Technical Writing Style
Technical Writing Videos
Williams Technical Writing Videos
Free short videos are available from TWFred (an author of Wikiversity's Technical Writing Course) explaining technical writing strategies and techniques. These videos complement the contents of this Wikiversity course. Topics include the following:
- Using Active Voice
- Structuring Descriptions, Steps, and Outcomes
- Avoiding Ambiguity and Exaggeration
- Choosing Terminology
- Writing for User Personas
- Inform (educate) the user.
- Write clearly, using words the audience understands.
- Compose simple, active voice sentences.
- Understand the audience and speak directly to the reader.
- Use active voice, appropriate grammatical person, present tense, and the imperative mood.
- Determine if the text requires a change in grammatical person or past tense, future tense, and/or declarative mood.
- Avoid unnecessary repetition, redundant jargon, and passive voice.
- Evaluate your writing: write, review, and repeat.
Important information first
Important information at the beginning of a sentence makes it easier to understand.
- The unwise walking about upon the area near the cliff edge may result in a dangerous fall and therefore it is recommended that one remains a safe distance to maintain personal safety.
- Danger! Stay away from cliff.
Use your audience's vocabulary
Good technical writing improves the reading experience. Use synonyms for "technical" terms to make the reader's document search more effective.
Understand your environment
Some business environments don't understand the technical writing style, insisting on passive voice and artificial formality. Modern technical writing directly addresses the reader in an unpretentious way.
Good sentence structure helps convey information. Try to keep the most important information towards the beginning of the sentence.
- Furthermore, large volumes of water are also required for the process of extraction.
- Extraction also requires large volumes of water.
Long sentences tax the brain and make remembering information difficult. Strive to keep sentences under 16 words. Split long sentences into two or more chunks. A sentence that lists three or more items may work better as a bulleted list.
The most basic sentence is a simple sentence with only one clause. Evaluate each sentence to ensure it contains sufficient information.
In the U.S., periods and commas usually fall inside the quotation marks. In the UK and most other countries, terminal punctuation usually goes outside the quotation marks unless part of the quotation. This style (sometimes called logical punctuation) is also permitted in American writing where precision is necessary, e.g. in presenting computer code and commands, or in textual criticism.
Five rules of concise communication
Avoid the obvious:
Understand the audience's technical level. Know what terms they understand and what terms you must define.
When reading a piece of technical writing, the audience does not benefit from elaborate prose. They just need information on how to perform a task. Avoid using padding, or filler. Don't use phrases such as, kind of, sort of, and essentially.
Avoid redundant prepositional phrases
Prepositional phrases, the combination of a preposition with a noun phrase, are among the worst offenders in making text long and tiresome to read. Often, it is possible to replace an entire phrase with a single word.
- Use now instead of at this point in time.
- Use suddenly instead of all of a sudden.
Write short, succinct sentences. Never say, "...as has been said before," "..each and every," "...point in time," etc. Avoid "...in order to," especially at the beginning of sentences. Every word must contribute meaning to the sentence. Technical writing is information delivery.
While it is good to have a wide vocabulary, technical writing is not the place for showing off linguistic abilities. Technical writing is about producing clear, plain instructions for a specific audience.
George Orwell's general writing rules work for technical writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one works.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, do so.
- Never use the passive voice. Use active instead.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Exceptions for technical writing:
- If the audience habitually uses a particular metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, you can use it too.
- If scientific jargon is a standard, ensure you follow it.
- Once you explain a word or term, you have made it usable in that document as a technical term—so use it consistently for that element.
Look at the Basic English ordered word list.
Use active voice
Active voice clearly shows the actor in a situation. When we read active voice, we know who does what to whom. Active voice is shorter and more interesting to read. Active voice is the standard for technical writing.
- A. They speak English.
- B. English was spoken.
Passive voice obscures the actor—sometimes deliberately, as in, "Mistakes were made." Passive voice is ambiguous and often leaves out important information. Who made those mistakes?
- The file is edited by the administrator.
- The administrator edits the file.
You can identify the passive voice easily. Sentences that have the word "by" are almost always passive. Past-participle verbs—"was eaten," "is driven"—are usually passive. You can always rework a passive sentence to turn it active. Often, you just put the actor first.
- This Wiki has been written by various authors.
- Mistakes were made.
- One must masticate thoroughly to ensure the burrito will have been eaten completely.
- Various authors wrote this Wiki.
- I made a mistake.
- Chew the burrito well.
Common intransitive verbs
The following verbs cannot be used in passive voice: appear, arrive, come, cry, die, go, happen, occur, rain, sleep, stay, walk.
