Technical Writing Tips for Public Relations Professionals at Stanford Engineering

Most PR professionals aren’t scientists, programmers, or engineers.

Heck, most of us went into a language-based field because we’re not that good at math.

But in your career, there will probably come a time when you have to explain a complex and technical product or process to a group of lay people.

Scary, isn’t it?

But what makes good technical writing are the same things that make good writing in general: clarity, simplicity, and keeping your audience in mind. Combine that with a few tips from the Stanford Engineering smarties in the Ragan Training library and you’ll be well on your way to writing technical material that makes sense to everyone.

Avoid “fancy words”

If you’re writing something that’s already complicated, give your readers a break by making the rest of the language as simple as possible. For example, Stanford recommends using “discover” instead of “verify”, “begin” instead of “begin”, and that old favorite, “use” instead of “use”.

You can always use technical terms if you are sure that all of your audience will understand them. If you are unsure, Stanford recommends using these techniques to better explain:

  • Use a synonym: “memory” instead of “RAM”.
  • Describe the term: “RAM helps your computer run faster and more efficiently.”
  • Compare the term with a common concept: “RAM is like having a big desk with lots of storage drawers. You can quickly and efficiently access your files at any time.
  • Define the term: “RAM, or random access memory, is a type of computer data storage systems. It allows your computer to access files quickly and efficiently.

Go from the known to the unknown

No matter how complex the topic you’re writing about, you can probably tie new information to something the reader already knows. Drawing inspiration from “Rhetorical Grammar” by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray, Stanford recommends starting with information readers already know before logically moving on to something new. It is a model that readers subconsciously understand and that will help them assimilate the novelty.

  • Before: X developed fourth-generation (4G) mobile phone technology (new info). To support higher data rates for non-voice communications (new information), Y uses 4G mobile phone technology (known information).
  • After: X developed fourth-generation (4G) mobile phone technology (new info). Y uses this technology (4G) (known information) to support higher data rates for non-voice communications (new information).

Things to reduce or eliminate

Keep the overall copy flow as clean as possible so ideas can speak for themselves. To that end, you can reduce these winding constructs where possible:

  • Vague pronoun references
  • Excessive detail
  • Long strings of names
  • Passive voice
  • Nominalizations (e.g., use “occurrence” instead of “occurring”)
  • Unnecessary prepositional phrases

Trust your subject matter experts, simplify your copy, and you’ll have nothing to fear from technical writing.

For more Stanford advice, join Ragan Training.