Technical writing, you’ll find, is much different from any other type of writing you have probably experienced in English class. For instance, take a look at this poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Hopefully you recognize this simple poem as artistic, aesthetic, perhaps even beautiful. But it is obviously not technical writing. In fact, technical writing is not an artistic expression; it is a craft we use to communicate specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose. An example of technical writing on this same topic would look more like this:
Eagle — Any of various large birds of prey of the family Accipitraidae, including members of the genera Aquila Haliaeetus … characterized by a powerful hooked bill, long broad wings and strong, soaring flight. It feeds mostly on fish and rodents and calls with rapid, sharp chips.
In technical writing, then, you need to think about three major components: the audience, the message and the purpose.
Analyzing Your Audience
Whenever you are communicating with an audience through written words, you need to “put yourself in your readers’ shoes.” You need to understand their knowledge of your topic, their attitude toward your topic, and why the topic should be of interest to them.
Think about the readers’ experience, occupation, education and relationship to you. From that, figure out what they know about your subject and how they feel about your subject. Also, try to determine what their attitude is toward you.
For instance, you are applying for a job in computer programming at IBM. The job opening was advertised in an on-line job-placement service. What do you need to know about the reader’s background (remember, you should always know who you are writing to: someone in personnel, management, etc.)? Obviously, these people know a great deal about computer programming to begin with. In your letter, it would be a waste of their time for you to start defining technical computer terms for them.
What is the reader’s attitude toward your resume? They have advertised for this position, so you know they need to fill an opening. It would be much different if you were applying to a company that did not have a specific opening. In that case, you would have to convince them why it would be to their benefit to find an opening for you. In this case, with the opening already there, you need to convince them that you are the best choice for that specific opening. And you have to do it in a professional manner.
Always remember your objectives: why do you want the reader to read your document? For the resume, it’s clear that you want them to understand your skills and background, but more importantly you want them to respond to what you have written and call you up for an interview.
Identify Your Purpose
Who are you? Why are you writing this document? Always keep in mind your purpose: that will help you to design your document’s appearance and the tone and style of writing that you need to use. Documents come in many shapes and sizes, single spaced and double spaced, full of graphics or simple white space, less than a page or more than 20 pages. You need to know what kind best suits your need.
If you are dealing with a serious issue, it would not be helpful to begin your document with a joke. But you should always begin documents with a friendly buffer. Your company is going to increase its fee for providing the public with a service. Sure, they may be doing it because the high-cost of living requires them to give their employees raises, but does the public really care about that? Wouldn’t it be more effective to let the public know that services are going to be improved, more options will be available to them? It’s up to them to make sure their employees deserve a raise, not you.
Here’s a simple phrase that will be important throughout the course: “write to express ideas, not to impress your audience.” You are an expert at what you are discussing, but you need to be able to express yourself in terms your audience will understand. Do not make your reader decipher what you have written. Your reader should be able to understand it as he/she is reading it. This may sound ironic, but technical writing is best accomplished through simple language and a simple writing style.
Identify Your Message
You are establishing a relationship with your reader. Writing, obviously, is an active process. How many of you sweat over writing exercises? How many of you have aches and pains following a difficult writing assignment? How many of you have said, “This sure is a hard assignment- I think I’ll do it later.”? Well, the reader should have an active role in writing as well. The reader, as you just learned, has to respond to technical writing for it to be successful.
That means you have to use all of those concepts you learned in so many other English courses: grammar, spelling, mechanics, organization, development. We are dealing with professional documents in this course, and they need to appear professional. Know what kind of document you are writing and what rules determine that document’s appearance. In business correspondence, you should always sign your document with a full name. In memorandums, you don’t. It’s as simple as that, but there are many, many different kinds of documents.
How can you make your document most effective? Will graphics make it better or worse? Is single spacing okay, or will double spacing help the reader respond? Should you use two pages, or would it be better to find a way to shrink the content and make it one page? For that matter, do you need more content? Is your information clear, concise and complete? There’s lots to consider.