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6 Tips for Technical Writing Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

6 Tips for Technical Writing

Technical writing is often thought of as a way to communicate complex information in a simple, easy-to-understand, no-frills manner. This does not have to be just for scientific journals; technical writing can have many applications, such as policies and instructions. The following is a short list of things to keep in mind when creating technical documents.

1. Write in plain language: Remember you are writing for the user or for a particular audience. Think clear, concise communications aimed at the audience’s level of knowledge, vernacular, and ability. If the vocabulary or context used is not understood, you have already missed the goal of communicating effectively. Know your audience and be concise.

2. Explain things before presenting them: Recently I read, “Water will start to boil at 74˚F…” I immediately questioned the information in the entire article, but it continued on the next page saying, “… in a vacuum.” Word order and formatting can confuse readers or make them question the message. A reader might stop reading, not realizing the next sentence or paragraph would have explained what the previous statement was trying to communicate. Often a writer might say, “Well if they would read the whole thing they would understand.” The problem is if a reader gets confused or it is difficult to read, they might not read the whole document.

3. Avoid first person: In formal technical writing, using first person (I, we, etc.) is discouraged. This might alter depending on application, or if the writing is more informal. Again, the main point is to communicate with your audience.

4. Reduce ambiguous terms: A bit, a while, or longer. Providing specific numbers to how much (e.g., 3 pounds) or how long (5 minutes) will provide clarity to the reader. When specific numbers are difficult or do not matter, try to provide descriptive words, pictures, or graphics to communicate the desired goal. For example, instructions for microwaving popcorn might direct users to cook a bag of popcorn for five minutes. If popping slows to one to two seconds between pops, then stop the microwave. Often times it is good to educate the user why this is important or why they need to be observant. For example, using the popcorn instructions again, microwaves can vary in size and power. This change can alter cooking time. Cooking for the entire five minutes may cause the popcorn to burn. Now the user knows that they should pay attention and why. 

5. Reduce dangling modifiers: When writing, it is possible to confuse a reader when a word or phrase is modified but there is no descriptive verb or a noun to tell the reader what was changed. Example of a dangling modifier –“At times these result without the writer’s knowledge.”  

Simple correction–“At times this mistake results without the writer’s knowledge.” If you assumed “this mistake” meant a dangling modifier, you are correct. However, if the correction “this mistake” were not under the “Reduce dangling modifiers” tip, the reader still might have been lost.

Better communication–“At times, a dangling modifier results without the writer’s knowledge.” Using descriptive verbs and proper nouns while reducing or eliminating pronouns and non-specific terms can help writers from creating dangling modifiers.

6. Do not use slang: Many terms might be well known in a particular industry or geographic region, but the more I traveled as an engineer the more communication breakdowns I noticed. Even within English-speaking areas I found terms change within an industry, or different acronyms represent different objects or processes. For non-English-speaking areas, some terms or jargon do not translate well. This is a reworking of tip No. 1: Write in plain language.

 

This is a short list to reference while considering your technical writing. Everyone can benefit from continuous improvement practices and this is true for writing as well. Like most continuous improvement, it is important not to get frustrated or offended in the face of criticism, but accept and learn from it. Review what you produce, and remember that having others also review the work can help eliminate writing mistakes. For additional guidelines and tips, I recommend the following books: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White; Writing with Power, by Peter Elbow; Writing the Natural Way, by Gabrielle Rico;, and Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.  .

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