Three Techniques for Improving your Technical Writing
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Last time, we discussed some of the fundamentals of technical writing. Today, we’re going to look at a few techniques that can help improve your technical writing skills. These techniques are specifically aimed at improving a writer’s ability to produce the precise and simple language that is essential for technical writers, but they can help improve the skills of any writer and shouldn’t be underestimated or casually dismissed.
The first technique is simplification. The goal of a simplification exercise is to take a complex sentence and try to make it as simple as possible while retaining information. For example:
The laser array, installed in step 5c, can easily be modified—or even replaced, if a maser is available—to accommodate the needs of the consumer.
Now, we covered this technique generally last time, but now let’s get more specific. We’ll start by identifying and listing the information communicated in this sentence:
1) The laser array can be modified to accommodate the needs of the consumer.
2) The laser array was installed in step 5c.
3) The laser array is easily modified.
4) The laser array can be replaced with a maser.
Next, you’ll want to identify the central idea of the sentence. In this case, it happens to be the first one on our list:
The laser array can be modified to accommodate the needs of the consumer.
Simplify the language:
The laser array can be adjusted to meet the customer’s needs.
Now, use this as a base to build on:
The laser array installed in step 5c can easily be adjusted to meet the customer’s
needs or even replaced with a maser.
Another technique that you can practice is rewriting passive sentences as active and vice versa. A technical writer needs to be able to use both the passive and active voice effectively in their writing, so it pays to practice using both.
We’ll start with rewriting a passive sentence. The first step is being able to identify when the passive voice is being used:
The button was pressed, causing the death of millions.
In this sentence, the verb is being performed on the subject of the sentence (“the button”) rather than the subject performing the verb. There is nothing and no one pressing the button. This is the passive voice. To rewrite it as an active sentence, all you need to do is reveal who’s pressing the button:
Someone pressed the button, causing the death of millions.
For active to passive, you reverse the process and remove the actor.
Brian fought the alien menace.
The alien menace was fought.
The final technique that can help you develop your technical writing skills is learning to condense information. Simply start with a passage:
In the case of a fire, all employees should follow the procedure outlined in their
department’s fire safety plan. The plan is available for review in the employee safety manual and is also posted at each emergency exit. Employees can also receive a copy of the plan from the floor warden or their supervisor.
And practice trying to condense the passage into a single sentence:
In case of a fire, employees should follow the fire safety plan found in the employee safety manual, at the emergency exits, or by contacting their floor warden or supervisor.
If you are having trouble, use the same steps as you did with the simplification exercises: list all of the information, isolate the central idea, simplify the language, and build from there.
There’s a lot more to technical writing than this, but if you practice these techniques and keep in mind the fundamentals of technical writing, you’ll quickly master the basics. From there, it’s like any other type of writing: practice, practice, practice.
That’s it for technical writing. Next time, we’ll take a look at something a little more artistic with the basics of poetry. Until then, just remember to keep writing.
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