What Is Technical Writing
Professionals in diverse technical fields face the challenge of effectively communicating complex ideas and solutions to individuals with less technical expertise. Technical writing encompasses the process of transforming intricate information into easily understandable content through the use of reports, user manuals, technical solutions, and other mediums.
Our team supports mission customers throughout the Department of Defense (DoD), Intelligence Community (IC), Maryland Procurement Office (MPO), and more. In our industry, characterized by the technology and solutions we develop, a distinct language has evolved. However, this specialized language does not always translate to individuals outside of this field or to those in programmatic or managerial roles within government organizations. As a consequence, understanding gaps can arise, leading to the loss of critical information due to unexplained acronyms, excessive technical details, or obscure technical jargon.
Due to the nature of our business, it is highly probable that you will be tasked with creating various technical documents, such as proposals, software/solutions documentation, or contract deliverables. These documents will be shared with our government customers, who may possess varying levels of technical expertise.
Once a document or work product has been assigned or initiated, it is important to think about the product’s purpose. What is the point you want to get across? What do you want readers to think about? As you start to write, keep the purpose in mind and attempt to weave it throughout your body of work. If the content does not support the purpose, it should be removed.
Identify The Target Audience
When communicating any type of information, it’s critical to consider your audience. Generally, there are three main audience categories: the “lay” audience, the “managerial” audience (often seen with our government customers), and the “expert” audience:
- Lay Audience – Comprised of individuals without specialized knowledge. If you are unsure which audience is appropriate, default to the lay audience.
- Managerial Audience – May have special knowledge, but requires the right information to make decisions. Many of our government customers will fall into this category.
- Expert Audience – Has the most technical expertise, but may be the most demanding. Documents for this audience will likely be quite technical in nature, and allow for the use of industry-specific language.
Simply Technical Content
A key tenant of technical writing is to ensure technical content is digestible for the average reader, including those who may not have technical expertise. This involves adjusting the vocabulary, providing examples, and carefully selecting the appropriate level of detail. Simplifying not only the technical jargon, but also ensuring the adequacy of the presented information is crucial. The content should include enough relevant details to be effective without overwhelming the audience or being redundant. Incorporating examples or analogies are a great way to explain a technical concept or complex solution.
A valuable approach to ensure adequate language simplification is to conduct a nontechnical peer review or to engage a technical writer for feedback. This reviewer should be someone who is not directly involved in the field or holds a nontechnical role. If the nontechnical reviewer struggles to comprehend the message conveyed, it is likely that the intended audience will encounter similar difficulties. While there may be instances where technical jargon cannot be entirely avoided, it remains crucial to maintain simplicity and conciseness in explanations.
Reduce Or Eliminate Fluff
When writing, it’s natural to be inclined towards adding extensive details and vivid imagery, as often encountered in recreational reading. However, in the context of our work, it is unnecessary and can hinder the understanding of technical content. When discussing technical solutions or products, it is advisable to keep the language straightforward and concise. Avoid using unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. While these embellishments may enhance a New York Times Best Seller, they are not the appropriate approach for technical documentation in our field.
While there are plenty of writing tips on the Internet, here are a few to get you started:
- Pictures – The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true, especially when it comes to explaining complex system overviews or difficult concepts. Visual aids, such as diagrams or illustrations, can be immensely helpful. Visual learners, in particular, find it easier to comprehend challenging concepts when accompanied by a visual aid.
- Analogies and Examples – Complex ideas can be communicated effectively through the use of analogies. This involves using real-world equivalents the audience will easily recognize. Examples are a great approach to making content understandable to lay or managerial audiences.
- Voice – There are two popular types of “voice” in writing – Active and Passive. Active voice is conversational and is typically easier to follow. Passive voice is often more formal and can, at times, make writing dense. Passive voice is fairly common within Government writing.
- Review – Request a nontechnical review from someone who shares a similar level of understanding as the target audience. This could be a technical writer or someone within your organization’s Program Management Office (PMO).
- Focus on the End User – Often times, our customer’s end users will scan the content provided and look for information that is easy to digest and is relevant to their needs. It’s critical to explain the “why.”
- Expand Acronyms – Acronyms should be expanded on first use in every document.
Here, we often support government customers. The language we use within the contracting and technical fields differs from the styles used in academia orthe media. Your document may not follow the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the Chicago Manual of Style but instead may follow the Department of Defense’s Style Guide. At the end of the day, the most important things to remember are your purpose and your audience.