1 – Introduction
Like journalism and scholarly writing, technical writing possesses distinct features that readers expect to see. Mike Markell, Sidney Dobrin et al., Elizabeth Tebeaux and Sam Dragga, and others all identify similar characteristics of technical writing. Below is a summary of those major characteristics and what they might look like in a technical or business document.
Audience Focused. Designing technical communication is like designing any other product for an intended user: the ultimate goal is to make it “user friendly.” Therefore, technical and professional documents address a specific audience. The audience may be an individual or a group who may or may not be known to the writer. Potential audiences for technical and professional documents can include fellow employees such as subordinates, colleagues, managers, and executives, as well as clients and other stakeholders, the general public, and even readers within the legal system.
While there is always a primary audience addressed, there may also be a secondary audience. The primary audience is the individual or group who will be directly using the documentation, whereas secondary audiences may use the documents as references or in order to learn about what is going on in a company or organization. For example, your syllabus for calculus is written with students as the primary audience; however, other secondary audiences including college administrators, accreditors, and other professors may use the syllabus for other reasons.
Purposeful. All technical communication requires a purpose for existing. Typically, technical and professional documents are designed to help their user solve a problem or to compel them to act. Common purposes for a technical document include
- Providing technical or specialized information in accessible and usable ways,
- Offering clear instructions on how to do something, and
- Advancing the goals of the company or organization.
For example, the syllabus of your calculus class informs the students what is expected of them and when assignments are due; the university’s website provides information to potential students about how to apply or to current students about where to seek assistance.
Professional. Technical communication reflects the values, goals, and culture of an organization, and thus creates and maintains the public image of that organization. Characteristics of “professional” writing include concise, clear, and direct language. To achieve clarity and concision, writers may include specialized terminology, use short sentences and paragraphs, employ active (rather than passive) voice, and make the purpose of the document immediately clear.
“Professional” also refers to tone, or the general mood that a document conveys. Falling between formal and informal, business and technical documents may use first person (I or we) or second person (you). The overall sound of the document is objective, neutral, courteous, and constructive.
Design Centered. Technical communication uses elements of document design (such as visuals, graphics, typography, color, and spacing) to make a document interesting, attractive, usable, and comprehensible. Most of the time, these design elements will be provided for you by company branding, guidelines, or style sheets; however, with smaller or new companies, you may end up in a position where you need to create those style sheets. While some documents may contain only written words, many more use images—charts, photographs, and illustrations—to enhance readability and to simplify complex information. Typically, professional documents are highly structured and use short paragraphs, clear transitions, and structural cues (such as headings and subheadings or transitions) to guide the reader.
Common design features of professional and technical documents include
- Headings and subheadings to organize information into coherent sections,
- Lists to present information concisely,
- Visuals such as figures and tables to present data and information visually, and
- Spacing and alignment to enhance readability.
Collaborative. Because of workplace demands, technical and workplace writing is often created in collaboration with others through a network of experts and designers. Various departments often depend upon each other within a delivery-chain structure, as documents may build from an initial component created by an individual or delegated team to a combination of elements submitted and integrated cohesively by multiple groups. Within this collaborative space, timelines and deadlines also factor into consideration and may affect the pace of communication and production for all parties involved. For more information, see Chapter 13: Collaborative Writing.
Research Oriented. Rhetorically, technical and professional documents usually employ logos, or appeals to evidence, logic, and reason. Statements and claims are evidence- and data-driven. This type of writing therefore depends on sound research practices to ensure that information provided is correct, accurate, and complete.
Tonally Neutral. Effective technical and professional documents make an effort to present information with a neutral tone. Tonally neutral writing allows readers to evaluate and even inform the writer’s ideas, such as in peer-reviewed research. Other genres of technical and professional writing, such as proposals and reports, often ask their readers to take action or make a decision based on these documents’ content. If the writing is biased towards one conclusion or another, it can inhibit the reader’s ability to make the best decision by obscuring all potential options and their merits.
Ethical. Lastly, technical communication is ethical. All workplace writers have ethical obligations, many of which are closely linked to legal obligations that include liability laws, copyright laws, contract laws, and trademark laws.
Ultimately, technical documents are intended to communicate accurate information to the people who need it, in a way that is clear and easy to read, at the right time to help make decisions and to support productivity.
This text was derived from
Reardon, Tiffani, Tamara Powell, Jonathan Arnett, Monique Logan, and Cassandra Race, with contributors David McMurrey, Steve Miller, Cherie Miller, Megan Gibbs, Jennifer Nguyen, James Monroe, and Lance Linimon. Open Technical Communication. 4th Edition. Athens, GA: Affordable Learning Georgia, n.d. https://alg.manifoldapp.org/projects/open-tc. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
- Mike Markell, Technical Communication, 11th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2015). ↵
- Sidney Dobrin, Christopher Keller, and Christian Weisser, Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2010). ↵
- Elizabeth Tebeaux and Sam Dragga, The Essentials of Technical Communication, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012). ↵
- On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which is designed to promote clear government communication that the public can understand and use. This Act calls for writing that is clear, concise, and well-organized. See “Law and Requirements,” Federal Plain Language Guidelines, Mar. 2011, https://plainlanguage.gov/law/ ↵