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The ABCs of Technical Writing: 4 Features Technical Writers Should Know

Writing a technical report is often a real challenge for many technical professionals. Research, research, or design is the reason 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, whatever your field or organization. I like to remember them as the ABCs of technical writing: precision, brevity, clarity, and simplicity.

  1. Precision: accurate reports of your findings; accurate presentation of the facts; accurate representation of your findings, according to the methods you have used. Be sure to clearly indicate where you have expressed an opinion, rather than a certain result of your research. Whenever possible, provide specific information rather than generalizations.
  2. Brevity: Try to keep the document as short as possible; Readers short on time will appreciate it. Consider placing supporting and background information in an appendix, footnote, or endnote reference. As much as possible, keep sentences short (15-20 words works well for most readers), with only one idea expressed in each sentence.
  3. ClarityUse familiar vocabulary and constructions (make sure you have thought about who will read your report and are prepared to explain potentially unfamiliar words, perhaps as 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 prove your point … as they say ‘they’, a picture saves a thousand words. Remember that jargon (specialized terms used in your field) excludes those who are not familiar 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. One useful technique is to use bullet points or numbered points to express complex ideas (if your discipline or organization allows it).
  4. Simplicity: It’s about expressing your thoughts simply, not simplifying your work. Remind your readers: you want to show them the value of your work, not how good a writer you are. Content is more important than fancy writing. Verbosity makes it difficult for your readers to understand. Make sure you have thought about the logical progression of your report. Plan the structure of your document so that it leads your readers to the conclusion you have reached. The inherent simplicity of using plain English (active voice, reasonable sentence length, clever use of specialized terms, no verbosity) will serve you well.

Familiarize yourself with the ABCs of technical writing. Remember, you’re writing so your readers will say, “It’s great work,” not “It’s good writing, but I’m really not sure what it’s about.”

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