10 Tips for Effective Technical Writing

Writing doesn't have to be a stressful affair. Here are a few tips to make things easier for you.

Just the other day, I was helping out a friend put together a sales kit for potential clients.   She felt totally at a loss, since she hardly got support from her boss, who basically just asked her to pull something out of thin air by the end of the week.

As a media and marketing consultant for several clients, I’ve noticed that this is not an uncommon occurrence: junior execs suddenly being thrust into a technical writing role, and expected to deliver results.

While I have only recently hired myself out as a digital mercenary, I’ve been in the business of technical writing for almost 10 years, having done all kinds of operations manuals, sales reports, marketing presentations, concept papers and training materials.

I have to admit, I had to learn quickly on the job.  But it was a good thing, because it gave me the confidence to do what I’m doing now.  I feel that a lot of people can benefit from what I’ve learned over the years, which brings us to today’s topic.

Effective Technical Writing

As a designated technical writer, your main goal is to make information not just understandable, but also usable.  The end result is that your target audience can perform a desired action or make an educated decision based on what it is you just wrote about.

Remember that technical writing falls in the realm of so many industries, not just hardcore sciences and technology.  You might find yourself writing a travel guide, a recipe, an annual business report, a guide to buying cameras, indoctrination materials for your colleagues, or even game FAQs.

With that in mind, you can observe these ten simple tips to be more effective as a technical writer:

For Starters:

1.  Align Yourself with Your client. As a technical writer, you are putting together a written extension of the company you are representing.  As such, your writing style and treatment will have to exude the same values and philosophies as your client’s.

I have to emphasize this since a lot of writers tend to inject a personal, sometimes even cliched style to their work, rather than preserving their company’s voice and tone.  Knowing what your client represents will form the basis of your mindset when working on whatever deliverables expected of you.

2.  Begin with the End in Mind. What exactly do you want your document to accomplish?  What exactly do you want your target audience to do upon reading your work?

This determines which are the more important parts of your writing- which ones will help achieve your mission, and which ones are just plain unnecessary.  Helps you make good use of your time, allowing you to focus your energies on what’s most important.

3.  Stick to the Basics of the Writing Process. Many writers take this for granted, but there’s a reason that this simple system has been in place for years.  If you’re writing for a living, this should really be second nature, as it helps organize your efforts and maximize your effectiveness.

  • determine your purpose and your audience,
  • collect information,
  • organize and outline the information,
  • write your first draft,
  • and finally, revise and edit your work.

Create the Best Possible Experience for your Audience

4.  Make Yourself Understandable.  Organize your ideas in easy-to-digest portions.  Stick to the most important ideas, and get straight to the point.  Other related, “nice-to-know” ideas may be incorporated later on, but outside your main article.

Simple things can help you achieve this: use shorter paragraphs, stick to a smaller word count as much as possible, use easy-to-understand words whenever you can.

5.  Make Extra Detail Available. Some of your readers may get it right away, and then there are those who might just need a little extra help grasping the concept, and then there are those who just want to get down and dirty.

Provide for extra- but still optional- information.  Your main text must be able to stand up on its own, but you must also facilitate understanding by means of illustrations, flowcharts, process flows, even videos or added text and breakaway columns if you have to.

6.  Make Your Content Engaging. Technical writing doesn’t have to be such a chore.  Straight to the point, yes. But never boring.

This is where your creativity comes in.   Your goal is to make your content as relevant to your audience as possible.  As long as they can continually relate with your work, you have been able to meet their needs.

7.  Understand Your Target Audience. Write and revise your content according to how your target audience thinks and understands things.  Getting into their heads- knowing how their minds process information, how they might react, what they feel is important- allows you to customize your content to tailor-fit their needs.

This goes hand-in-hand with #6.  And I have to say, this is one of the more important things you have to remember.  I’ve seen some good concepts fall flat because the target audience don’t appreciate the presentation or the way it’s written.

Understand Your Role as a Writer in the Grand Scheme of Things.

8.  You’re Not Expected to Know Everything. Nobody does, right?  In fact, chances are, your client will probably be handing you stuff to fix and re-write.  The raw stuff usually comes from some subject matter expert (SME), who usually isn’t too keen on doing the writing himself.  Which is where you come in.

The best way to go about your job is to constantly interact with the SME.  Whenever you need to clarify facts and figures, the SME should always be the first person you consult with.  His job is to provide you with all the information you need.  Your job is to organize it, keep it straight-to-the-point, and make it relevant to your target audience.

9.  You are Ultimately a Part of a Team. You might be doing all the writing, but you also have to understand that you’ll also be dealing with graphics people, editors, photographers, and now even multimedia artists and new media specialists.

