where the author is writing about a particular subject that requires direction,
instruction, or explanation. This style of writing has a very different purpose
and different characteristics than other writing styles such as creative
writing, academic writing or business writing.
had some years ago with a scientist. I taught a one-day technical-writing
course which she attended (with reluctance).
do you write?’
records of experiments and field trials.’
do you enjoy writing?’
I absolutely loathe it.’
it’s just going to sit in a dusty folder somewhere and no one will ever read
a long , difficult day. Fortunately I was wrong.
protocols and conventions that are unique to technical writing in this short
post, because it’s not necessary to get results (although you might find this
article about how to write a paper useful). No, the key is to approach it from
the first principles-every writer, technical or otherwise, should be aware of
and practice the disciplines.
Be transparent, and make sense
They have one critical quality which is a writer’s gold dust-they are qualified
to think critically and clearly. While their doctoral degree may be in
low-temperature physics or fluvial dynamics, they bring a rigorous way of
thinking that is incredibly helpful when writing up their work. They ‘re also,
refreshingly, often among the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable learners.
people when I’m training is the power and importance of writing. Obviously it
helps if you also have a love and respect for language, but that is personal.
If I could instill a sense of pride in her writing in the scientist, at least
that would be a start, I thought.
Emphasis on listeners
some 15 years. I wrote their car launches and all the big conferences and
speeches about the business, some of which were highly technical. But the first
question every writer has to ask is always the same, regardless of the
subject-who will read this? Or, if it’s a speech, who would listen?
will have a clear understanding of terms like ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’ and how
they influence the performance of an automobile. They will also know the host
of abbreviations and acronyms commonly spoken in the engineering community.
(Are there any fields that do not have their own jargon or buzzwords?)
it is generally fine, without explanation (but sparingly, please), to use those
terms. The performance of an engine can be expressed simply in measurements,
graphs and charts – if the information is presented plainly and clearly, the
knowledgeable reader will be able to extract and interpret what they want. The
writing will have served its primary purpose, which I have served its primary
function, which is to communicate.
Take every single word
to describe ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque,’ let alone their difference. If they are
completely paid-up petrol heads, all they that know is that there will be a lot
of both for a powerful vehicle. Car manufacturers know this, of course, and
that’s when (supposedly sexy) language starts creeping into the writing.
‘Effortless’ and ‘refined power’, for example, are words Jaguar often use to
describe torque delivery for the layman. (I fought long and hard to suppress
the truly awful ‘waftability’, but it seems to have crept into the marketing.)
language suitable for the audience. The engineer who writes the technical
report doesn’t sell the vehicle, so they don’t have to use adjectives and
adverbs (word modifications) to express results – they can let the stats talk. In
fact, if they submit their findings to scientific journals, they’ll find that
most editors delete modifiers anyway, because at best they’re subjective, and
at worst vague and confusing, especially for an international audience. Editors
encourage authors to ‘unpackage’ concepts – to present them in simple, clear
Keep it quick
could be doing rather than wading through 50 pages of turgid, unfocused waffle.
Know your reader, know what you want to say and know why you’re saying it. Is
it relevant to your reader? If not, why are you making them read it? And
although you may have spent ages writing something, be aware of ‘Mr Skippy’ –
the person who will just skim through the text. He may only read the sub-heads,
so make sure they tell the story clearly.
Be active and engaging
technical literature, the passive voice (‘the trials were conducted …’) might
be the norm, but the active voice is more straightforward (‘we conducted the
trials …’). You don’t have to do it all the time: a balance between passive
and active is best. But we’re people and we like to read about ourselves, even
if it’s just a humble pronoun (‘we’). Incidentally, a surprising number of
journals recommend the active voice in their instructions for authors,
scientist? A few months later, I saw her for a follow-up class and her writing
had improved tremendously, largely because she was thinking clearly now and
writing brief, clear sentences. Most importantly, she took pride in writing,
and even began talking about publishing her work. It had been a well spent day.