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Technical Writing

Professional writing opportunities abound in the area of technical writing; but many writers don't quite know how to properly adapt. Here are some tips.

Tone of Document
Tone refers to the “emotional character” of the writing; which for technical writing will usually need to be serious and factual in order to be effective. Tone needs to be appropriate to the audience though. Scientific or technical writing for a newspaper, magazine article or radio show, that is aimed at the general population, may need a lighter tone, even incorporating humour, if it is to attract and hold the intended audience.

Get the Pace Right
Pace refers to the speed with which you present information.
The pace may need to be slower when explaining something more complex; but may be able to be faster with less complex information. Pace also depends upon the audience, and their capacity to understand what you are presenting.
Changing pace throughout what you write can be a stimulating affect to keep a readers interest.
Whether speaking, writing or presenting graphic information; changing pace is an important tool for holding the attention of an audience.
It is a well understood fact that the typical attention span of most people, is around 3 minutes. Well trained teachers understand that when someone gives a lecture; they need to provide a psychological jolt periodically, to regain the audience attention. This might be achieved by changing the volume of their voice, move to a different place, or using a visual aid. A writer can achieve the same thing by changing pace.
Ways to change pace can be:

  • Varying the length of paragraphs
  • Using numbered or bullet pointed lists
  • Inserting graphics into the document
  • Using highlighted text (eg. In bold or a larger font, in a text box, as a quote, in a side bar)


Avoid Overwhelming the Reader
It is very easy for technical writing overwhelm the reader. Documents can fail to present information in a logical order, or give underpinning information prior to presenting information that builds on those fundamentals. Documents can be too complicated for the intended reader to understand; or so large that the information they seek becomes difficult to find. It is When a document is written by an expert who knows a complex subject inside out; there is always a risk that they will not recognise the full range of readers, and empathise with the people they are writing for. It is always important to write to the lowest common denominator; but at the same time, not be condescending to the more informed reader.
Often, a good way to approach the writing is to produce two explanations, for example:

  • In a journal article, or non fiction text book – a lengthy explanation in a chapter or article, and a summary of key points at the beginning or end.
  • With product information for a car, computer or some other technical device; you may use two tier documents (eg. a quick guide plus a comprehensive manual):

Explaining Rules based on Mathematical Principles
If your audience is technically competent peers, this can be an easier task, but attempting to explain anything mathematical to a broad readership, can be a huge turn off for most people.
The best approach is one that begins as simply as possible, and progresses in small steps; for example:

  • First state the rule or principle as clearly as you can, in as few, simple words, as is possible.
  • Second present the mathematical or algebraic formula
  • Next present an example that is relevant to the audience (eg. If it is the general public, try to relate it to an environment they are familiar with, such as the home or a shopping centre).
  • Describe any exemptions, irregularities or limitations that may exist
  • Depending upon time and space available, provide a number of other examples of how the principle may apply.

Using Analogies
Analogies are processes where information or meaning is transferred from a subject to a different subject. Similes and metaphors are types of analogies that may sometimes be used in technical writing, when giving examples; as a tool for engaging the audience. They are not literally accurate and should be used appropriately and with skill for a well considered purpose.  
A metaphor is an expression that identifies something as being similar to the subject you are discussing; but where that similarity is not a literal similarity.
A simile compares two things also; but a simile acknowledges or suggests any imperfection and limitation in making the comparison; while the metaphor does not; although the imperfection may be implied.
A metaphor can be used for greater rhetorical or dramatic effect than a simile.
Example of a metaphor – “The world is your oyster”
Similes often use words that modify what you are stating, such as “like” or “as”
The example above might be changed from a metaphor into a simile, by adding a word to make it “The world is like your oyster”.

Break Up Information into Digestible Chunks
Technical information can sometimes be made easier to read if it is broken down into distinct sections. This may be done in many different ways, for example

  • Sequential instructions (a series of steps)
  • Several smaller documents, rather than one large one
  • A series of articles presented in different editions of a publication
  • Placing selected information into appendices or a glossary at the end of a publication
  • Whatever you do, each chunk needs to be shown as distinct. If you present a series of steps for instance, make sure there is an obvious break between each, perhaps by using numbering, blank space and headings. You might even start each on a separate page.

 

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