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. The research, investigation or design are why you’re doing 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 features of technical writing that are essential, whatever your field or organisation. 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 the facts; accurate representation of your findings, in accordance with the methods you’ve used. Make sure you clearly indicate where you’ve expressed an opinion, rather than a certain outcome of your investigation. As far as possible, give specific information rather than generalisations.
- Brevity: Try to keep the document as short as possible – time-poor readers will appreciate that. Consider placing background and supporting information into an appendix, footnote or endnote reference. 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 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 demonstrate your point… as ‘they’ say, a picture saves a thousand words. Remember that jargon (specialised terms used in your field) excludes those who are unfamiliar with those words. Use precise words: your readers don’t appreciate having to decide if a word has a slightly different meaning in different contexts. A useful technique is to use bullet or numbered points to express complex ideas (if your discipline or organisation allows).
- Simplicity: This is about expressing your thoughts with simplicity, not simplifying your work. Remember your readers: you want to show them the value of your work, not what a good writer you are. The content is more important than extravagant writing. Verbosity hinders your readers’ understanding. Make sure you’ve thought about the logical progression of your report. Plan the structure of your document so that you lead your readers to the conclusion you’ve reached. The simplicity inherent in the use of plain English (active voice, reasonable sentence length, wise use of specialised terms, no verbosity) will serve you well.
These examples demonstrate some of these principles:
‘Management has become congnizant of the necessity for the elimination of undesirable vegetation surrounding the periphery of our facility.’ What is really meant is, ‘Please remove the weeds around the building.’
‘There will be three pedestrian access points.’ In other words, ‘There will be three elevators.’
Become familiar with the ABCS of Technical Writing. Remember that you are writing so that your readers will say, ‘That’s excellent work’ not ‘That’s good writing, but I really am not sure what it was all about.’