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Technical Writing - What is it?

TECHNICAL WRITING – What is it?

One definition of technical writing – a fairly narrow one – is writing about technical subjects such as computers, machinery or equipment. A broader definition is any writing in which the focus is on the correct, accurate and precise communication of practical information: information that is presented in order to instruct, guide, facilitate or train. This can include reports, text books, records, submissions, plans and other documents that are not necessarily about technology. Another perception is that technical writing includes all forms of writing governed by formal structures, from workplace documents to the highest levels of academic writing.

Generally, technical writing is defined primarily by three things: quality of information, nature of the language, and structure.

Quality of information

Information can be presented for many different purposes: to impress others, to gain credibility and establish expertise, to argue against or resist ideas, to inform, educate and train, to enable, to empower, to clarify, to support statements or goals, to persuade or influence.

The information provided in technical writing, however, is always tailored towards enabling. It should always be aimed at enabling others to do things, or to understand how to do things. The information provided in good technical writing enables the reader to carry out specific tasks, to achieve certain objectives, to use certain equipment or technology, to make good decisions, to understand processes or procedures, to know how to put them into practice, and perhaps even to evaluate different approaches, procedures or equipment based on objective criteria.

Another expected quality in the information is that it is sufficient for its stated purpose. The writer must provide sufficient information for the reader to fully understand what is being described and to apply that understanding correctly. What is considered sufficient, however, may change from document to document, for it depends very much on the stated purpose of the document. For instance, a document titled ‘Varieties of Depression’ would be expected to define depression, identify most known forms of depression and provide at least sufficient information to differentiate between them (perhaps by describing the symptoms of each kind of depression, or by listing the major signs in a chart).

If the document, ‘Varieties of Depression’, is written for first year psychology students, it will probably not contain information on diagnosing or treating the different forms of depression. However, if the document is written for general information, as on a webpage, it might also contain some of that information. The webpage reader might be reading for general interest, and want a broader overview of depression, whereas a student will expect more focused, detailed and comprehensive information on specific aspects of a subject. Information is sufficient and complete if it enables the reader to understand and apply that information to achieve stated goals and objectives. If the reader is left with more questions than answers, or is not enabled to act upon that information, it is insufficient and incomplete.

The information in a good technical writing is correct, specific, timely and verifiable. While a magazine article on skin care can make quite general and broad statements and give only surface treatment to different aspects of skin care, a technical document on skin care (eg. a skin care manual or a dermatologist’s instructions) is expected to give accurate, specific information that increases and enriches their existing knowledge. It is not enough to just tell a reader what is already widely known, or to state what is obvious to most people. The reader of a technical document wants to learn from that document.

Correctness and accuracy are not the same things, exactly. Correctness means that the information is agreed to be correct. Accuracy goes further because it includes precision. For example, the statement, ‘the sun rises every day’, is correct but not accurate. An accurate statement would be, ‘the sun appears to rise every day above the horizon as the different areas of the earth rotate to face it’. That kind of accuracy may not be relevant if we are talking about our experience of time, but it is relevant if we are explaining time cycles.

Timeliness simply means that the information should reflect what is considered accepted truth or relevant at the time the reader is expected to read the document. With books, that can present a problem, and it is not unusual for technical books to be almost out of date shortly after publication because of rapid or unexpected innovations or changing trends. A technical writer in an area an area where rapid change might be expected might deal with this by including some reference to current trends and research, and even to anticipated research and development. However, the main part of most technical documents must and should be focused on established and widely accepted knowledge. While the writer might mention other perspectives and innovative ideas, the thrust is usually on providing serviceable information, which means information that is generally accepted as correct at the time of writing.

The information in good technical writing is verifiable, and referenced where appropriate, for the same reason. Verifiable information ensures a degree of correctness, and gives the document added credibility. For instance, if a computer business X produces a document on the benefits of particular brands of computers that it sells, that information will be highly questionable, as it clearly may be biased and self-serving. If, however, the benefits are documented in writings by known computer experts or credible computer text books, and those experts or books are referenced properly, business X’s document gains enormously in credibility. For one thing, the opinions expressed are affirmed by others with expertise in that area, and second, the reader knows that he/she can verify that information.

Nature of Language

The language of technical writing is formal, neutral and precise. Formal language is not, by nature, flowery or over-wordy (though it can be). It is s correct in all aspects: using correct grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure. Sentences are complete sentences, though sentence fragments may be used in point form lists, charts or tables.

Neutral language is free of obvious bias, emotionality or unsupported, unnecessary value judgements. It does not generally express or imply moral or emotional judgements. It does not express or imply discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, or social status, and is respectful in tone and content.

Precise language is language that expresses exactly what it intends to express and accurately conveys correct information. For example, a report on motivation in the workplace might include the following statement: “Younger workers feel that their ideas are undervalued and ignored by the older workers, who generally resist change”. This may be partly true, but it is not a precise statement. It implies that all younger workers feel that all or most of their ideas are ignored by all the older workers, who all resist change. A correct sentence using precise language might be, “Several younger workers feel that their ideas are undervalues and ignored by some older workers, two of whom they believe resist change”.

Precise language avoids unwarranted generalisations. Generalisations can be very useful and helpful, and allow inductive reasoning (reasoning from specific facts to general principles). However, they can also lead to broad, blanket statements based on assumptions that are either derived from a few instances or from existing stereotypes. This kind of generalisation should be used very carefully, and in technical writing, only where it is necessary and justified.

Structure

In technical writing, information is organised clearly and logically. This organisation should be made completely transparent by using a consistent, logical system of informative headings and subheadings. The structure (and headings) should be so obvious that a reader can skim the document (even a book) and gain a quick overview of what is covered, how ideas are organised, and how they are developed.

A clear, transparent structure makes reading a document much easier, for it allows the reader to identify the pattern of ideas and follow a logical, natural-feeling path from idea to idea. A poorly-structured document, no matter how well-written otherwise, causes the reader to lose track of the development of ideas, pause often to think about how a new piece of information fits in to the whole, and become confused or disoriented. At best, the reader becomes a little frustrated. At worst, the reader can become confused and irritated and begin to focus on the poor structure or other errors rather than on the content. Good structure is like a skeleton. It holds the whole body of work together.

These elements are all focused on the main purpose of technical writing - no matter how you define it – which is to present information on a way that allows the reader to quickly locate information, understand it, and apply it.

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This article was written by the staff of ACS, a correspondence school in Australia and the United Kingdom. For information on over 350 courses, see www.acs.edu.au or www.acsedu.co.uk

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