A Pot Roast in Plain Language: Dinner Is Served

In my last two posts I offered a challenge to rewrite a recipe using some plain language techniques, and then I posted my version of the revised recipe. If you’ve paid attention, you’ve noticed that the second version is longer than the first–by over 100 words! So how could rewriting something using plain language make it longer? Isn’t plain language supposed to make something shorter? What gives?

When Longer Is Better

Writers who want to condense what they want to say often use the telegraphic style or load several steps on to one line of text. Our recipe did both. For the intended audience of a cookbook, experienced cooks, this shorthand presents no problem. But for new cooks, like I was only a few years ago, working through recipes like this is exhausting: We often have to re-read steps and double-back to check the list of ingredients as we work.

But using plain language sometimes lengthens a procedure. That’s not a bad thing–as long as  we’re realistic about the level of detail we use.

Realistic Compromises

What do I mean by “realistic”? Let me explain by citing a few steps from a procedure I found in a software user guide.

  1. In the page that opens, type the applicant’s first name in the First Name field.
  2. Press tab to move to the next field.
  3. In the Last Name field, type the applicant’s last name.
  4. Press tab to move to the next field.
  5. In the Street Address field, type the applicant’s street address.
  6. Press tab to move to the next field.

You get the idea. We could debate whether the writer should name each field in each step. (“Type the applicant’s first name in the First Name field.”) But I think–I hope–we can agree that including a step that reads, “Press tab to move to the next field” is tedious and unnecessary when writing procedures.

Dinner Is Served

With realism in mind, I’ve decided that my revised version of the pot roast recipe is too literal. I wanted to bring the embedded and hidden steps forward, and I’ve done that. Now I’ll revise the recipe again–this time to remove words that the reader won’t miss.

Here’s the final version. I’ve used orange text to show what I’ve added or changed and strike-through formatting to show what I’ve cut.

  1. Slice the onions.
  2. Place the meat in the slow cooker and top it with the onions.
  3. Place the onions on top of the meat.
  4. Combine the brown sugar, the soy sauce, and the vinegar in a small bowl.
  5. Pour the mixture over the beef.
  6. Chop the garlic, and grate the ginger.
  7. Add the bay leaves, the garlic, and the ginger to the slow cooker.
  8. Cover the slow cooker, and set it to cook the dish on High for 6-7 hours.
  9. After 6-7 hoursNext, julienne the carrots, slice the mushrooms, and defrost and drain the spinach, if needed.
  10. Spread the carrots, the mushrooms, and the spinach over the beef.
  11. Cover the slow cooker, and let the slow cooker continue to cook the dish on High for 20 minutes.
  12. After 20 minutes Next, remove 1/2 cup of the broth from the slow cooker.
  13. Mix the cornstarch with the broth, and return the mixture to the slow cooker.
  14. Cover the slow cookerand let it continue to cook the dish for 10 minutes more.

These are the compromises I made in this last version. Notice that none of these compromises makes the instructions less clear.

  • I removed the word “the” when I thought it was unnecessary–even though that means using telegraphic style sometimes.
  • I combined the steps that a cook would do almost at the same time, such as placing the meat in the slow cooker and adding the onions on top.
  • I combined other steps that use similar tasks, such as preparing ingredients for the dish, as in step 9.
  • I replaced some words with a shorter word or phrase, as in step 14: “….and cook the dish for 10 minutes more.”

At 163 words, my final version is about the same length as the second one, and it’s just as clear. This version, though, cuts away the fat of the second version while leaving all of the flavor.

Seconds, anyone?

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