Chapter 3. Writing in a Technical Communications Style
In this Chapter
- Understanding writing style and recognizing the importance of writing in a style that meets readers’ expectations
- Discussion of effective technical communications style that is defined as concise, precise, direct, and well organized
- Recognizing and using meaningful, precise language
3.1 Voice and tone
- Understanding and using appropriate language, voice, and perspective in engineering communications
- Addressing common issues with writing in the discipline—active vs. passive voice, nominalization, personal vs. impersonal tone
3.2 Mechanics and grammar
- Learning to recognize and address habits and errors in your writing
- Reviewing common grammatical issues that affect students in FE and FEH
3.3 Citations and citation styles
- Recognizing the role of citing sources in written documents
- Reviewing the basics components of citations in IEEE and APA style
A technical communications writing style is (almost always) concise, precise, direct, and well organized. The following sections outline useful tips and best practices, but know that these are only a starting point. Writing style is something you must be aware of and continually work to refine as you develop your communication skills.
A technical communications writing style prioritizes the efficient transfer of information—this may be a change from the types of writing you have done in the past. “High school writing” is more typically descriptive expository essays with a length requirement. Technical communication asks you to document information and communicate it in a concise, precise, and professional way. The focus tends to be more on how well the writing achieves that goal rather than on proving that you read or understand something.
Writing assignments often provide specific structures or lists of required elements; however, simply fulfilling these guidelines is rarely enough to create a cohesive, clear document. To be a successful writer not just in first year engineering, but in your major courses and career, you must be attentive to the ways your writing style needs to vary from one situation to the next.
Understanding “Writing Style”
To understand what “writing style” is, think about all the different ways people talk. With their tone of voice, volume, and speed of delivery, they are able to project different moods, personalities, and purposes. Think about how a person sounds while they’re telling a funny story. Then think about how a person sounds while telling you about their problems.
You might also intuitively know that certain ways of speaking are appropriate for some situations, but not for others. If you wanted to deliver a passionate speech to persuade your audience to vote for you, you certainly wouldn’t want to sound like you were delivering a eulogy at a funeral (or vice versa).
Those same concepts apply to your writing. How you deliver information—the voice, tone, mood of your writing—is the “style.” It affects how well your audience will understand and respond to the information you are trying to communicate. Since writing style affects how your reader responds, be aware of and use it to help you achieve your purpose.
In most situations, you must also communicate in the style your reader expects. This is often driven by genre (type of document) and context. If you are asked to produce a lab report, your reader will have certain expectations about what goes in it, and if you don’t meet those expectations, it will reflect poorly on you as a communicator and make it less likely that your message is delivered.
Since writing style affects how your reader responds, be aware of and use it to help you achieve your purpose.
Audience and purpose, then, will always affect your writing style, as discussed in Understanding Your Audience. In this chapter, you will find guidance for developing a general technical communications writing style for documents common to First Year Engineering.
Sentences should be clear and simple, communicating one concept per sentence. In situations where you want your message to be unambiguous, simple, short, direct sentences are best.
Avoid “filler” or “fluff” that clutters up your writing and does not provide useful information. Here are some common types of “filler” to be aware of:
|Vague or hedging language||Avoid: basically, to a certain extent, kind of, sort of, stuff, things, something, about (+ number)|
|Wordy phrases||make an adjustment
make a decision
a large number of
at the present time
due to the fact that
in order to
in the near future
prior to the start of
until such time as
in the event that
serves the function of being
do not hesitate
= many (or quantify)
= functions or is
= (omit—just invite an action)
Examples of editing for concision
|Before:||Keep this information on file for future reference.|
||File this information.|
|Before:||Ideally, it would be best to place the billing ticket just below the monitor and above the keyboard.|
||Place the billing ticket between the monitor and the keyboard.|
||We need to act on the suggestions that the supervisors offer us.|
||We need to act on the supervisor’s suggestions.|
||Due to the fact that we reduced the weight of the AEV, we used less energy.|
||We used less energy because we made the AEV lighter.|
||It was the offset battery that made the AEV fall off the track.|
||The offset battery made the AEV fall off the track.|
||There is a danger of poor communication causing a bad outcome in the team project.|
||Poor communication can negatively impact the team project.|
Keep in mind, however, that shorter is not always better. For example, there may be times when you might sacrifice concision for the sake of sounding more personable, friendly or conversational. If you have to deliver bad news, a two-sentence email might come across as rude or uncaring, while writing a longer email that builds rapport and includes more qualitative, personable touches might soften the blow. This approach could have a positive impact on a team dynamic or a client relationship so that, even with a slightly higher word count, the final outcome is better.
