Technical Writing: An Introduction to the Art of Technical Communication

Side view of a female hand typing on a laptop keyboard. Freelancer working with a laptop in a cafe. Technology and flexible working. [Getty Images]

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

Most students despise technical writing. Tongue dryness is annoying and hard to perfect. Students can get lost in its lack of personal pronouns and feel like they are drowning in a format of verbs and nouns and they lose sight of what they were trying to say.

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

The goals of technical writing

It doesn’t matter what type of writing, whether it’s a brochure, a lab or research paper, an owner’s manual, a set of instructions, or even a book, the purpose is to communicate and explain information to an audience. This may seem 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 their life. Machine operators have lost fingers, hands, arms, and even their lives because a writer failed to provide adequate warning or explanation of a hazard.

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

  • To be clear
  • Be concise
  • be precise

Clarity: Think of this goal as plain language. Don’t use big abstract words to say something. Instead, present it step by step and use specific words for procedures or objects. This is related to accuracy. Don’t be afraid or too lazy to search for something to reach that specific language.

Concise: do not add unnecessary words. Get the message across clearly. Many inexperienced students believe they can “fake” a report and make it “good” by inserting large, multi-syllable words to improve a sentence. The truth is that the only thing they are doing is prolonging the sentence and gumming up the paper.

Accurate: As mentioned in the note on clarity, don’t be afraid to search for something. If a procedure for evaporating water in a chemistry experiment has a certain name, use it. Be specific knowing all those obscure terms. If the document is a step-by-step guide, be sure to describe the steps well. Imagine that the audience has no idea or experience on the subject and fill them in accordingly.

Technical writing formatting

Point of view

The basic structure of most technical writing is that it is done without the first person (I voice). This means that the writer is invisible and withdraws from the article or project. Also, the second person (your voice) is generally not used. Do not address the public directly. Technical writing is not a true third person as one would find in a novel or a work of creative writing of non-fiction like a memoir. Unless a teacher advises otherwise, assume that the paper will have absolutely no I or you voices.

Use verbs and subjects

Typically, technical articles use past tense verbs and subjects to communicate. Here are some examples of CVs concerning the training of the potential employee:

  • Graduated in 2006
  • Focused on technical writing
  • Completed a minor in biology

Technical Writing Checklists

Checklists allow 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 scope of the project? What types of documents are required? In what formats? What is the required delivery date? Do you have enough resources to complete the project? What software and hardware will be needed? Who will be the subject matter experts (SMEs)? Who will write?

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

Writing the 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? What model will be used? What style guide will be used? Are all acronyms defined in the document? Has the document been checked for grammar and spelling errors? Does the document comply with the company’s writing guidelines?

Review checklist

Reviews can be done by the author 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 project requirements? Is the document flow logical? Are the concepts clearly defined? Do the procedures allow the user to perform the activity without error? Were there any missing steps? Are there any formatting errors? Does the document follow company guidelines or standards?

Editing checklist

The editing checklist may include items from the revision checklist. It can also consist of different levels: content editing, language editing and format editing. Is critical information missing? Are all references valid? Does the index contain all keywords? Are legends used correctly? Are the cross-references and pagination correct? Are the styles applied consistently?

Publications Checklist

The publication checklist may vary depending on the format (hard or soft copy) and delivery method. Have the required number of copies been printed? Does it meet all printing requirements? Are the delivery address and telephone number correct? Does the document contain appropriate copyright and privacy statements? Is the document compatible with all browsers? Does it contain broken links? Has the document been checked for viruses? Does the company logo follow company guidelines? Does the label follow the company label template guidelines?