Episode 7: Let’s Get Technical


This may seem like a shock at first: technical writing does not mean dull writing. Too often journals and technical sites assume that their readers are more interested in the astounding, earth-shattering results, equations, and pontifications than in the clarity of the prose. But writing communication (that is, getting the point across in written words) depends upon how effectively the point is made. Advanced subject matter does not alter this point.

Defined: Put simply, technical writing refers to non-fiction that requires prior knowledge on the given subject. A technical paper, then, assumes that the reader is familiar enough with the topic at hand to eschew most introductions, definitions, and background. There’s no need to remind a microbiologist how proteins fold when discussing research, for example.

Elements: Although every field may be different, here are four common elements you will often find in technical writing: one neutral, two effective, and one needing to go.

  • Placement: Technical writing tends to exist within particular confines. You wouldn’t expect to find a journal article on the back of cereal box. Instead, when one picks up a science journal or a CIO whitepaper, one expects to read something more tailored for a knowledgeable audience.
  • Lingo: Some may blanch at calling their particular vernacular “lingo,” but technical writing generally uses undefined wording that other “experts” should recognize. In fact, this type of language can aid in brevity and clarity if the audience expects it.
  • Charts or graphs: This is not always guaranteed, but most technical writing will contain data points that are better represented visually. This, too, is useful.
  • Noun strings: And here we run into the problem. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of technical writing is the use of long noun strings that generally don’t convey much of anything. Let’s focus on these.

A noun string is, just like it sounds, a long jumble of nouns in a row. I’ll demonstrate.

A rare hydrogen-chloride shortfall vacuum event was observed.

Sounds impressive, eh? But I assure you that it is totally fabricated. We have grown accustomed to thinking of noun strings as “technical,” when, in fact, they are difficult for most readers to process. One noun we can process; two nouns perhaps. But “software interface bypass manifold transconducer” pushes the limits. Such language is what makes technical writing boring and tedious, even to the target audience.

Noun-string surgery is usually relatively painless. Instead of compacting nouns together, simply tease them apart. Instead of “transcendence versification poetry moment” use “a verse that demonstrates transcendence.” This may make the sentence a bit longer (and perhaps not as “impressive”), but the benefit to the flow and clarity is well worth the effort.

The second issue with the sentence above is the use of the passive (“was observed”). I am certainly not a dogmatist on verbs, but passive constructions do tend to grow tiresome if overused (we’ll look at these next week). Technical writers often feel the need for either false modesty or clinical distance from the research. Unfortunately for them, passive constructions used by them can cause trash receptacle deposition behavior models by the reader. And, please, don’t tell them I said that—or use that sentence.

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