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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