Technical writing is like copywriting’s old, boring uncle.
In the communicative garden party that is online content, Copywriting gets everyone a drink and socializes, while Technical Writing runs the grill and feeds all the guests.
Copywriters may think technical writing is simple, but it actually presents a number of challenges unique to the discipline.
If you receive a technical writing assignment, will you know how to handle it?
Whether you’re a freelance copywriter or work in-house at an agency, at some point it’s likely you’ll be asked to produce a piece of technical writing.
Here are four ways to approach a technical writing assignment like a pro.
1. Get to the point — quickly
Copywriting is meant to be persuasive, so reading it should evoke emotion.
With technical writing, you simply want the reader to understand your topic as quickly as possible. You don’t want the reader to spend hours poring over the article.
Technical pieces are often too long because they include too much information. You need to write the leanest article you can.
Here’s an example:
This law was introduced in 2011, after a long, drawn-out process of appeals, to ensure that agency workers are given some of the same employment rights as their full-time counterparts.
This sentence would be perfectly acceptable for a legal essay, but it contains too much information for a technical article.
You must have the reader’s end goal in mind at all times. In this example, the end goal is for the reader to find out about employment rights.
The information about the legal appeals process is not essential, so remove it:
This law was introduced in 2011 to ensure that agency workers are given some of the same employment rights as their full-time counterparts.
There are also many short phrases that contain extra words you don’t need in technical articles.
- Never before
- None at all
- Still persists
- At the present time
- And many more!
Apply the following test: write down each technical topic’s goal. Then, whenever you include new information, ask yourself whether or not it achieves that goal. If it doesn’t, eliminate it.
2. Simplify your language
When you apply the above test correctly, you cut out extra information that is not needed in a technical article. Still, a lot of complicated ideas remain that need to be explained in a straightforward way.
Make the text short and snappy by simplifying your grammar and vocabulary.
Shorten sentences by cutting out as much punctuation as you can without affecting the readability of the sentence. Use fewer commas, more periods, and no semicolons at all, if possible.
Check out how this sentence can be simplified using these rules:
ICS, which is the professional body for shipping businesses, polled its clients and found that 47 percent were unsure about what the requirements meant; 36 percent knew a little and 69 percent had received no information from their agencies.
Although grammatically sound, punctuation changes make the sentence clearer:
The ICS is the professional body for shipping businesses. It polled its clients and found that 47 percent were unsure about what the requirements meant. 36 percent knew a little and 69 percent had received no information from their agencies.
Simplifying and refining your language is a must with technical writing. Your aim is to choose words that are easily understood.
Here are commonly used words that have simpler alternatives. Replace:
- functionality with feature
- aforementioned with mentioned
- firstly with first
- commence with start
- demonstrate with show, and
- in the event of with if.
Jargon should also be avoided, unless the term won’t cause confusion for your audience.
You may want to include a glossary if you’re writing on a topic that contains many long, complicated names and terms.
If someone unfamiliar with your technical topic can understand it, then you’ve communicated your message clearly.
3. Strengthen the structure
As mentioned above, technical articles should deliver information efficiently, so the structure should be easily scannable for people who choose to skim.
When structuring your article, its sub-sections, and each sentence, imagine an inverted pyramid — put all the important information at the top, followed by supporting details.
For example, always put the most important information in the main clause of each sentence.
Your original text may state:
Although they saved his cat, the firemen couldn’t stop Ben’s house from burning to the ground.
Revise this sentence to:
Ben’s house burned to the ground, although the firemen saved his cat.
With technical writing, this technique is necessary because it helps a reader quickly find the information he or she needs.
4. Manipulate your layout
To make your technical article easier for a reader to digest, use lists with bullet points.
Lists are your friend. Include them whenever you can, especially if each item in the list has a qualifier. The format is clearer than a long piece of prose separated by semicolons.
In fact, you should love lists so much that you make lists within lists. Or, as I like to call it, listception.
For example, review this long paragraph:
When we went to the music festival, we saw some great bands: there was Iron Maiden, English heavy metal legends, who were promoting their new album; Motley Crue, the classic ’80s rockers, founded by Tommy Lee; Linkin Park, the nu metal band from California who played songs from their first album, Hybrid Theory; and, finally, Black Sabbath, who are on their farewell tour and played songs requested by fans via their website.
The following list is much easier to process:
When we went to the music festival, we saw some great bands:
- Iron Maiden
- English heavy metal legends promoted their new album
- Motley Crue
- Classic ’80s rock band founded by Tommy Lee
- Linkin Park
- Nu metal band from California played songs from their first album, Hybrid Theory
- Black Sabbath
- Played songs requested via their website for their farewell tour
Also, consistency maximizes the readability of the article. Keep headers,
sub-headers, and sub-sub-headers in the same format — font size, type, weight, etc. — throughout your article.
If possible, work with a professional designer. Designers know how to lay out the text in your article to make it easier to read.
For example, they can introduce color schemes to define sections, design call-out boxes to separate large sections of text, or create charts and infographics to display data.
It’s time to get technical
After digesting these four tips, you should be writing stunningly straightforward technical guides and articles in no time.
What type of technical articles have you written?
How do you ensure that your topic is easily understood?
Let’s discuss the differences between copywriting and technical writing over on Google+ …
Editor’s note: If you found this article useful, we suggest you read 7 Ways to Simplify Complex Content While Maintaining Sophistication and Nuance by Yael Grauer.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via James Arboghast.