and wonder if it were done on purpose).

Why do any of these things? Here's the short, simple answer: our manuals are boring! The more you try to have fun with them, the better the chance that you'll actually be conscious when you write them. You can't put customers first if you're out cold. You can't put customers first if you put them to sleep. (Hope you caught the epizeuxis there.)

At this point, I know you're asking yourself "Does anyone really do these things?" Maybe this will answer your question. As we speak, I'm banging on the keyboard randomly, hoping it will magically turn out this article by itself (actually, it works pretty well; that's how I do most of my documentation). At the same time, I'm listening to music on headphones I "liberated" from an airline a number of years ago. On the headset is the following text: "Please do not remove from aircraft. Will not work with home devices." Naturally, since I'm using them with my computer, the warning is a lie to keep people with loftier ethics than I possess from stealing them, but that's not the point. Go back, right now, and say the inscription out loud, slowly. (C'mon, c'mon; the people around you think you're kind of odd anyway. Louder! More feeling!) Now compare its meter with the following, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song Of Hiawatha:

            By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
            By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
            Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
            Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

See? They're both written in the unusual trochaic tetrameter. Fine for a poem, but on headphones? Headphones? A coincidence? Maybe; the universe really is full of coincidences. Then again, maybe not. Could be that someone at the factory (someone with more than average literacy) was bored and needed to do something for fun. I'd like to think so.

Remember, fun translates into a better work attitude and therefore better documentation for our customers.

Unca Marvy's Home Page

More Essays