Peter Hilton - Speaking & training

E-Prime for technical writing

Improving clarity through constrained writing

Descriptions of good technical writing often mention the virtue of ‘clarity’ while, ironically, themselves lacking clarity about what it means or where you get it. This talk introduces E-Prime as a simple constraint that results in clearer, more direct writing.

E-Prime constrains the English language by forbidding all forms of the verb ‘to be’. D David Bourland Jr came up with the idea in 1949 and used E-Prime to improve the quality of his academic writing. Bourland published his first paper recommending E-Prime in 1965. It never caught on.

The first time you try to use E-Prime, you get stuck. You discover the difficulty of constantly searching for an alternative verb, and even worry about what other people might think. Bourland himself wrote, ‘Between 1949 and 1964 I used E-Prime in several papers, but did not discuss this matter lest I become regarded as some kind of nut.’ Despite these setbacks, E-Prime has the capacity to intrigue.

In this talk, Peter Hilton describes how his initial curiosity and getting hooked on the challenge led to rewriting a software user manual in E-Prime and a new perspective on all kinds of writing. He explains what writing E-Prime feels like, what it does, why it works, where it has value, when it just wastes time and when you will sneakily use it anyway.



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