Don’t bury the lede in technical docs

I’ve noticed that programmers really like to bury the lede. An easy way to make technical writing stronger is to figure out the main point, and then just say it (before anything else). All the supporting information can come after. Why does this strengthen the piece?

Readers will find it easier to read. Readers won’t have to store all your supporting evidence in a mental queue while waiting for a point to be made. Instead, they’ll read the main point, then check supporting evidence against that claim piece by piece (only holding one piece of evidence in mind at a time).

The piece will sound more authoritative. This falls somewhat naturally out of the new structure—it’s a lot harder to use weasel words to water down your main claims when they come first.

Skimming the piece will be more effective. Skimming becomes ineffective if the topic sentence is buried somewhere in a paragraph, because skimmers will skip it.

A suggestion: go so far as to write the claims into section headers. Sometimes, this is just a technique I use while drafting, and I’ll change the section headers before publishing. But sometimes I’ll actually keep those headings in the finished product. It’s nice because headings have to be short: short headings imply short, focused claims, which are strong claims. This doc isn’t long enough for section headers, but I still did this for the title itself.I learned this technique from one of my college professor’s “Tips for Giving Clear Talks” presentation. It’s worth a read, as a lot of the tips work for long-form writing as well as presentations. (I have a local recording of the talk I can share if you’d like more than just the slides.)

Another suggestion: before publishing, try bolding the topic sentence in each paragraph. First, it’ll expose whether a paragraph’s main point is buried at the bottom. But also, it’ll expose whether your topic sentence is a succinct: if a paragraph’s main point isn’t succinct, there will be bold all over the place and maybe even bold in multiple places. Like with the previous tip, sometimes I’ll keep and sometimes I’ll drop these bolded claims before publishing (as you can see above).

Burying the lede manifests most frequently by programmers putting the “Why” before the “What.” I have various theories why this is, but I think it’s mostly because programmers feel like logical proofs need to flow from assumptions to conclusions—that by introducing the claim first and supporting it second, they’re not being rigorous. Another theory: people think that they need to make their writing more entertaining by making it “suspenseful.” Suspense rarely improves technical writing, where the focus is on conveying facts quickly.

Here’s two common examples of putting why before what, and how inverting things makes the writing stronger:

Don’t bury the lede. Instead, start by saying what you want to say, and then follow up by supporting it. Your piece will sound stronger and be more effective, and your readers will thank you.