You don’t need a Ph.D. to conquer technical writing. You also don’t need to know everything about your topic. The goal is to make complicated information accessible and clear. Before we explore how to do that, let’s cover a few basics.
What is technical writing?
Technical writing includes:
- White papers
- Product spec sheets
- Instruction manuals
- Reference guides
- User manuals
- Academic articles
When you break a complex subject down in a way that people can understand, you’re working on technical writing.
Why does it scare writers so much?
Technical writing is more challenging than other content. Many writers avoid it for that reason, especially if the subject is new. It requires more time and work than other forms of writing. Let’s face it: Explaining the finer points of quantum physics isn’t something most of us want to tackle.
Improve your technical writing with these tips
Follow these eight tips to help you improve your technical writing:
- Know your topic. Consult with experts. Do your research. Be sure you know enough about the topic to explain it correctly and clearly. That doesn’t mean you need to know all the minutiae. If you’re not sure about some details, contact a subject expert who can help.
- Start with an outline. An outline arranges major topics, subtopics and supporting details. It will help you organize your topic and thoughts in a logical journey. Seeing the flow and potential gaps in your content will help before you start. Maybe you haven’t written an outline since your school essay days. Here’s a reminder in how to approach outlines.
- Make it readable. Use simple and clear language, short words and short sentences. Look for sentences you can cut in two. Engineers might be able to understand your highly technical content. That doesn’t mean all readers will have the same level of knowledge. Show the document to someone who doesn’t have a scientific background. If the reviewer understands what you wrote, you’re good to go.
- Banish bloat. Get to the point as fast as possible. No one wants to wade through a sea of copy. Your goal is to start a conversation with your audience. Provide enough information to be enticing – not overwhelming. Never use two words when one will do.
- Use active voice. Passive voice is wordy and makes your subject matter ambiguous. Your audience may become confused and stop reading. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. For example, “The construction crew finished the building in record time,” is active voice. Passive voice: “The building was finished in record time by the construction crew.”
- Avoid jargon. Industry jargon can alienate readers who don’t know those terms. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it. Worried about insulting people? Incorporate necessary terms but define them on first reference.
- Write out abbreviations and acronyms on first reference. Even the brainiacs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommend doing this for clarity. Copy that reads like alphabet soup isn’t reader-friendly.
- Use visual cues. Huge blocks of copy are intimidating. Bulleted lists draw attention to the most important points. This helps enable skim reading. Use illustrations, diagrams, tables, graphs, screenshots and images. This enhances readers’ clarity and makes it more likely they’ll read your content. If you’ve got the budget, you can also create one- to two-minute videos. Videos make the content even more accessible.
Keep at it
Still intimidated? The more technical writing you do, the better you’ll become.