Basic elements of technical writing

Basic elements of technical writing

Technical writing is a specialized form of writing.

Its purpose is to help readers use a technology or understand a process, product or concept. Often these processes, products or concepts are complex but need to be expressed in a much simpler, reader-friendly form.

So within the technical writing genre you will find: technical reports, installation and maintenance guides, proposals, white papers, online help, process standards, work instructions and procedures.

While each discipline has its own specific requirements, some basic elements are common. But before looking at them, the most important thing a technical writer needs to consider is the audience.


  • How familiar are readers with the topic and the specialized terms and abbreviations you should use?
  • What is the best way to explain these terms or abbreviations – footnotes, endnotes, glossary, table of abbreviations, appendix, links?
  • Do you need to accommodate secondary readers (eg a manager or financier who will make a decision about the proposal) and how will you do this?

Now for those all-important items:

  1. Clarity – The logical flow of the document will help readers understand the content. It may be helpful to ask someone unfamiliar with the topic to review your writing before you finalize it. Using headings, illustrations, graphs or tables can be helpful – your goal is to make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand what you’ve written. Consider the way text is laid out on the page or screen—another clue to increasing clarity for your readers.
  2. accuracy – The information and interpretation of the data you provide must be accurate. If it isn’t, your readers will question the credibility of the content. Be careful to distinguish clearly between fact and opinion and to accurately cite references to other works.
  3. brevity – Strive to find the balance between the amount of information presented and the time required to read the document. Remember that you can use an application or link to provide additional or basic information. Consider using an illustration, table or graph rather than words to explain a concept – but remember if you use a ‘visual’ don’t give a long written explanation.
  4. Sentence length – In general, complex or unfamiliar concepts are best presented in shorter sentences. This will give readers time to digest small pieces of information before moving on to the next. Although this can be difficult to achieve, try to aim for approximately 25 words per sentence. If you find that you’ve written a series of long sentences, look for “and,” “but,” “however,” and similar words where you can break up the sentence.
  5. Paragraphs – The age-old rule of one topic per paragraph is a useful guide. This doesn’t mean you can only have one paragraph for each topic, but it does mean that only one topic in each paragraph makes for clear, logical writing.
  6. Reader-centricity – You write for your readers. Make it as easy as possible for them to understand your work.

Keep these basic elements and other principles in mind as you complete your technical writing assignments.

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