Parallel Structure in Technical Writing

Parallel structure, also called parallelism or parallel construction, is something you are likely to remember from school. Parallel structure in writing means that sentences or elements within sentences have a similar grammar pattern.

Such repetition serves several purposes. In literature, it is often a means to draw a reader’s attention to a particular situation, certain ideas. That’s a pretty common and straightforward literary device.

While it is clear that technical text is not supposed to include most of the literary devices like metaphors, allusions, satire, or symbolism since they bring vagueness and open the text to interpretation which is unacceptable in user manuals, parallel constructions are an exception.

Parallel Structure in Technical Documentation

Why should you bother using parallelism in your user manuals There are several reasons. The most high-level one is parallel structure is known to increase understanding of a text. The fact that this point is so general doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. There’s simply no silver bullet for achieving clarity. So, technical writers usually try applying multiple approaches at once to create more clear texts.

What’s more, parallelism is something that is expected in a help topic. Imagine an instruction that reads:

To create a new project, do the following:

  • Open the app
  • Navigating to the main menu
  • Clicking the ‘Create a new project’ button

The rhythm is disrupted. Reading such instructions would make a lot of people cringe — there’s something wrong here. This text feels unedited and rushed. Or, could it be that its author is not so good with grammar? You don’t want anyone to assume that reading your technical documentation. Here, let’s fix this instruction.

To create a new project, do the following:

  • Open the app
  • Navigate to the main menu
  • Click the ‘Create a new project’ button

That’s better!

Quick advice: don’t waste too much time trying to make a pattern the same for all elements when there’s too much resistance. For example, you want to make a construction with verbs in their infinitive form, but some sentences are hard to reconstruct. Try turning things around and using another pattern instead, with nouns or adverbials.

If this doesn’t work too well either, change the introductory sentence. This is kind of a rule you are setting for your parallel structure, so changing the intro will directly influence the list.

Conclusion

Parallelism adds balance to your writing. Surely, it doesn’t mean that you should overuse this approach and go through your content trying to make everything parallel.

What we hope you do is pay attention to lists and instructions that you are about to create or edit and check if you can transform them into parallel constructions without sounding unnatural.

By the way, this whole thing with using parallelism is one more point that brings technical writing and literature closer together — consider this a small addition to the article we’ve posted recently on whether technical writers should be regarded as real authors.

Anyway, let’s draw a line here for now by stating that using parallel structure is a great way to provide readers with clearer and easier-to-understand instructions, and it will no doubt bring value to the help topics you are creating.

Good luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

Source: https://medium.com/level-up-web/parallel-structure-in-technical-writing-ab30888a83db

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ClickHelp – Professional Online Technical Writing Tool. Check it out: https://clickhelp.com/online-documentation-tool/