Eloquent writing usually tells a story, persuades readers or educates while entertaining. Technical writing is different. It’s a purely utilitarian product that instructs and informs. Despite these substantial differences, technical writing and non-technical writing are similar in that they both require extensive practice and plenty of editing. Keep the following best practices in mind as you refine your technical writing skills.
Spend plenty of time planning
Before you write a word, you need to plan out the entire document. You’ll need to know:
- Style guidelines
- Applicable industry regulations
- Purpose and scope of the document
- Additional deliverables (appendix, glossary, etc.)
- Audience demographics
Once you know how many documents you’re producing, what they need to accomplish and who their audience is, you can start outlining them. You may adjust the outline as you write but you should have a general idea of which information will go where.
Simplify your language usage
People read manuals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to learn how to do what they need to get done. The easier it is for your audience to read the document, the more likely it is that they’ll get the desired result. Whenever possible, use short words and simple sentence structure. Take a look at the contrasting styles:
- Too complex: “Although Mr. Troy’s house was broken into, the burglars failed to locate his safe, and so only managed to steal a little cash.”
- Simplified: “Burglars stole $100 from Mr. Troy’s house. The safe was untouched.”
Write for speed readers and skimmers
Always bear in mind that people read technical documents to accomplish an actionable goal. Many of these individuals will skim a document to shorten the time it takes to understand something. There are a few strategies you can use to ensure that speed readers and skimmers still get the necessary information.
Use the inverted pyramid method, which involves putting the most important info at the beginning. This is also called front loading. You can also use bulleted lists to draw the reader’s attention to the most important points. Use numbered lists for step-by-step processes.
Use appropriate visuals
Depending on the company you’re writing for, you may be responsible for including some basic visuals in your documentation or for giving instructions to the illustration team. Avoid using visuals merely for the sake of increasing white space, but do use them whenever they would enhance the reader’s understanding.
For example, if you’re writing a manual on assembling a model rocket for hobbyists, you’ll need diagrams that allow the user to identify the various components, with arrows pointing to where those components should be placed.
Test your own instructions
Technical documents require heavy editing to cull unnecessary words, simplify sentences and enhance clarity. But before you can dive into the editing process, you need to test your own instructions. Follow what you’ve told the readers to do and make sure everything makes sense. Add additional clarifications as necessary.
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