A Beginner Guide to Technical Writing

Whether it’s a letter, essay, book, report, review, or even a journal you’re writing, every writer wants to improve on their skills. While writing may take various forms, every type demands a different approach to do it successfully.

Suppose you’re writing a technical document as an engineer. In that case, you rely on a style manual that shapes how you write and design documents. Using style manuals ensures consistency when writing and the document’s formatting, whether for the workplace or academic writing.

Among them, academic journals and academic disciplines adopt their own style manuals. Similarly, the style manuals are used to produce journal articles, desertions, or theses.

Business too has their style-specific style manuals, which contain guidelines on creating and producing business correspondence, technical documents, professional presentations, and visual features like logos and trademarks. This style manual has formatting and punctuating rules. Companies also have their own specific style manuals; among them, templates staff must follow when creating written documents (design reports, status or progress reports, proposals, and many others), presentation slides, and even correspondence documents (emails, memos, letters, etc.).

That’s means that technical writing has a set procedure that a writer must follow. Note that, unlike creative writing, you don’t have the liberty to personalize your writing in technical writing.

KEEP READING! Suppose you’re looking for tips to help improve your technical writing skills. In that case, this blog will help you learn writing techniques and general format guidelines. In the end, you’ll be able to write different technical documents whether you’ve been assigned by your professor or it’s for professional purposes.

What is technical writing?

You should never forget that technical writing is an audience-centered form of communication that provides the reader with straightforward and easy access to information.

Though technical writing is used in fields like finance, engineering, Biotechnology, computer science, etc., technical writing aims to make the text accessible for the general public to understand.   Most of the field involves explanations and instructions using this style of writing.

Your goal as a technical writer is to explain things by taking complicated concepts and breaking them down into easy-to-understand pieces. Besides, the information presented must flow logically. If you’ve technical writing skills, you’ll end up writing many forms of document, among them video tutorials, online help systems, marketing slicks, press releases, manuals, to mention a few.

Technical writing vs other forms of writing

Suppose you’re writing documents like video tutorials, online help systems, marketing slicks, press releases, manuals, etc. In that case, you’ll realize that technical writing is a unique form of writing compared to others.

To start with, technical documenting is often focused on processes and steps, and it’s conscientiously organized. This attention to detail and clear organization makes it easy for your readers to find out precisely what they need to do, do it and get on with their daily activities. That’s means that the fundamental purpose for technical documenting is to help your reader learn exactly what to do.

The second difference between technical writing and other writing genres is that the documents are straightforward. For instance, you don’t find extra fluff in a manual or online help system. That’s why you need to get straight to the point and tell your reader exactly what they need to know.

Third, though technical writing is direct, it nonetheless very detailed. The more information you’ve in your document, the better it is. That can help your reader understand everything and a product and learn to use it correctly.

General Format Guidelines for Technical Writing

Even though every discipline may adopt its own unique style manual, this post provides the generally accepted technical writing guidelines. So, to remind you, guidelines may change depending on the employer, professor, discipline, or journal the documents are written for.

Technical written documents generally contain:

  • Uses Left justification apart from dissertations, theses and journal articles which uses full justification
  • Single spacing
  • A blank line between paragraphs or indentation to paragraphs
  • Time New Roman font, 12 point font size and Calibri or Aria when writing electronic documents
  • Have one-inch margins

Stylistics Elements of Technical Writing

You need to take the audience’s level of knowledge regarding the topic and purpose of the document into consideration. Simply put, you need to ask yourself why your reader needs this information and what they intend to do with it. Below is how you can achieve a readable style when writing technical documents:

1.     When using Acronyms and abbreviations

Abbreviations are the shortened form of a word like APA that stands for American Psychological Association. Acronyms form when the abbreviation in use makes up a pronounceable word like NAFTA, which stands for North American Free Trade Agreement.

To avoid confusing your reader, you need to spell out the abbreviations and acronyms the first time they appear in your technical document, with their shorted form appearing in parentheses immediately after the term. Consequently, you can use the abbreviation or the acronym anywhere else throughout the paper.

Helpful tip:

Some commonly known acronym like the U.S. or U.K. doesn’t need to be spelled out in your document.   

2.     Ambiguity

Ambiguity occurs if your readers interpret passages or words in more than one way. Misplaced modifiers, abstract language, and vague pronoun references can lead to ambiguity. To make your technical writing clear, avoid the following things:

  • Avoid using abstract language like very, quite, severely, really
  • Avoid using words or phrases which have no precise meaning, like a bit
  • Avoid using subjective or imprecise terms like slow, fast, small or tall
  • Avoiding overusing pronouns in your writing

3.     Analogies and metaphors

Use analogies and metaphors in your technical writing when illustrating complicated or complicated ideas by comparing two generally unlike things.

