How to Do Technical Writing for Plebs and Scholars

Technical writing confounds some people. It sounds so forbidding, so difficult, conjuring images of white coats and pocket protectors pregnant with pens, and leaving most people feeling relieved they dodged the bullet and pursued some field of endeavor unknown to technical writing.

However, according to experts in technical writing, “Writing consumes a substantial portion of the working day for almost all college-educated workers,” [emphasis mine] (Harty).

Since we probably can’t escape it, let us learn not to fear it through familiarity. Technical writing is defined as “a form of technical communication used in a variety of technical and occupational fields, such as computer hardware and software, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics and astronautics, robotics, finance, consumer electronics, and biotechnology” (The Free Dictionary).

Fortunately, although technical writing is done in many fields, good technical writing abides by the same rules as do other types of writing: clarity is everything. Good writing is clear and correct, no matter the medium that conveys it.

Keep a copy of the current year’s style manual at all times.

Courses in technical writing, often referred to as Business, Professional, and Technical Writing, are typically offered at the 200, or sophomore, level at most colleges and universities in the US. Students are usually required to have passed both Composition 101 and 102, also known as freshman composition sections one and two, before they are admitted to a technical writing course.

Students enrolled in technical writing courses may expect to study and produce examples of all of the basic types of business and technical correspondence, including newsletters, emails, memorandum, resumes, persuasive letters, internet and social media publications, instruction manuals, and scientific reports. Additional emphasis will be placed on clarity and correctness in the writing.

Few usage errors will be tolerated since students in these classes have already passed composition sections where lower order errors, such as errors in mechanics, punctuation, and usage are mastered.

A section on ethics in communication is customarily taught in technical writing courses. Some universities offer a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technical writing.

Technical writing as a separate sort of writing started around the time of the Enlightenment when human beings found themselves with complicated theories, observations, and experimental results they wanted to communicate clearly to others so that human progress in technical and scientific studies could be shared and research collaborations formed.

By the early 20th century, following the examples and standards set by academia, technical writing was becoming a field in its own right.  Jobs could be found, either as a technical writing specialist in a firm selling writing projects to clients or as writers in in-house writing departments in businesses.

Technical writing jobs still share much in common with academic writing jobs, most specifically in the rigorous adherence to research methodology and in the facts-only, terse, hard hitting styles often found in both types of writing.

With the advent of the internet, jobs in technical and other types of writing have been steadily increasing across the world. Technical writing jobs increased due to the infinite space in the internet which made room for many more words and opportunities and because our electronics, apps, and software continue to grow increasingly complex necessitating instruction manuals. Now may well be the most opportune and exciting time to pursue a technical writing career.

Technical report writing is the primary, sometimes sole, occupation of technical writers. Other types of writing are done by technical writers, but the technical report is among the longest and most complicated tasks required.

Breaking the task into steps will make the writing go more smoothly. At the outset of the writing, get a template for a report or an old report produced at the organization you will be writing the report for. A template or an old report will contain any specific writing specifications and details that are required by that organization but that may not be included in a generic template.  Read the report and get a general feel for how the organization is writing.  You may also read its website or its handbook, any longish pieces of writing it has produced should give you a grasp of what is expected.

Beyond this reading and any additional directions you are given with the project, you may ask yourself these questions which reflect the basic tenets of good technical writing: who is my audience? what is the most important thing I have to tell the audience? and what is the best way of making sure my audience understands all I have to say? When these three questions are clear in the writer’s mind, the writing process can commence with optimism.

The standard format for a technical report may be divided into ten sections. For a complete description of these sections, click here.

  1. TITLE PAGE
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. TABLE OF CONTENTS
  4. INTRODUCTION
  5. BRIEF STATEMENT OF THE OBJECTIVES OF THE PROJECT
  6. BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SYSTEM MODEL, APPROPRIATE BLOCK DIAGRAMS AND PARAMETERS
  7. DISCUSSION OF RESULTS (all plots, tables, and other pieces of visual dialog included in the report must be discussed in the text)
  8. CONCLUSIONS AND LESSONS LEARNED
  9. REFERENCES
  10. APPENDICES (if needed)

Works Cited

Anderson, Paul V. “”What Survey Research Tells Us about Writing at Work” Goswarmi, ed. Lee Odell and Dixie. Writing in Nonacademic Settings. New York: Guilford, 1985. 30. Print.

Harty, Kevin J. Strategies for Business and Technical Writing. New York: Pearson, 2010. Print.