Practice & Application: Exercise D – Software Design Pitch Video Prep
Precise wording avoids ambiguity and ensures the correct information is conveyed to your reader. This is obviously essential to engineering settings, where highly technical information is being communicated.
Precise writing will generally meet the following criteria:
- Statements are verifiable. Ambiguity might provide a sense of security, but leads to documents that, at best, need to be further investigated. Imprecise language in the workplace can lead to dangerous misapplication of results.
- Statements are specific and meaningful. Phrases or descriptors that are used in everyday life are often not appropriate in a technical document. Words like “cold” or “best” are meaningless unless a standard of comparison is established. What is considered “cold” for a metal? For organic material?
- Descriptors are quantified whenever possible. If exact data is not known, it should be replaced with objective observations, e.g., “The water began to boil.” When making quality determinations like “better” or “best,” determine what criteria you are using and instead of making a subjective statement, share that criteria with your reader.
- Word choice accurately represents the level of certainty. Words like “prove,” “guarantee,” or “certainty,” communicate a finality that rarely exists in science and engineering. You will often draw conclusions based on evidence, but it is unlikely that you will ever prove or guarantee the results of your experiment or design. Use words that are accurate and still allow for uncertainty, such as: “indicate,” “suggest,” “highly likely,” “reduce,” “decrease” or “increase”
|Several holes were drilled in the plank.||Three (3) holes were drilled in the plank four (4) inches apart.
Quantifies the number of holes and the spacing.
|A few of the LED’s on Design 1 were kind of faint.||Two LED’s on Design 1 were noticeably less intense than their counterparts on Design 2.
Quantifies the number of LEDs and provides a specific point of comparison.
|The beaker of water was placed in the ice bath until it was cool.||The beaker of water remained in the ice bath until its temperature reached 23°C.
States a specific temperature to define “cool.”
|Using a lower water cement ratio in the concrete mix will eliminate cracking.||Using a lower water cement ratio in the concrete mix will help reduce cracking.
Avoids an absolute statement that could set unrealistic expectations.
|The tests performed proved that the custom data structure does not have errors.||The tests performed using the custom data structure did not encounter errors.
Avoids overstating (“proving”) the conclusion that can be drawn from the test.
|The team determined that Design A was the best.||Design A completed the test successfully and used the lowest amount of energy.
Explains the basis for the determination of what specifically made the design “the best.”
Application: Addressing error in lab documentation
In lab documentation, systematic and random error should be addressed. The report should address both the potential errors that could have occurred and the effect those errors would have on the results.
Systematic error is an error that cannot be lessened through continued trials. These errors often occur when tools are not sufficiently accurate or a model is used that does not fully explain the system being studied. Address inaccurate simplifying assumptions made in the experimental design or analysis. For example, many experiments assume that there are no frictional losses in a system. This may significantly impact the results of an experiment testing the performance of a motor. Results should acknowledge that additional losses due to friction were not considered.
Random errors are unpredictable factors that affect the data gathered from the experiment. The effects of random errors can be minimized through repeated trials. For example, if a beaker should be filled to exactly 20ml, it is approximately equally likely that the researcher would fill the beaker slightly above or below that level. After multiple trials, the average level should be close to 20ml. If it is not, there are likely systematic errors also affecting the experiment.
Practice & Application: Exercise E – Making Data Meaningful
Technical communication should get to the point quickly—readers need to know right away what to expect and if the document will meet their needs.
A key aspect of directness in writing style is vocabulary. The most direct approach will use vocabulary that is right for the situation and doesn’t use “fancy” or “flowery” words in an attempt to sound “smart” or impressive.
It is tempting to write unnecessarily complex sentences in an attempt to elevate the perception of your expertise, but this can obscure the message being communicated… Wait, let’s try that again…
Writing unnecessarily complex sentences is tempting when you are trying to seem smart, but this can make your message less clear. Better!
In most professional communications, the goal is to sound knowledgeable, yet unpretentious and natural for the situation and audience. Use jargon only if it improves the quality of the communication. See Understanding Your Audience for a discussion of appropriate levels of technicality based on audience type.
