Technical Writing: An Introduction to the Craft of Technical Communication

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Some basic tips for improving lab reports, research papers, and book reports are by understanding them as the technical writing they are.

Most students despise technical writing. The dryness of the language is boring and hard to perfect. Students may get lost in its lack of personal pronouns and feel as if they are drowning in a format of verbs and nouns and they have lost sight of what they were trying to say.

If this sounds familiar it’s because this is a common problem. Technical writing is one of the necessary evils of communication, but a student and college essay writer should enter into the work with a sense of pride more than degradation. Without technical writing, the fullness of technology would not be possible. Technical writing may be dry and boring, but it is very important and can even be as serious as life and death.

The Goals of Technical Writing

No matter the type of writing, whether it is a brochure, a lab or research paper, an owner’s manual, a set of instructions, or even a book report, the purpose is to communicate and explain information to an audience. This might sound obvious and unimportant, but it is very serious. If a set of instructions for a potentially dangerous machine or product does not provide understandable and immediately clear warnings a user or operator could pay with his or her life. Machine operators have lost fingers, hands, arms, and even their lives because a writer failed to provide an adequate warning or explanation of a hazard.

With this in mind, the writer should remember the many goals of technical writing and communication:

  • Be clear
  • Be concise
  • Be accurate

Clarity: Think of this goal as straightforward language. Do not use lofty abstract words to say something. Instead, present it step-by-step and use specific words for procedures or objects. This is related to accuracy. Do not be afraid or too lazy to look something up to achieve this specific language.

Conciseness: Don’t add unnecessary words. Get the message across plainly. Many inexperienced students believe that they can “fudge” a report and make it “sound good” by dropping in large multi-syllable words to enhance a sentence. The truth is the only thing they are doing is extending the sentence and gumming up the paper.

Accurate: As mentioned in the note on clarity, don’t be afraid to look something up. If a procedure for evaporating water in a chemistry experiment has a certain name, use it. Be specific by knowing all of these obscure terms. If the paper is a step-by-step guide, make sure to outline the steps thoroughly. Imagine that the audience has no idea or background on the topic and fill them in accordingly.

The Formatting of Technical Writing

Point of View

The basic structure of most technical writing is that it is done without the first person (I-voice). That means the writer is invisible and removes himself or herself from the paper or project. Also, the second person (your voice) is not usually used. Do not address the audience directly. Technical writing is not true third person as it would be found in a novel or work of creative writing of nonfiction like a memoir. Unless told otherwise by a teacher, assume that the paper will have absolutely no I or you- voice.

Use Verbs and Subjects

Generally, technical papers use verbs in the past tense and subjects to communicate. Here are a few examples from a resume concerning the potential employee’s education:

  • Graduated in 2006
  • Concentrated on Technical Writing
  • Completed a minor in Biology

Technical Writing Checklists

Checklists enable technical writers to verify that their documents comply with standards and are consistent and complete.

Documentation Planning Checklist

Plan before starting a documentation project. What is the project scope? What types of documents are required? In which formats? What is the required deliverable date? Do you have sufficient resources to complete the project? What software and hardware will be required? Who will be the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)? Who will write?

Who will edit? How will the revisions be handled? Where and how will the documentation be stored? How will the documentation be delivered?

Writing Checklist

Once the documentation project plan is in place the next step is writing. The writing checklist should include a content plan as well as writing procedures. How will the content be structured? Which template will be used? Which style guide will be used? Are all Acronyms defined in the document? Was the document checked for grammar and spelling mistakes? Does the document conform to the company writing guidelines?

Review Checklist

Reviews can be performed by the writer or by a peer or by the user or an expert. It can include content, grammar as well as formatting questions. Does the document meet all the project requirements? Is the document flow logical? Are the concepts clearly defined? Do the procedures enable the user to perform the activity without errors? Were there any missing steps? Are there any formatting errors? Does the document follow the company or standard guidelines?

Editing Checklist

The editing checklist can include elements of the review checklist. It can also consist of various levels: content editing, language editing, and format editing. Is any critical information missing? Are all references valid? Does the index contain all the keywords? Are the captions used correctly? Are the cross-references and pagination correct? Are the styles applied consistently?

Publication Checklist

The publication checklist can vary based on the format (hardcopy or softcopy) and delivery mode. Has the required number of copies been printed? Does it conform to all the printing requirements? Are the delivery address and phone number correct? Does the document contain appropriate copyrights and confidentiality statements? Is the document compatible with all the browsers? Does it contain any broken links? Was the document checked for viruses? Does the company logo follow the company guidelines? Does the label follow company label template guidelines?

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