The ABCS of Technical Writing – 4 Features Technical Writers Need to Know
Writing a technical report is often a real challenge for many technical professionals. Research, investigation or design is why you do what you love to do… but then you have to write a report. And that has the potential to be the weak link. But there are some characteristics of technical writing that are essential regardless of your field or organization. I like to remember them as the ABCS of technical writing: accuracy, brevity, clarity, and simplicity.
- accuracy: accurate reporting of your findings; accurate presentation of facts; an accurate presentation of your findings, consistent with the methods you used. Make sure you clearly state where you expressed an opinion, not a specific result of your investigation. As much as possible, give specific information rather than generalizations.
- brevity: Try to keep the document as short as possible – short-time readers will appreciate this. Consider placing background and supporting information in an appendix, footnote reference, or endnote. As much as possible, keep sentences short (15 to 20 words works well for most readers), with only one idea expressed in each sentence.
- Clarity: Use familiar vocabulary and constructions (make sure you’ve thought about who will read your report and be prepared to explain potentially unfamiliar words, perhaps like a glossary, footnote or endnote). Be consistent with your terminology, abbreviations, and presentation of figures, tables, illustrations, etc. Consider using tables, figures, graphs, illustrations to demonstrate your point… as “they” say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Remember that jargon (specialized terms used in your field) excludes those unfamiliar with those words. Use precise words: Your readers don’t appreciate having to decide whether a word has a slightly different meaning in different contexts. A useful technique is to use bullet points or numbered points to express complex ideas (if your discipline or organization allows it).
- Simplicity: This is about simply expressing your thoughts, not simplifying your work. Remember your readers: you want to show them the value of your work, not how good a writer you are. Content is more important than extravagant writing. Verbosity hinders your readers’ understanding. Make sure you think about the logical progression of your report. Plan the structure of your paper so as to lead your readers to the conclusion you have reached. The simplicity inherent in using plain English (active voice, reasonable sentence length, judicious use of specialized terms, no verbiage) will serve you well.
Learn the ABCS of technical writing. Remember, you’re writing so that your readers say, “That’s excellent work,” not “That’s good writing, but I’m really not sure what it’s about.”
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