Your team’s goal is to create deliverables using various media- whether on print, using audio & video, and even the internet.  Synergize with them, work as harmoniously as possible, and be a good team player.

Lastly…

10.  Open Yourself to Feedback. Make yourself available to your target audience.  Did your work have its intended effect?  Were there parts that needed more explaining?  Did they like the way the ideas were presented?  Was your client ultimately satisfied with your work output?

Just as important as delivering good writing, is getting real honest feedback.  Getting objective feedback is your way of learning.  It allows you to hone your writing skills some more by focusing on what made you connect well with your target audience, and by improving on your shortcomings.

So there you have it ladies and gentlemen.  I hope this post helps.

Cheers, everyone!

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10 thoughts on “10 Tips for Effective Technical Writing

  1. Renzie,

    Thank you very much for the article. This is a much coveted article I’ve been looking for.

    When I was in high school, I really liked composing, writing and editing my own work written in English. Having gone to another field or line of work where English is not much used, as in your day-to-day kind of job as writer, reporter or media consultant, I found myself writing from simple letters (such as cover letters, fund-raising appeal, responding to various organizations or people for explanation or info, and the like) to moderate complex business letters but not having done one on the technical writing side. I must admit I wanted to write one but did not know how since I have not taken a course in journalism.

    Each letter or composition I write, I always have to be reminded by the rules of grammar, verb tenses, subject and predicate relationships, mechanical aspects of English, messages conveyed, the audience and so forth. I develop this habit of editing, re-editing my work until I believe it is right. There are times I am not sure of my composition but many of my friends and co-workers are impressed since many of them can’t write like I do. They started requesting me to compose letters for them or correct and improve their letters.

    One thing that really impress me is when I see people who can fire up a memo, instruction or reminder in a flash without so much of an effort! I know they have this kind of experience and is part of their daily job. The use of words and the command in English is a much desirable thing to have or learn. I remember telling my dad one time that I wanted to take up journalism to which he told me that it was “starving fee” kind of profession. How true is this?

    English is a wonderful language and a song to my heart and life but I find the new generation destroying her beauty! Because of the proliferation and popularity of text messaging where simple rules are ignored or bypassed, I am afraid English will not be the same English that we know of. More importantly, pressure from the public and media will make the authorities accept the new kind of English as either standard or alternative one. Since the next generation will not know the correct spelling, tenses, agreements, or basic rules of paragraphs, I can imagine a simple memo or instruction will be filled with shortcuts or truncated words or sentences:

    “dear mr. writer, ur meeting w/ me iz pstpnd 2dy for 2morw @ 2pm. In d meantime, cn I c u dis pm in my office? G8!”

    By the way, I wrote a personal observation on this phenomena years ago.

    Again, thank you for the article and I really appreciate it. I have to go back to your previous articles and read some of them.

  2. Hello Walter.

    Thanks for stopping by. If you ask me, writing, just like any other profession, can be lucrative. Or at least very much rewarding. For me, it’s really more of a balance of being able to do exactly what you want to do, build up your market value, and still get some bills paid, all while having the freedom to do all the other things you want. In my case, it’s travel and spending time with family.

    Media companies- at least the good ones- should see themselves as bastions of proper English usage. Even government, for all their public speeches full of stammers and unnecessary fillers. This country doesn’t take statesmanship seriously, apparently.

    Heck, someone has to do things right around here. I’m glad you take the effort and the initiative to do things right. Texting might have its place (if you really need to cram all that info in 165 characters), but I for one discourage it- just like you, I would imagine.

    In fact, your post has inspired me to write something on the topic. Please do watch out for it in the coming days.

    Thank you once again.

  3. This is great, Renzie! A good reminder when faced with a blank sheet of paper. Your blog is really helpful, a mirror of who you are!

    I agree with you about the media companies – newspapers – who are negligent in the proper use of writing. Even the English paper here in HK (SCMP), I see basic grammar rules forgotten. Growing up, I was told I could improve my English by reading English language newspapers. It’s no longer true! We’ve subscribed to the Int’l Herald Tribune and National Geographic magazines and these are thankfully well written.

  4. Hello Sasa.

    You’re much too kind. Thank you 🙂

    I just believe that media companies are there for a reason. Cost-cutting should never be an excuse for hiring sub-standard employees– particularly those who are coming up with all kinds of broadcast copy, corporate correspondences and marketing materials.

    I just find it sad that a great deal of local media companies fail in that regard– Velvet, Maxx, the Solar Channels– the writing is just horrendous.

  5. Good morning Sir Renzie,

    This is what our office needed…Actually we are looking for a facilitator (maybe you) that can help us(?) enhance our technical writing skills. Maybe you could recommend??? please…

  6. Great post, I am trying to make some extra cash by writing for other people. I am not the best at it yet, but these tips are sure going to help.

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