7 Technical Writing Tips You Can’t Live Without
Traditionally, technical writing was defined as the practice of documenting processes, writing instruction manuals, and so on. But, as we enter an ever more tech-dependent society, this definition doesn’t quite make sense anymore.
Technical writers span a long list of industries from biotech and pharmaceuticals to engineering, IT to financial services, supply chain management, and the non-profit sector. And they’re not limited to READMEs and manuals.
These days the technical writer takes on reports, manuals, press releases, white papers, case studies, proposals, website copy, and more.
With that in mind, it’s clear that technical writing is an essential business skill. Here are seven technical writing tips that’ll help you bring more expertise to the game.
1. The King of Technical Writing Tips: Get to the Point
Where copywriting is a persuasive pursuit, the name of the technical writing game is understanding. In an ideal world, you create a topic that the reader understands straight away. You don’t want them pouring over the text trying to figure out what to do next.
Technical pieces can often get long, as there’s a lot of information crammed into a small space.
Eliminate unnecessarily long phrases like the following:
- At the present time
- Circle around
- Free gift
- Never before
- Still persists
- 2 am in the morning
- Square in shape
- 12 midnight
There are countless stock phrases like the ones used in the above section, as well as ones we use to connect our sentences. Things like “on the other hand” can be replaced with a simple “however.”
For more on getting to the point quickly, check out this piece from William Strunk’s Elements of Style. Some of the info is a little outdated (published in 1918), but there’s a lot of value for the burgeoning technical writer.
2. Use Simple Language for Good Technical Writing
Simple doesn’t mean stupid. A lot of novice technical writers think that stuffing the piece with industry jargon and corporate buzzwords is the key to sounding intelligent. But, the subject matter is complicated enough without them.
Make your text short and punchy by paring down grammar and vocabulary. Think clear, concise communication. If the purpose or the context is not easily understood, you’re not communicating effectively.
Shorten sentences by cutting out as much punctuation as possible and using fewer words. Ideally, you won’t include many commas and semicolons in your writing. But, you will see more periods.
Additionally, you don’t want to use longer words when their shorter cousins will do. Think use instead of utilize, feature instead of functionality.
3. Remember that Your Readers Aren’t Experts Like You
One of the biggest mistakes the technical writer can make is to assume that the reader already has a certain level of knowledge before using the solution in question. So, the end up skipping over explanations or initial instructions.
Just because your solution makes the most sense for advanced web developers doesn’t mean someone outside of that group won’t find the content useful. Instead, take some time and create buyer personas based on your target audience.
4. Have a Friend Read Your Writing
Get feedback from a few different sources. Ideally, you’ll want to gauge whether someone with little knowledge of the subject at hand can grasp the concepts in the piece. On the flipside, show your writing to someone with more experience than you.
The idea is, you’re creating something that is accurate and informative, no matter how much knowledge they’ve got on hand.
5. Consider How You Address the Audience
When using formal technical writing, using the first person is considered poor form. This might change depending on your application–think websites with an informal tone or the onboarding copy for a new mobile app. But, the main point is to address the audience directly.
Second, while this may not fall into your idea of a technical writing tip, it’s best to use gender-neutral language. Defaulting to one gender or the other may make some readers feel alienated.
6. Play with the Layout
Like content marketing and copywriting, technical writing works best when you consider a visual approach. What we mean by a visual approach is, how you arrange the composition.
Use heading hierarchy to communicate your ideas based on importance. While this is considered an SEO-friendly practice, it also makes it easier for readers to scan for the information they need to learn about your solution.
The most critical heading is H1, your main idea. Subheadings (H2) signify important points, and H3s and lower represent ideas within those subheadings.
Now, if you’re creating a written manual, Google’s ranking system might not be of utmost concern. But, this is an easy way to get started with an outline for representing those big, hairy topics.
Beyond headings and subheadings, technical writing can benefit from the strategic use of bullet points. Bullets help break up the page and make it easier for readers to get through a list.
Winward Engineering provides a good example of heading hierarchy and bullet uses if you need a visual.
7. Don’t Be Passive in Your Technical Writing
This last nugget of technical writing advice is all about using the active voice.
Verbs can be challenging, even for writers with some experience under their belt. You can take action verbs and transform them into something that suggests passivity.
The point of technical writing is getting your point across as quickly and clearly as possible. By inverting the sentence (i.e. “John kicked the ball.” versus “The ball was kicked by John.”), you’re adding words and muddying the message.
That said, sometimes there is no way around the passive voice, especially if the subject isn’t doing anything active.
Beyond Technical Writing Tips–Learn to Hone Your Writing Craft
In the end, we hope this short list of technical writing tips is helpful. Technical writing is different than essay writing or copywriting, but it’s an important craft all its own. Everyone can benefit from continuing to practice, reviewing the work, and getting continuous feedback.
Want more information about writing great content? Check out Article City for more blog posts about making the most out of your writing career.
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