Online Technical Writing--Extended Definition




An important writing tool you'll need, particularly if you are writing for nonspecialists, is definition--or more specifically, extended definition. An extended definition is a one or more paragraphs that attempt to explain a complex term. Some terms may be so important in your report, there may be so much confusion about them, or they may be so difficult to understand that an extended discussion is vital for the success of your report.

Note: See the complete example of an extended definition.

When you write reports, you may often discover that you need to explain certain basics before you can discuss the main subject matter. For example, in a report on new treatments for sickle cell anemia, you'd need a section defining the disease. In a report on the benefits of drip irrigation, you'd need to write an extended definition of drip irrigation, explaining how it works and what equipment is used. In a report showing small businesses how to weather economic recessions, an extended definition of the term economic recession would be needed first. In instructions on overhauling an automobile transmission, you might need to define torque.

Note: Students enrolled in Online Technical Writing are encouraged to take the optional reading quiz on this chapter. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)

Writing Formal Sentence Definitions

One of the first things to do when you write an extended definition is to compose the formal sentence definition of the term you are writing about. Place it toward the beginning of the extended definition. It establishes the focus for the rest of the discussion. It is "formal" because it uses a certain form. Here are several examples:

Figure G-15. Formal sentence definitions: their components are the term being defined, the class it belongs to, and its distinguishing characteristics.

Take particular care when you write the reference to the class to which the term belongs; it sets up a larger frame of reference or context. It gives readers something familiar to associate the term with. The term may belong to a class of tools, diseases, geological processes, electronic components; it may be a term from the field of medicine, computer science, agriculture, reprographics, or finance. Avoid vague references to the class the term belongs to: for example, instead of calling a concussion an "injury" or botulism a "medical problem," call them something more specific like "a serious head injury" and "a severe form of food poisoning," respectively.

Similarly, provide plenty of specific detail in the characteristics component of the formal sentence definition. Readers need these details to begin forming their own understanding the term you are defining.

Be aware, however, that your formal sentence definition will likely contain additional potentially unfamiliar terms. Somewhere in your extended definition, you'll need to explain them as well, possibly by using short definitions (explained later in this section).

Figure G-16. A formal sentence definition used in an extended definition

Choosing the Sources of Definition

When you write an extended definition, you literally grab at any of the writing resources or tools that will help you explain the term to your readers. This means considering all of the various sources of information that can help define the term adequately (for example, description, process narration, causal discussion, and classification).

Notice how many different kinds of writing are indicated by the outline of an extended definition shown in Figure G-18.

The key to writing a good extended definition is to choose the sources of definition to help readers understand the term being defined. Use the checklist to select the kinds of discussion to include in your extended definitions.

Checklist of Sources for Extended Definitions

Adding Short Definitions

As mentioned earlier, you'll find that in writing an extended definition, you must define other terms as well. Typically, short definitions--a sentence, clause, or phrase in length--will suffice. Notice how many are added to the "after" version in Figure G-19.

Figure G-17. Extended definition. Typically, extended definitions start with a formal sentence definition then move on to supplementary information.

Figure G-18. Outline of a report with a section of extended definition. This view shows how different types of information structure must be used to write an extended definition.

Figure G-19. Extended definitions often need additional definitions. These can be short, phrase-length definitions.

This process of supplying short definitions "on the fly" is critical in good technical writing for nonspecialists. Notice how many quick definitions occur just in the first two sentences of Figure G-19. "Maculopapular" is defined in parentheses as "(raised red)." "Endemicity" is defined by restating the idea in other words: "that is, people throughout the world are capable of contracting measles." And "infective particle" is quickly defined by providing an alternative: "or organism causing the illness." Obviously, the passage is almost tripled in length--but that's the price for thorough explanation and clarity.

Format for Extended Definition

Extended definitions don't call out for any special format; just use headings, lists, notices, and graphics as you would in any other technical document:

Figure G-20. Schematic view of an extended definition. Remember that this is just a typical or common model for the contents and organization-many others are possible.


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