Understanding present tense
Computers have no past, and no future. Everything happens in the present as a direct result of some event, usually caused by the user. As each event takes place, the computer has a reaction. Each of these events happen in the present, so good technical writing uses the present tense almost exclusively.
|The user clicks Save.||The computer saves the file.|
|The user types a login and password.||The computer checks the login and password against an authorized user list. If the login and password are on the list, the welcome screen appears. If the login or password does not match, the try again screen appears.|
First, second, and third person refer to personal pronouns that reflect a point of view in singular and plural forms. Each "grammatical person" can be written in subjective case, objective case, or possessive case.
When writing or editing technical content, consider the sentence or paragraph's meaning. The two examples below demonstrate common uses of third and second person.
Example: Third person - active voice
- The Options menu item specifies which model components display. Selecting Options produces a pop-up dialog box with toggle switches grouped into Elements, Rendering, and Reference Geometry.
The second person point of view addresses a reader or listener directly. Second person address the reader, the person your writing speaks to ("you" for both singular and plural).
Here is an example of the imperative mood with the pronoun your:
- Turn in your cycle log each Friday.
Plain language specifications generally specify that you use contractions where appropriate. Do not use irregular contractions, or contractions that reflect future tense or passive voice—e.g., "...the motor'll start."
Readers process and understand short, active voice sentences. Remember that instructions you provide the user must indicate: who, what, where, and how to perform the action.
Workers should tighten the chuck with great care because incorrect tightening may result in damage to the drill bit.
Tighten the chuck carefully to avoid damaging the drill bit.
Avoid ambiguous sentences
Do not write sentences that the reader may interpret in more than one way.
- The user may choose to open the chosen file, and it will automatically open itself when it is hit by the mouse.
- Click any file to open it.
Write for application consistency
Commonly, steps in a procedure or task follow the navigational structure of the application left to right, top-down. Each step must include the menu commands, or dialog box and field names in the sentence. The top-down method determines the "big picture" (global view) of the application first and then defines its features in detail. Note, based on the language we may read right to left.
- Select Rename from the Edit menu.
- On the Edit menu, select Rename.
Action verbs, menus, and commands
We interact with computers in a variety of ways. You can select anything on an application user interface by selecting it using a keyboard or mouse. It is important to use action verbs and software terminology correctly.
The most frequent verbs used in software are:
Use of an action verb in a sentence (bolded words):
- 1. In the dialog box, click Open.
- 2. Type a name in the text box.
- 3. On the keyboard press Enter.
Use of menu actions and commands in a sentence:
- 1. On the File menu, click Open.
- 2. Type a name in the User Name field.
- 3. In the Open dialog box, click Save.
- 4. On the computer keyboard, press Enter.
Make users aware of where they are in the application. If there is more than one method to perform an action, use the most common method. Define "what, where, and how" in each step of the task or procedure. Describe menu items for the current task left to right, top-down.
- On the File menu, click Open File.
- On the toolbar, click the Open File icon.
English provides no dedicated pronoun for the gender-neutral third-person singular. The word "it" refers to animals or inanimate objects. Writers often use the gender-ambiguous plural pronouns: "they," them," and "their," to describe individuals of unknown gender.
- Example (using male singular)
- I saw someone in the distance. I could not see if he was male or female, but his coat was definitely brown.
- Example (using gender-neutral)
- I saw someone in the distance. I could not see if they were male or female, but their coat was definitely brown.
In technical writing, the gender-neutral pronouns, they, them, or their, are preferable to the verbose he or she/his or her/him or her. If a sentence seems awkward, try to avoid the issue: leave out the pronoun or use second person imperative. These examples assume the operator is the audience:
The operator must turn in his or her cycle log each Friday.
The operator must turn in their cycle log each Friday.
- Better still
Turn in your cycle log each Friday.
Writing for translation: Use gender-specific pronouns when writing for a language that uses personal pronouns that differ according to gender.
How long can a list be?
Most people can associate between five and nine data items together. Therefore, keep your lists short. If any list of instructions has more than seven steps, try to break it into two or more groups, with an intermediate state between. Again, there is no iron rule. Do what is reasonable in your circumstance.
Lists are a useful tool in technical writing, as they break-up overly long sentences into information chunks that are easier to digest than long-winded monologues.
Why use lists?
Lists are useful because they:
- Break up long sentences
- Create easy to digest information chunks
Ordered and unordered lists
Use unordered (bulleted) lists when the audience doesn't require that the information be in any particular order, as in lists of:
Note: Options are non-exclusive possible actions in the software.
Use ordered (numbered) lists when the audience needs the information in a particular order, or needs to refer to list items by number:
- Steps of a procedure
- Items on a check list
- Requirements in a specification
Even lists can become overly long and require breaking up, this is best achieved by separating the information chunks Technical_writing_structure into chunks. Most people can remember a maximum of 7 ± 2 items without too much hassle, as proposed by George Miller. Generally, however—once a list goes above 10 items, sub-divide it.
