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Introduction to technical writing

Writing for a professional audience:

  • Good Style
  • Building goodwill
  • Half Truths About Writing
  • Better Style
  • 11 Ways to Build Better Style
  • Draft Testing
  • Organizational Preferences

Ever feel like writing isn’t your cup of tea?

Good Technical Writing Style

  • Varies by audience; it considers the reader and builds goodwill
  • Maintains consistent and “good” style
  • Is, above almost all, clear

Good technical writing style also

  • Attends to visual impact
  • Persuades

Build Goodwill: Use “You-Attitude”

“You-Attitude” is a style of writing that

  • Adopts the audience’s point of view
  • Emphasizes what the audience wants to know
  • Protects the audience’s ego (e.g. does not use “you” to make accusations)

Build Goodwill: Avoid Bias

Use nonsexist language that treats both sexes neutrally.

  • Job titles: Chairman vs. Chairperson
  • Courtesy titles: Mrs. vs. Ms.
  • Pronouns: The nurse and her patients vs. the nurse and his patients

Don’t make assumptions about your audiences’ sexual orientation, gender, marital status, etc.

Use nonracist and nonagist language

  • Give someone’s race or age only if it is relevant to your communication.
  • Refer to a group by the term it prefers.

Half-Truths about Style

Most of us were taught certain style “rules” that we associate with professional/ academic writing.

  1. Write as you talk
  2. Never use “I”
  3. Never begin sentence with and or but
  4. Never end sentence with preposition
  5. Big words impress people

Write as You Talk:  Yes . . . But

Yes

  • You can do it for first draft
  • Read draft aloud to test

But

  • Expect awkward, repetitive, badly organized prose 
  • Plan to revise and edit

1. Sometimes conversational tone is called for and sometimes it’s inappropriate. Follow cues and when in doubt, be clear, polite, and straightforward. Don’t forget that when we speak we are also communicating using gestures, facial expressions, and tone.

Never Use I:  Yes . . . But

Yes

  • I can make writing seem self-centered
  • I can make ideas seem tentative
  • I should never appear in a resume, but it’s fine to use it in a cover letter.

But

  • Use I to tell what you did, said, saw—it’s smoother

2. Using “one” instead of “I” usually sounds archaic/ overly formal. I is usually perfectly fine. When you are revising, though, be aware of how many sentences might start with I. Vary your writing and stay focused on your subject.

Never Begin Sentence with And or But

  • And may make idea seem like afterthought
  • And gives effect of natural speech
  • But serves as a signpost, signals a shift
  •  But can make writing smoother

3. “And” or “but” can usually be rewritten as “Additionally” and “However” but there may be times when being quick and clear is the most important thing.

Never End a Sentence with a Preposition:  Yes . . . But

Yes

  • A preposition may not be worth emphasizing this way
  • Readers might expect something to follow a preposition
  • Avoid in very formal writing to meet audience expectations

But

  • OK now and then

4. The preposition rule is a myth.

Big Words Impress People:  Yes . . . But

Yes

  • You may want to show formality or technical expertise

But

  • Big words distance you from readers
  • Big words may be misunderstood
  • Misused words make you look foolish

5. Clear communication and good ideas impress people.

Building Better Style

  • Write WIRMI:  What I Really Mean Is
  • Read draft aloud to person three feet away
  • Ask someone to read draft aloud
  • Read widely; write a lot
  • Study revised sentences
  • Polish your style with the 11 techniques that follow

Ways to Build Better Style

Use the following tips as you:

  • Draft
  • Write and revise
  • Draft, revise, and form paragraphs

1. Use Accurate, Appropriate Words

Denotation

  • literal meanings; dictionary definitions
  • Bypassing—two people using same word to mean different things; causes mix-ups

Connotation

  • emotional association; attitude       
  •         -    /    +
  • nosy / curious 
  • fearful / cautious
  • obstinate / firm 

2.  Use Familiar Words

  • Words most people know
  • Words that best convey your meaning
  • Shorter, more common words
  • Specific, concrete words

Use Short, Simple, Alternatives

Stuffy    Simple

reside      live

commence    begin

enumerate    list

finalize    finish, complete

utilize    use

When you use jargon, consider your audience

Jargon—special terms of technical field

  • Use in job application letters
  • Use when essential and known to reader

3. Use Active Verbs (Usually)

Active—subject of sentence does action the verb describes

Passive—subject is acted upon

  • Usually includes form of “to be”
  • Change to active if you can
  • Direct object becomes subject

Passive vs. Active Verbs

P:  The program will be implemented by the agencies.

A:  The agencies will implement the program.

P:  These benefits are received by you.

A:  You receive these benefits.

P:  A video was ordered.

A:  The customer ordered a video.

Active verbs are better because—

  • Shorter
  • Clearer
  • More interesting

Passive verbs are better to—

  • Emphasize object receiving action
  • Adhere to the standards used in more conservative technical publications
  • Avoid placing blame

4. Use Verbs to Carry Weight

Replace this phrase with a verb

  • make an adjustment 
  • make a decision
  • perform an examination
  • take into consideration  

5. Eliminate Wordiness

Wordy—idea can be said in fewer words

Conciseness; a mark of good writing that contributes to clarity

  • Omit words that say nothing
  • Put the meaning in subject and verb

Omit Words that Say Nothing

Cut words if idea is clear without them

  • . . . period of three months
  • . . . at the present time

Replace wordy phrase with one word

  • Ideally, it would be best to put the. . . .
  • If possible, put the…
  • There are three reasons for our success…
  • Three reasons explain the…

Put Meaning of Sentence in Subject & Verb:  Example

  • The reason we are recommending the computerization of this process is because it will reduce the time required to obtain data and will give us more accurate data.
  • Computerizing the process will give us more accurate data more quickly.

6. Vary Sentence Length & Structure

Varying sentence length and structure helps keep audience interest

Use short sentences when subject matter is complicated

Use longer sentences to

  • Show how ideas link to each other
  • Avoid choppy copy
  • Reduce repetition

Mix sentence structures

  • Simple – 1 main clause
  • Compound – 2 main clauses
  • Complex – 1 main, 1 subordinate clause

7. Use Parallel Structure:  Example

During the interview, job candidates will

  • Take a skills test.
  • The supervisor will interview the prospective employee.
  • A meeting with recently hired workers will be held.

During the interview, job candidates will

  • Take a skills test.
  • Interview with the supervisor.
  • Meet with recently hired workers.

8. Begin Most Paragraphs with Topic Sentence

Unity—paragraph discusses one idea; a mark of good writing

Topic sentence—states main idea

  • Tells what paragraph is about
  • Forecasts paragraph’s structure
  • Helps readers remember points

9. Use Thesis Statements

A thesis is, essentially, a one or two-sentence version of the analysis or argument presented in a communication

Most reports should contain clear and concise thesis statements

  • Readers almost instinctively look to them for guidance

10. Use Transitions to Link Ideas

Transition—signals the connections between ideas to the reader

  • Tells if next sentence continues or starts new idea
  • Tells if next sentence is more or less important than previous
  • Don’t get stuck in the
  • “however” rut; there are plenty
  • of lists of transitions online

11. Cite, cite, cite

Always cite your sources, and use the citation style your audience prefers

  • Citations lend credibility and can keep you out of academic and legal trouble

Test drafts on actual audiences

  • How long does it take to find information they need?
  • Do they make mistakes using it?
  • Do they think draft is easy to use?

Writing Style Preferences

Good writing varies by organization, and, of course, from class to class and instructor to instructor

  • Use the style your audience prefers

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