External Links/Resources

ACES: American Copy Editing Society. Journalists with swagger. ACES was founded in 1996 and holds an annual conference, as well as several regional conferences. Although they were founded to serve newspaper journalists, their mission includes copy editors of all stripes. So if you work at the management level and edit lots of documents, this is an organization for you to consider.

ACS: American Chemistry Society. ACS represents scientists, professors, and students. They offer an online networking forum as well as regional chapters for discussion and collaboration. They have a weekly magazine as well as a research database, with limited free access to members and a range of insurance plans.

AESE: Association of Earth Science Editors. AESE features an online quarterly publication as well as annual conference.

Center for Plain Language. Connects trainers with companies. Frequent events are held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC as well as online.

CSE: Council of Science Editors. Formerly CBE, Council of Biology Editors. Publishes Scientific Style and Format, now in its 8th ed. Opportunities for online engagement are limited, but they hold an annual conference, have an authoritative library, and offer excellent training resources.

ISMTE: International Society of Managing and Technical Editors. ISMTE is devoted to the world of peer review. Their focus on managing an editorial office and producing a journal in a timely, ethical, and professional fashion could provide insight to managers and editors within the government who are working within a chain of command to publish large documents within a regulatory framework.

NAGC: National Association of Government Communicators. Particularly if you write difficult, sensitive correspondence or offer presentations, you should consider joining NAGC. NAGC was specifically founded for external affairs, so anyone who interacts with the public is eligible to join. The organization will also allow you to network with government officials at the state and municipal level so you can improve collaboration with local partners.

NASW: National Association of Science Writers. Formed in 1934, NASW works with the writers who report science to the media. If you want to hone your layperson writing skills and write more frequently for your hometown newspaper or even a national magazine, this is the organization for you.

PCS: Professional Communications Society. PCS is a division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the “I triple E.” The Society helps scientists communicate more clearly through collaboration, best practices, and training. They offer a quarterly journal, training podcasts, and an annual conference.

STC: Society for Technical Communication. Founded to serve a) people who write technical documents, b) people who write instructional manuals about how to use technology, and c) people who use technology to publish their work. Most government writers fall into category (a). Among other publications, the Society produces a journal, a magazine, and a blog. And they offer “seminars, online certificate courses, and webinars” for members, some at a substantially reduced price, others for free.

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  • Writing Styles and Stylish Writing

    by Richard Green

    Writing styles vary wildly across time, place, and context. The phrase “writing style” refers to two entirely different meanings of style. The first, more superficial definition of writing style refers to the actual typeface, or font, used to draw letters, and doesn’t merit discussion here.  The second and more useful definition of writing style is “a style of expressing yourself in writing” and this is the definition of writing styles that concerns us here (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/writing+style). Writing style derives from a combination of elements in the writing and can change and vary according to the writing situation, time of life, or other factors.

    Styles of script

    The foremost authority on style is William Strunk, and the foremost book on style is The Elements of Style, written originally by Strunk and later revised and expanded by E.B. White. Written and self-published in 1919, The Elements of Style is still the accepted standard among style texts. Readers will be pleased to note that it is only 85 pages long.

    The best and last words on style in written English by the foremost accepted experts.

    Writing styles are like the proverbial three bears because there are high, medium, and low styles. Examples of high style, also known as academic writing, may be found in scientific reports, academic journal publications and literary analysis. The vocabulary in high style writing is challenging, the organizational pattern complex, and the topics esoteric.

    High style writing is found mostly in academic and trade publications because the inherent intricacy of high style writing makes it difficult for some readers. Often, the necessity of using jargon delimits the size of the audience in high style writing. However, the very novels you love right now are written using every style.

    Fiction writers may use low style for dialog to portray place, education, or ethnicity in what is otherwise a story told in a high style. Lastly, don’t forget that good writing is altogether a different thing than high style writing, with good writing frequently containing humor and clarity.

    A few elements of style.

    Midway between too much and too little is medium style, which is best exemplified by the writing in government publications and technical directions.  Medium style writing is not required to be complicated nor interesting and in most schema, isn’t even mentioned because it is easier to explain the other two styles and then add that medium style falls somewhere in between high and low.  More accurately, medium style describes good, correct, concise writing that avoids the extremes in vocabulary, length, and topic involvement that characterize high style writing.

    Medium style is the sweet spot for technical, business, and other professional publications writing because it combines the correctness of high style with the greater readability and flow of low style. To read an example of medium style, pick up any government publication.