- Pork chops
- Pork Chops
Just as in regular text, it is important to punctuate lists correctly. If the list is made up of phrases, capitalize the first word of each list item. Do not end each list item with a comma or full-stop (period).
The new Skoda Fabia has three benefits:
- Greater fuel efficiency
- Expanded head room
- Expanded rear leg room
When items are complete sentences, begin with a capital and end with a period.
The new Skoda Fabia has three benefits:
- The fuel efficiency is greater.
- There is more head room.
- There is increased rear leg room.
List items are sometimes an initial phrase followed by a complete sentence. In that case, use capital letters and full stops (periods) for the phrases as well as the complete sentences.
Subject matter is important. Remember that warnings come first. Apply warnings to any documentation that includes a task or procedure that causes damage to life or property.
Part of our task as information specialists is to write in a tone suitable for the audience. In writing for educated and experienced engineers, an informal tone is inappropriate. Most technical writing requires a reasonably formal style. When deciding on style and tone, audience, subject, and purpose are the main considerations.
Audience awareness dictates style. As we are writing for professionals we must write professionally, in a reasonably formal style.
Our purpose is to inform, not to entertain. So our writing must be informational.
Seven guidelines for clear writing.
- Use active voice
Active voice works better than passive in technical writing because it focuses sentences on the person or other entity that performs the action—the agent, or actor. For clarity, active voice is vastly preferable to passive, though occasional situations make passive voice unavoidable.
- Be specific
Use precise words as opposed to more general variants. Provide enough detail to inform the reader. Avoid ambiguity. Many words in English have multiple meanings; make it clear which meaning you intend.
- Eliminate useless jargon
"Jargon" is a field's specialist vocabulary. Computer scientists speak of a "network" and mean something different from when a sociologist talks about a "network." Jargon is a necessary part of modern life, but we must be aware of what jargon the reader knows and how they use it.
- Be positive
Avoid phrases that contain negative elements like "no" or "not." For example, "impossible" is a positive construction as opposed to "not possible." The main reason for using positive constructions is that the reader more readily understands information in this form.
- Avoid long noun constructions
English commonly uses a noun as an adjective, which can cause unwieldy phrases. Often, you can clarify this with a hyphen between, for example, two nouns used as adjectives (as in the phrase "flat-bed plotter"). Clarity demands that we must write to make the meaning clear.
- Don't use cliches
Cliches are outdated ways of writing that often represent a writer's attempt to impress. Good writing is original and clear. The best English is plain English.
- Don't use euphemisms
Say exactly what it is you want to say, don't run away from writing the uncomfortable.
When writing for audiences that include non-native English speakers, it is important to write simple, straightforward sentences and avoid colloquialisms. Some industries have adopted a “Simplified English” that consists of about 1000 words, each with a single meaning. Be aware of any relevant simplified English for the target industry, so you can write text that the audience can understand.
Articles in English present some of the most difficult aspects of grammar. Here are the rules.
Articles in English are invariable. They have one form regardless of the subject: "the" is always "the," and refers to:
- Something already mentioned: An MGC is a "Media Gateway Controller"; the MGC controls all activity on an IP phone network.
- Something both speaker and listener understand, even if not previously mentioned: "Where is the kitchen?"
- A particular person or object: The person who wrote the documentation has excellent style...
- Unique objects: the sun, the moon, the world...
- Superlatives and ordinal numbers: The best, the first...
- With adjectives, to refer to a whole group of people: the Japanese, the old...
- Geographical areas and oceans: the Atlantic, the Gobi Desert...
- Decades, or groups of years: the Seventies, the early 19th century...
Use 'an' with nouns that start with a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) and 'a' with nouns that start with a consonant (letters that are not vowels):
- A chair
- An apple
- A truck
- An orange
- A castle
- An opera
- A historical (an historical is archaic and incorrect at least in the U.S.)
- An before a silent h: an hour...
- A before u and eu when they make a consonant Y (sound like 'you')
- a European, a university, a unit
The indefinite article:
refers to something for the first time:
An MGC is a "Media Gateway Controller." The MGC controls all activity on an IP phone network.
- John is a builder.
- Sarah is training to be a doctor
- He hopes to be a footballer.
with nationalities and religions:
- Dick is an American.
- Panjet is a Sikh.
with names of days:
- I was born on a Thursday.
to refer to a kind of, or example of something:
- The server room is a noisy place.
with singular nouns, after the words 'what' and 'such':
- What a shame!
- She's such a beautiful girl.
meaning 'one', referring to a single object or person:
- I'd like a pay raise please.
- The writer wrote a novel.
