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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

8 Tips for Improving Your Technical Writing (guest post)

Good technical writing is always clear, practical and tailored to a specific audience, be it a technical or non-technical audience. What separates good technical writing from average technical writing, however, is taking the time to make the written material as user-friendly as possible. Here we will explore 8 tips for improving your technical writing.

1.) Break up text under clear headlines and subheads.

Technical writers are familiar with using headlines to transition from topic to topic when writing material. What often gets forgotten is effectively using subheads to further break down the material. Most technical readers strongly prefer to cherry-pick the specific information they're looking for, and the frequent use of headlines and subheads allows them to do this with ease. For non-technical readers, there's nothing more intimidating than large blocks of text with no place to rest the eye. You'll find that breaking each topic down into small, manageable chunks will also aid you in the writing process. Writer's Digest recommended revisiting your headlines to make sure they accurately summarize the content of that particular section.

2.) When possible, break up text into brief lists.

Not everything technical can be broken down into a short, snappy list some individual steps involve numerous vital details. However, if you can lay out a list of steps before plowing through those details, you'll let your readers know early on that there's an end in sight and logical steps to get them there. Lists also create a break for the eyes.

3.) Keep your tone professional.

Technical writing is not prose or creative nonfiction. It is written only to teach a reader how to do something or how to use something. While the For Dummies books exemplify a move toward technical writers creating more folksy and conversational how-to material, most technical readers aren't looking for clever wording or side stories while they read. They want stripped-down, straightforward writing that will help them learn how to accomplish a task. This doesn't mean you can never include clever and related anecdotal elements; it only means that technical writers should use them sparingly, particularly for a technical audience.

4.) Use present tense and imperative sentences.

Readers want to be told implicitly what to do. Writing imperatively and in the present tense is not only helpful to the reader, but it also eliminates unnecessary wordiness. For example, "Select Menu, and choose from the available options" works better than the more conversational "Once you've found the menu, you can choose from the available options."

5.) Keep it simple.

When you're proofreading your writing, keep an eye out for big words that take away from the simplicity of the material. While some jargon is unavoidable, you can certainly substitute "use" for "utilize" and "end" for "terminate." You're not trying to impress anyone and simple words are often just as effective as more elaborate words. Also, try to break up compound sentences whenever possible into two simpler sentences.

6.) Use specific words.

Part of using specific words involves avoiding the word "it," even on the third and fourth reference. Readers need to know what "it" is throughout a specific section to avoid confusion. You will also need to use consistent terminology. Do not alternate the terms you use to add variety to your writing.

7.) Write in active voice.

Using imperative sentences whenever possible will help you avoid the passive voice most of the time in instructional material, but for other technical writing you will need to actively avoid the passive voice, which will not only make your material more wordy, but will also weaken your sentences.

8.) Ask for feedback.

Some supervisors are better at giving feedback on your technical writing than others. You may need to ask specifically for them to look over your work and point out any consistent weaknesses in your writing and areas where you can improve.

About the Author

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online courses. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7