    Low style writing is lesser writing in readily recognizable ways: correctness, vocabulary, length, topic, and structure. Low style writing is street speech, and when read aloud often has cadence and sound of the speech of the people in the region it comes from.  Regionalism, or sense of place, is a feature of vernacular and gives it a sense of movement and growth.  Low style writing and speech is full of lively innovation in the form of slang and is quick to include new words and new uses for existing words.

    Although sometimes it certainly is bad writing, it can be put to good use creatively. Eventually the best neologisms in low style begin their journey into our lexicon to become part of the mainstream until finally they are indistinguishable from words and phrases with a more pedigreed pompatus.

    Examples of low style are found in the common or colloquial speech, some modern and postmodern novels, and movies.  Low style refers to writing or speaking that isn’t too correct, doesn’t use big words or phrases, has generally superficial topic coverage, unidentifiable or loose structure.  It is anything goes writing and speaking, and although we don’t normally use it in formal writing, it occupies an influential place in language development and self-expression.

     

    More elements of style. The current edition of Associated Press style.

     

    The definition of proper style also varies according to the type of publication. Journalistic publications such as newspapers use both a set of style rules, Associated Press (AP) style and then each newspaper may have its own smaller set of style rules specific only to that publication, and all of these rules are unlike those used by slick magazines such as People or National Geographic.

    Generally, the more frequent the publication the more responsive and changeable are the rules. Most variations in style are small, like the number of spaces after a colon, which many magazines reduced to one from the formerly accepted two spaces. Within academics, each field has its own set of rules: in English and literature, the Modern Language Association (MLA) makes the rules; in psychology, The American Psychological Association (APA) makes the publication rules that all psychologists must conform to in their professional writing.  The list goes on.  Suffice to say that before writing for any purpose, familiarity with the style used in that area is imperative.

    Fortunately, all of the various conventions of style are similar and many, many style guides are available. Obviously, getting the style just right requires reference sources, and trying to wing it without a style guide most probably will lead to pronounced frustration.

     

    The current edition of the MLA Handbook.

     

    The definition of a creative writer’s style is still “a style of expressing yourself in writing”, and is still based largely on the same factors: organizational pattern; vocabulary; topic; and level of correctness.  However, the most distinctive creative writing styles may contain additional features such as speech tag use in dialog, repeating motifs, or mini themes, sub textual elements, and continuity in mood or tone over several works.

    Remember that the mood of a piece of writing is the overall impression it conveys while the tone of a piece is the writer’s reaction of the mood.  Hence, an office may be described as efficient (mood) but perhaps the writer hates efficiency (tone). These features of individual style may cumulatively create what can be identified as the writer’s style.

    When composition students are asked to imitate a writer’s style, most of them can do so even though they may be unaware of these style features.  Thus although style is often subtle and sometimes difficult to explain, it is still easily recognized at some level.  For further thinking, read anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain and then try to write a passage imitating the style in the passage read. That ephemeral something that we find we can imitate is the writer’s style and the writer’s voice is what the writer has to say combined with how the writer expresses it.

     

    A comprehensive handbook that includes MLA, APA, CM, and CSE documentation styles.

     

    Clarity, meaning clearness in thought and style, is the most important part of style.  A poorly written piece is probably also an unclear piece of writing. The causes of unclear style are the features of style run a muck: messy essay and paragraph structure, in other words the writer doesn’t place the ideas in a logical order; incorrect sentence structure, such as faulty pronoun references, changes in tense, lack of transitions such as shifting in and out of tenses until the reader is confused; uncertain or ill-conceived thesis, so that the reader never gets that road map to guide him or her through the essay; inadequate development of the topic so that the essay seems to go everywhere but to a logical conclusion.

    This list of areas should be viewed as opportunities for improvement rather than a shopping list of mistakes.  The point of writing has always been to express ideas, so examples of incorrectness or less than correctness need not be experienced as errors because that perception does nothing to improve a writer’s ability to express ideas clearly whereas seeing these problems as beacons indicating the way to improvement leads directly to amelioration and is the only sensible approach.

     

    Here is the second best style book.

     

    This text includes readings and exercises.

     

    Some closing thoughts on style from great writers.

     

    Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.

     

     

    Matthew Arnold

     

    Style is the physiognomy of the mind.

     

    Arthur Schopenhauer

     

    In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.

     

    Oscar Wilde

     

     

     

    Thanks for reading!

     

     

     

    By Ricardo Verde

     

     

     

    Suggested Reading Resources Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. NY: Macmillan.

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