Notice also that we usually say a hundred, a thousand, a million.
When there is no article:
with names of countries (if singular)
- Germany is an important economic power.
- He's just returned from Zimbabwe.
- (But: I'm visiting The United States of America next week.)
with the names of languages
- French is spoken in Tahiti.
- English uses many words of Latin origin.
- Indonesian is a relatively new language.
with the names of meals.
- Lunch is at midday.
- Dinner is in the evening.
- Breakfast is the first meal of the day.
with people's names (if singular):
- John's coming to the party.
- George King is my uncle.
- (But: we're having lunch with the Morgans tomorrow.)
with titles and names:
- Prince Charles is Queen Elizabeth's son.
- President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
- Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes' friend.
- (But: the Queen of England, the Pope.)
After the 's possessive case:
- His brother's car.
- Peter's house.
- Engineering is a useful career.
- He'll probably go into medicine.
with names of shops:
- I'll get the card at Smith's.
- Can you go to Boots for me?
- 1948 was a wonderful year.
- Do you remember 1995?
With uncountable nouns:
- Rice is the main food in Asia.
- Milk is often added to tea in England.
- War is destructive.
with the names of individual mountains, lakes and islands:
- Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in Alaska.
- She lives near Lake Windermere.
- Have you visited Long Island?
with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports:
- Victoria Station is in the centre of London.
- Can you direct me to Bond Street?
- She lives in Florence.
- They're flying from Heathrow.
in some fixed expressions, for example:
- by car
- by train
- by air
- on foot
- on holiday
- on air (in broadcasting)
- at school
- at work
- at University
- in church
- in prison
- in bed
British or American English?
There are minor differences in American and British English. For example:
- Spelling differences—color vs. colour; realize vs. realise
- Americans put periods and commas inside quotes, British outside—The sign said, "push." vs. The sign said "push".
- In the US, ground floor and first floor both mean the floor at street level; in Britain, the first floor is the floor above the ground floor—which Americans call the second floor.
Use consistent terminology when you refer to the user interface:
- Check box
- Close button
- Dialogue box
- Dropdown lists
- Expansion boxes
- Keyboard keys
- Maximize button
- Menu and menu item
- Menu bar
- Minimize button
- Non-GUI screen
- Option button
- Quick Launch bar
- Scroll arrow
- Scroll bar
- Scroll box
- Start button
- Taskbar button
- Title bar
- URL address
- Wizard page
The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, 3rd ed. provides good recommendations for graphical user interface (GUI) terms.
Names for keyboard keys
Spell keyboard key names as they appear on the keyboard in both text and procedures. Use all capital letters referring to specific keys. Write arrow keys in small letters when referring to them generally. When writing about a specific arrow, for example \’DOWN ARROW\’, use all capital letters.
- ALT GR
- arrow keys
- CAPS LOCK
- DOWN ARROW (use with the and key)
- LEFT ARROW (use with the and key)
- NUM LOCK
- PAGE DOWN
- PAGE UP
- PRINT SCREEN
- RIGHT ARROW (use with the and key)
- SCROLL LOCK
- SPACE BAR (use with the)
- SYS RQ
- UP ARROW (use with the and key)
For information on keyboard key names not mentioned here, see Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, 3rd ed.
Dictionaries, thesauruses and grammar checkers
A part of the skill of writing is the use of dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammar checkers. For best results, use them often and in the formal writing setting. This alleviates words in passive voice, repetitive usage, and spelling errors.
A style manual helps writers adhere to evolved rules and conventions. In the U.S., writers use style guides from academic institutions, professional organizations, and corporations. The major style guides, however, are the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Generally speaking, journalists use the AP Stylebook and most other writers CMS, unless their work requires the style guide of a particular institution or corporation. The Microsoft Manual of style began as Microsoft's corporate style guide but enjoys wide use by technical writers for computer-specific issues.
Why use a style manual?
A good style manual guides writers through the complex world of English punctuation, syntax, grammar, and other writing issues. In some cases, style manuals disagree on minor points. For example, journalists, who follow the AP Stylebook, do not usually use a terminal comma: "chickens, ducks and geese." Outside journalism, writers who follow CMS use a terminal comma: "chickens, ducks, and geese." Use the convention appropriate for the type of writing, but even more importantly, use the same convention all the way through the document or project. A style manual provides a basis for applying rules and conventions consistently.
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMS or CMOS, or verbally as Chicago) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. In the United States, it is the most widely used style guide for non-journalistic content.
- Microsoft Manual of Style
- The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publication (MSTP) is widely used in the technical environment. The first edition was published in 1995.
- Associated Press Stylebook
- The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, usually called the AP Stylebook, is a style and usage guide used by newspapers and the news industry in the United States. It is not widely used outside of journalism.