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Technical Communications Toolbox

Writing

Conventions

Every type of writing has its own traits and characteristics that help to identify it. Technical writing is not like writing for an essay or newspaper article.  Technical writing generally has distinct features such as the use of headings to organize information, use of table and figures to present information, and a clear and concise writing style.  Table 1 gives more information on typical technical writing conventions.

Table 1 – Typical Technical Writing Conventions2

Criteria Technical Writing Other Writing
Purpose Communicate technical information such as an experimental result or design recommendation.  Is clear, concise, and complete. To support an argument or thesis, or to entertain.  May have element of suspense to keep reader reading.
Audience Varies, but can be fellow employees, managers, clients, stakeholders, or public. Varies, but often written for the public.
Writing Style Clear, concise, complete.  Direct language with clear purpose.  Technical terms used (may need to be defined) Building purpose.  Laying groundwork to support argument.  Flowing and entertaining style.
Tone Business – professional – formal.  Generally, avoid personal pronouns. Personal – conversational – informal
Structure Highly structured.   Clear headings and sub-headings with short organized paragraphs designed to orient and move reader through. Some structure, but headings may be more intriguing less clear and often sub-headings not used.
Format/Formatting Varies.  Electronic or printed, visual or non-visual, long or short.  Uses headings as well as tables and figures.  Style guides used to establish formatting rules. Varies.
Other Objective and neutral.  Results and recommendations evidence and data driven.  Precise and quantitative. May be persuasive to support an argument.  May use evidence but often more qualitative.

Audience

The first thing to consider in your technical communication is who will be looking at your work.  The communication is not for your benefit, but for the benefit of the audience. Rather than trying to “show what you know,” it is about providing information to the audience.  In thinking about your audience consider the following questions:

  • Who is my target audience? Are they experts in the field, or new to it? Experts will not need as much theory/background or definition of terms, but those that are new to the field will benefit from that information.  Are they internal to the company, or is this an external document?  If internal then you may not have to explain everything in detail and can be more frank with the recommendations. External work needs to be more polished and may need to provide more background information.  Communication for the public may need to be written in less “technical” language, but communication to other professionals in your field may need to include the correct “technical” terms. If you are writing for a class, then the professor should help you determine the audience.
  • What do they already know? There is no need to go into lengthy explanations if you can expect your reader already knows the information (remember it’s not about trying to “show what you know”). However, if the reader does not already have the information, then it should be presented to them.
  • What is the goal or purpose in the communication? What are you trying to communicate? What are the readers expecting to do with the document? What is the document meant to accomplish? Why has it been requested? What do I want them to do as a result of reading this document? How can I plan the content to meet my readers’ needs?  Why does this audience want or need to read this document?


Once you think about these questions, you can start to outline a communication that is clear and direct and geared toward the benefit of the audience.

Technical Report Organization

Most technical writing follows the well-recognized general organization described in this section.  This can be applied to technical reports, lab reports, journal papers, etc.    An example annotated technical report from a CV ENG **** course is located here.  Use the report for an example of each of the sections described next.

Other types of reports (i.e. memos, emails, specifications, proposals) will have a slightly different organization.  Please see **** for examples of other types of technical writing common in your Civil Engineering courses.

Each section should be able to “stand on its own”. Meaning that if you need to refer to information in a previous section you should use an appropriate cross-reference (i.e. see Section 4.3.2 for …).  In addition, the sections should have a logical flow and structure within themselves. Each paragraph should define or explain a single topic, and there should be organization, transitions, or flow between the paragraphs. An example annotated technical report from a CV ENG **** course is located here.  Use the report for an example of each of the sections described next.

Cover Sheet

Many reports will contain a cover sheet that provides basic information.  The layout of the cover sheet may be dictated by whomever is to receive the report (i.e. the Graduate School has a pre-determined layout for thesis and dissertations).  The cover sheet will generally include the following information:

  • Title of report
  • Your name
  • Names of group members (where appropriate)
  • Date submitted
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