Some examples of “flowery” language (and more direct replacements):
- ascertain (determine, learn)
- terminate (end)
- utilize (use)
- employ (use)
- endeavor (try)
- herein (here)
- procure (get)
- rendered inoperative (failed)
Here are some additional practical ways to ensure directness in technical and professional writing:
- Clearly state the purpose and scope of a document or communication at the start—get to the point quickly.
- When possible, put the most important information near the beginning—stating a request in the first lines an email or making a recommendation in the opening of a report are both examples of being direct in the ideas/information.
- Some types of documents, like memos, will require a specific purpose statement, but any communication should clearly tell the reader what they can expect to find, similar to the “In this Chapter” call-outs used in this guide.
- Use concise, meaningful subject lines for professional emails. Include specific keywords and indicate the purpose of the communication (words like “request,” “scheduling,” or “update” help the reader identify the purpose).
This is important for communicators in many contexts, and the policy of Plain Language is a useful example of a real-world application of “directness” in communication.
Plain Language as an example of “Direct” communication
In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act, which established that government documents issued to the public must be written clearly. Guidelines for plain language have been developed around the world to enhance the public’s access to information. The U.S. guidelines state that users should be able to find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs.
Plain language is a method of communicating information that focuses on the reader’s experience. How can the information be presented in a way that is useful to the reader? Different types of communication will require different levels of background information, but the important information should always be easy to access.
The order in which information is presented affects how easily it will be understood. As a communicator, you will need to make sure that any document, email, or presentation you create has an intentional, logical, and consistent organization.
To be successful as a communicator, you must first understand the organization of the communication and then project that to your audience. Having a “big picture view” of the document’s purpose and structure early in the writing process is key—it is difficult to impose good organization on a piece of writing unless you have carefully considered organization from the start.
Here are some practical ways to make a document clearly well organized:
- Outline the document during the “Represent & Plan” stage of the writing process. This is especially useful when writing as part of a team because it ensures that each team member has a shared understanding of how each section “fits” into the larger document.
- Use an advance organizer to “forecast” the content of a document and set your audience’s expectations for the structure of the communication. For example:
- “This report outlines the need for this program and then offers specific evidence to support the proposed plan.”
- “In the following sections, we provide an overview of the experimental methodology, present the findings, analyze the data, and offer our conclusions and recommendations.”
- Divide longer documents with headings and subheadings so your reader can navigate easily; give presentation slides meaningful titles, section headings, and slide titles. These types of cues will make your organizational patterns visible to your audience.
- Use transition words and phrases to help your reader understand connections as they move between sections, paragraphs, and sentences. Here are some useful “transition” words and phrases:
- Addition or connection: also, first/second/third, in addition to, moreover
- Result: as a result, and so, therefore, because, as a consequence
- Comparison: similarly, likewise, in the same way
- Contrast or alternative: however, yet, still, otherwise, on the other hand, on the contrary, nevertheless, notwithstanding
- Example or explanation: for instance, for example, specifically, in fact, in other words
- Summary or conclusion: finally, in conclusion, in closing
- Use simple, direct topic sentences to open paragraphs (BLUF) and then support them with more detailed information. See Paragraphs [link] for more information.
There are several models that technical communications often follow to present information.
|Model||When to Use|
Highlights the progression of events that occurred or tasks that should be completed. Often used in:
|Spatial||Describes a physical structure using an organizing principle like east-to-west or top-to-bottom. Often used in:
|Priority||Presents information in order of importance or emphasis. Often used in:
|General to Specific||Familiarizes the reader with context or theory before introducing a complex idea. Often used in:
|Problem → Method → Solution||Discusses the methods used to address an issue and their effectiveness. Often used in:
While your reader should be able to find specific information easily, they should also see a clear direction for your document as a whole. Consider your reader’s experience empathetically. If you were reading this document, where would you expect to find certain information? Will your reader gain a clear understanding of your process from reading the document from start to finish?
A Note About Lab Report Organization
A Lab Report contains sections for Results and Discussion. Students often present the data from a specific portion of the lab, then immediately discuss the meaning of that data within the Results section before moving on to the results of the next portion.
From a chronological perspective that seems logical, but that is not the structure of a lab report. Switching back and forth from results to interpretation is awkward and may leave your reader looking for data interpretation in the Discussion section that is not there.
See Lab Report Content Guide for more information.
Practice & Application: Exercise F – Precision and Paragraph Organization
- When you are revising or editing for writing style, ask…
- Useful information for my reader?