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Is there a word or phrase to describe technical writing that is quick to read?

Some technical writing is so clear and concise, even a novice at the material will find himself flying through it. For lack of a better word let's call this "good".

Some technical writing is slow to read, not only because the subject matter, but also by virtue of the way the writer chooses to express himself, and by virtue of the very words he uses.

I guess you might call it "clunky", but I want a better word than that. I want to call it "sludgy" writing because you tend to get stuck in it, and can end up in a loop, reading the same words over and over. For example:

We shall distinguish between two perspectives on rotations in the plane, and shall determine the effect which each has on coordinates of points in the plane. The first is rotation of the coordinate frame with respect to fixed points (vectors) in the plane; the second is rotation of points (vectors) with respect to a fixed coordinate frame.

It's not so much that this writing is hard to understand — an expert in the field will read through it and understand it on the first take. But, the following puts the same information in a format that is faster to read for the expert, and easier to understand for the first-time reader:

There are two different types of planar rotation that we shall now discuss.

  1. A rotation of the actual coordinate frame with respect to fixed points in the plane.
  2. A rotation of the points with respect to a fixed coordinate frame.

There has to be a word for writing that "reads fast because it's very clear, has no gimmicks, and isn't unnecessarily flowery".

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Such material, although in fiction more often than technical writing, can be called 'a quick read'. –  Peter Shor Oct 12 '11 at 3:02
    
non-PayPalish? –  TRiG Oct 15 '13 at 1:32

11 Answers 11

The tech writers I know use "clear" and "accessible" as opposites for "dense". Sometimes clear writing is also concise, but not necessarily -- e.g. tutorials are usually more chatty than they need to be (but they're still acessible to the reader).

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You could describe it as terse.

the writing is terse because it's very clear, has no gimmicks, and isn't unnecessarily flowery

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+1 for terse. It fits the definition best in my opinion. –  Marcin Dec 22 '10 at 21:58

Digestible? It's more focused on the comprehension aspect than the speed aspect, so you might need to modify it with something like 'easily' or 'readily'.

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I think Joost has nailed it. A dense explanation might contain the fewest words, but require more time to "unpack" than something less dense but written to emphasize clarity and understanding. –  John Satta Dec 21 '10 at 21:56

For things that take a fair amount of energy to read through (not a reflection on quality, just energy required), I tend to use the term "dense."

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I have heard the word "readable" used in this sense, easy to read. While it may be lacking elegance, it does itself possess the quality it signifies, i.e. the word "readable" is very readable.

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+1 This is the most colloquially appropriate description for this phenomenon. eg "This textbook is surprisingly readable" means exactly what the OP is going for. –  quixoto May 15 at 2:46

I've heard people say a written piece "scans," which I take to mean "is easily scanned" or easy to get the meaning of by skimming instead of deep reading.

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I wonder if there is a universal ideal that can be encapsulated in a single phrase.

Look at the other answers and comments. Some desire brevity, some clarity, some density.

Searching for a word or phrase that means "reads fast because it's very clear, has no gimmicks, and isn't unnecessarily flowery" will lead us to subjective judgments.

Perhaps the best we can do is to say something is "well written".

But let's also remember that presentation of the text also affects comprehension. The choice of font, layout and punctuation has a big impact. In the original question, the second example transforms the text from a dense two-sentence four-clause paragraph into three sentences with two set out as an enumerated list. The result has more whitespace and is easier on the eye, making it easier to read.

Two people can read the exact same paragraph aloud in completely different ways. A gifted orator can make a shopping list compelling while we mere mortals can often bore an audience to tears reading the most gripping speech.

To address this aspect, we may need to amend well-written to be "well-written and well-presented".

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That sounds like what The Plain English Campaign are trying to promote: language that is "clear and concise".

http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/

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I was reading The Vicar of Wakefield the other day, in an edition where, in the dialogue, different speakers didn't start a new paragraph. The effect was quite exhausting, so I would nominate breathless.

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How about concise?

marked by brevity of expression or statement : free from all elaboration and superfluous detail <a concise report> <a concise definition>

Or succinct?

marked by compact precise expression without wasted words <a succinct description>

(Or, as Wiktionary defines it, "brief and to the point; having characteristics of both brevity and clarity".)

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Both of these tend to imply that the subject matter is as short as it could be to still bring across the relevant point. That's often the case (and should be) for someone who wants their material to be 'read fast', but there's cases where you want to be more elaborate and still have your content easily absorbed. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 21:44
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Both concise and succinct are laudable, however, I find that when taken to an extreme, such prose can turn dense which may be quick to read, but hard to digest –  John Satta Dec 21 '10 at 21:49
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@John: arguably, OP's "read fast" suffers from a similar problem. (I'll often read through something at a blazing speed only to find out two minutes later that I've forgotten every single word. A text that's hard to digest will make me think more about what the author is trying to say, thus making me remember it better.) That is not to say that my answer is the best — or any good, for that matter. As is always the case with questions of this type, I'll just throw an answer at the wall and see if it sticks. My job here is done, the ultimate decision is up to the community. –  RegDwigнt Dec 21 '10 at 22:48
    
@Joost, An elaborate point can still be made succinctly. –  Jeff Dec 22 '10 at 19:46
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I wish I could vote this up a second time now that the question asks specifically for a word that means "reads fast because it's very clear, has no gimmicks, and isn't unnecessarily flowery" ... Concise and succinct fit this to a tee. –  Jeff Dec 22 '10 at 19:48

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