4.     Audience

One of the most fundamental technical writing concepts is writing with the intended audience in mind.

You need to understand that many of the technical documents are read by the primary audience (first audience) and secondary audiences—those accessing the information without your knowledge, potential financiers, and other vital stakeholders.

That’s why you must consider who may read your documents beyond the first reader and then write with any other audiences in mind. That means you must target information appropriately for the audience’s knowledge and use accessible language that both technical and non-technical readers will understand.

5.     Cliches

Cliches, also known as figures of speech, are terms that don’t have concrete meaning. Cliches commonly affect the professionalism and Tone of the document, and that’s why you need to avoid them at all costs. Examples of clichés include closing the deal, easier said than done, writing on the wall, etc.

6.     Ensure conciseness

By conciseness, we mean that you need to present information using the fewest words possible but at the same time without sacrificing clarity or meaning. For your documents to achieve conciseness, here are a few tips that can help you:

  • When revising, eliminate empty words and phrases. If possible, avoid them altogether in your writing. These are words lie “it is”, “this is”, and “there is/are”. Such words are considered to be indirect words and to be wordy and unclear. That’s why it’s recommended that you use direct statements because they are concise and clear.
  • Another thing that can help make your document conciseness is writing using the active voice.
  • Again avoid using weak verbs.
  • Finally, eliminate filler words like really, quite, very, that, somewhat

7.     Contractions

Another thing you need to be on the lookout for when creating technical documents is contractions. Contractions refer to the shortened forms of words with missing letters represented by apostrophes like we’ll for “we will” or don’t for “do not”.

Note that using contractions in your technical writing is informal and unprofessional, and you should avoid them at all costs.

8.     Generalized statements

Again, you need to stop making generalizations in your technical writing. Generalizations are broad statements or concepts used by a group of individuals or things and should also be avoided. Note that generalized statements are too broad to support and thus difficult to substantiate.

9.     Use gender-neutral terms

Avoid using gender-specific terms whenever possible. Using gender-specific language can lead to stereotypes and bias. Instead, make generalizations and exclude gender.

People should not be referred to as merely as either men or women or using words pronouns like he or she. To achieve gender-neutral language in your writing, do the following things:

  • First, use generic terms if you’re referring to specific groups of people
  • Again, avoid the use of gender-specific pronouns (they and them)
  • Use gender-neutral titles if you’re referring to individuals. For instance, you say a sales representative instead of saying, salesmen.

Helpful tip:

Though it may seem incorrect or strange to use the plural when referring to a single person, the word there is a preferable replacement in many writing since it helps ensure gender-inclusive language. Thus, it’s no longer grammatically incorrect to use the term there as a singular pronoun.

10.  Headings

Use heading in technical writing to help organize the documents, guide your reader, and break the content into manageable chunks of information. Your reader will first peruse through the headings and then read the sections they deem necessary to them.

The effective heading should organize content into major headings (large sections) and subheadings (smaller sections). Heading is consistently formatted by level (first, second, third, etc.). They also vary in positioning and formatting.

Suppose you’re writing a technical document for academic purposes or a technical writer at your company. In that case, you will be provided with a specific style manual to guide you on the placement and visual layout of the headings.

Technical documents heading vary in the type of information provided, and in the following ways:

  • Brief topics headings use short phrases or words
  • When making a statement, use sentences or phrases which are more informational in nature
  • Use questions headings when explaining how to do something

Besides, when using headings, remember the following things:

  • Headings are created in a parallel fashion
  • Whenever possible, avoid starting headings using words like the, an, or a
  • You should aim for at least two headings at every level; don’t divide a section into a single sub-section if possible
  • Don’t repeat the wording or phrases of higher-level heading in a sub-headings
  • Always use heading to create the table of contents for your technical document

11.  Jargon

Jargon is called professional slang because it consists of terms specific to a particular profession. Jargon separates the members of specific organizations from non-members simply because they don’t get the message across.

If you’re communicating to members of an audience who are not unfamiliar with the organization-specific jargon, please avoid it altogether, as it can confuse your reader.

12.  Lists

Use lists in your technical writing to achieve three main goals:

  • when writing a series of related items
  • When describing a series of tasks
  • When making items visually accessible to the reader

You can organize lists in a sentence structure or be set off from the text vertically. When items are listed vertically, preface them using numbers, bullets, or checkmarks.

Bulleted lists make it easier for your reader to locate or see; numbered lists help in steps organizations while checklists communicate items that a process needs to be followed for its completion. It’s worth noting that lists should be prefaced using a sentence or a lead-in phrase. For instance, you can say, “the following posts present tips for improving your technical writing”.

Here are the key points that you need to keep in mind to create lists:

  • Construct lists in a parallel fashion
  • Lists comprise of brief items that don’t include no ending punctuation
  • If your list has no sequence, organize it logically—that can be from the most important to list important or alphabetical order.
  • If your list is written as complete sentences, be sure to use appropriate ending punctuations. 

13.  Narration or Point of View

When writing technical documents, you must use appropriate narration and tense. For instance, students or professionals in engineering write to explain how something occurred: a site visit, a lab procedure, a recommendation, and an accident.

Technical documents and academic writing should be written using the third person narration. In some cases, you might use the first or second person. Unlike first-person narration that uses “I” and second-person narration, which uses “you”, third-person narration is neutral and uses he/she.

14.  Objectivity

Technical writing aims to present data, evidence, facts, calculations, theories, and results. Still, it must be presented using impersonal, neutral, and objective language.

Don’t use words that elicit emotions or feelings in your technical writing. Using emotive language is subjective and can cause uncertainty in technical writing.

15.  Paragraphs

Paragraphs are considered as the building blocks of the documents. That’s why you always keep in mind essential elements of creating paragraphs. That’s why every paragraph should contain a well-developed and supported topic sentence, discuss one idea, and transition to the next paragraph.

When writing technical documents, remember that your paragraphs should be range between 4 to 6 lines. Writing short paragraphs emphasizes main ideas, encourages conciseness, maintains your reader’s attention, and most importantly, breaks up content into manageable chunks.

16.  Parallelism

 Parallelism means that you’re using the same structure for the listed items. These items may occur in tables, sentences, bulleted headings, or numbered lists. Constructing sentences with a parallelism structure is more accessible to the reader, and they flow more fluidly. Worth noting, if you’re creating a bullet list, all items included should be parallel in constructions.

17.  Redundancy

Redundancy comes in when you use two or more words which essentially means a similar thing. Using redundancy phrases impacts your document’s conciseness. For instance, avoid using terminologies like “blue in color’, “new invention”, or saying “circular in shape” is wrong and should not be used in technical writing.

18.  Systematic International (SI) units versus Customary Units

SI units are the commonly used units and are officially recognized systems of metric units for dimensions, weights, and other physical measures in technical writing. Simply put, effective technical writing should avoid using customary units and instead use tables, figures, text, and equations.

19.  Sentence length

A good technical written document should use uncomplicated sentences to explain complex ideas. Remember that your writing should communicate to a general audience who are not aware of professional-related jargon.

Besides, using long, complex sentences end up confusing readers. So, strive to write sentences that range between 10 -20 words. That doesn’t mean that you construct sentences using short, choppy sentences. Hence, ensure your sentences vary in length to encourage readability and compare and contrast information.

20.  Technical terms and definitions

For the first time, you use a technical term in your document, ensure you italicize it and then provide a brief explanation of the term. You can use any of the three technical definitions: informal, formal, and expanded. Let’s explain each of the definitions here briefly:

Informal definitions comprise a word or brief phrase known as parentheses. They give minimum information regarding a term.

On the other hand, formal definitions are typically complete sentences that distinguish the term from other similar terms. It includes the term itself, distinguishing features of the term, a class in which it belongs, and a typical description of where it belongs.

21.  Selecting Tone for technical writing

Tone refers to the attitude or feeling a document elicits. That means it can portray how the writer feels about a topic.

The critical thing to note about tones is that tone depends on the audience, purpose, or medium of the message. That’s why you should always strive for professional, neutral, and understandable words because this ensures that your readers get the message clearly.

22.  Voice (Can be active or passive)

Voice is how you use verbs when constructing sentences.

Though passive voice has been the trademark of technical writing, it’s most preferred that you write in an active voice. Using active voice ensures that your documents are more readable since they make sentences more concise and clear for the reader. But note that passive voice is still used in some types of technical documents like lab reports since you’re reporting on an experiment you did.

In a nutshell, you should use active voice when:

  • Writing most technical documents
  • When you want to write a concise, direct and clear document
  • When you want your reader to know the doer of the sentence

Use passive voice when:

  • The genre dictates requires its use. For instance, when writing a lab report
  • If the action is more critical than the doer or when the doer of the action is not known

23.  Word choice

Another essential thing to bear in mind is word choice to pass information. Use words that are familiar and accessible to your audiences—whether they are primary or secondary audiences. So, you need to ensure that the words you use are shorter, well-known instead of longer and less known word that acts as synonyms.

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