Technical Writing

Compare the following two sentences that provide instructions to a set of employees (this Example is given in [Roy 2000]): 1. It is of considerable importance to ensure that under no circumstances should anyone fail to deactivate the overhead luminescent function at its local activation point on their departure to their place of residence, most notably immediately preceding the two day period at the termination of the standard working week. 2. Always turn the lights out when you go home, especially on a Friday.

The meaning of both sentences is, of course, equivalent. Which one was easier to read and understand? The objective of this document is to show people how to write as in the second sentence rather than the first. If you actually prefer the first, then there is little point in you reading the rest of this document. But please do not expect to win too many friends (or marks) from any writing that you produce. Unfortunately, the great shame for anybody having to read lots of reports in their everyday life is that the schools’ system continues to produce students who feel they ought to write more like in the first sentence than the second.

Hence, the unnecessarily complex and formal style is still common. This document shows you that there is a better way to write, using simple, plain English. One of the good things about technical writing is that you really can learn to improve. You should not believe people who say that being a good writer is a natural ability that you either have or do not have.

We are talking here about presenting technical or business reports and not about writing novels. I speak from some experience in this respect, because in the last ten years I have learned these ideas and applied them to become a better writer. When I was writing my first book in 1989 an outstanding technical editor highlighted the many problems with my writing. I was guilty of many of the examples of bad practice that I will highlight throughout this document. You too can improve your writing significantly if you are aware of what these bad practices are and how to avoid them. The document contains the following main sections: • • • • • Before you start writing (Section 2): This is a simple checklist that stresses the importance of knowing your objective and audience. Using plain English: style (Section 3). This is the heart of the document because it explains how to write in the simplest and most effective way. Using plain English: the mechanics (Section 4). This covers vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation. Basic structure for reports (Section 5). This section explains how to organise your report into sections and how to lay it out. Abstracts and executive summaries (Section 6). This explains the difference between informative and descriptive abstracts. It tells you why you should always use informative abstracts and how to write them. Writing that includes mathematics (Section 7). This contains some simple rules you should follow if your writing includes mathematical symbols or formulas.

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2. Before you start writing
Before you start producing your word-processed report you must make sure you do the following: • Decide what the objective of the report is. This is critical. If you fail to do this you will almost certainly produce something that is unsatisfactory. Every report should have a single clear objective. Make the objective as specific as possible. Write down the objective. Ideally, this should be in one sentence. For example, the objective of this document is “to help students write well structured, easy-to-understand technical reports”. The objective should then be stated at the beginning of the report. If you cannot write down the objective in one sentence, then you are not yet ready to start any writing. Always have in mind a specific reader. You should assume that the reader is intelligent but uninformed. It may be useful to state up front what the reader profile is. For example, the target readers for this document are primarily students and researchers with a good working knowledge of English. The document is not suitable for children under 13, or people who have yet to write documents in English. It is ideal for people who have written technical or business documents and wish to improve their writing skills. Decide what information you need to include. You should use the objective as your reference and list the areas you need to cover. Once you have collected the information make a note of each main point and then sort them into logical groups. Ultimately you have to make sure that every sentence makes a contribution to the objective. If material you write does not make a contribution to the objective remove it – if it is good you may even be able to reuse it in a different report with a different objective. Have access to a good dictionary. Before using a word
that ‘sounds good’, but whose meaning you are not sure of, check it in the dictionary. Do the same for any word you are not sure how to spell. Identify someone who can provide feedback. Make sure you identify a friend, relative or colleague who can read at least one draft of your report before you submit it formally. Do not worry if the person does not understand the technical area – they can at least check the structure and style and it may even force you to write in the plain English style advocated here.

The following checklist should be applied before you give even an early draft of your document out for review: • • • Check that the structure conforms to all the rules described in this document. Run the document through a spelling checker. Read it through carefully, trying to put yourself in the shoes of your potential readers.

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3. Using plain English: style
When you are producing a technical or business report you want it to ‘get results’. If you are a student this can mean literally getting a good grade.
More generally we mean that you want to convince the reader that what you have to say is sensible so that they act accordingly. If the report is a proposal then you want the reader to accept your recommendations. If the report describes a piece of research then you want the reader to understand what you did and why it was important and valid. Trying to be ‘clever’ and ‘cryptic’ in the way you write will confuse and annoy your readers and have the opposite effect to what you wanted. In all cases you are more likely to get results if you present your ideas and information in the simplest possible way. This section describes how to do this. The section is structured as follows: • Sections 3.1 and 3.2 describe structural techniques for making your writing easier to understand. Specifically: o o • o o • Sentence and paragraph length: keeping them short is the simplest first step to improved writing. Bullet points and lists: using these makes things clearer and less cluttered. Using the simplest words and expressions available: this section also describes words and expressions to avoid. Avoiding unnecessary words: this is about removing redundancy.

Sections 3.3 and 3.4 describe techniques for using fewer words. Specifically:

Sections 3.5 to 3.7 describe techniques for avoiding common causes of poorly structured sentences. Specifically: o o o Using verbs instead of nouns Using active rather than passive style Using personal rather than impersonal style

• • •

Section 3.8 describes how to explain new ideas clearly. Section 3.9 explains the importance of naming things consistently. Section 3.10 gives some rules on how to achieve political correctness in your writing without adding complexity.

3.1 Sentence and paragraph length
Contrary to what you may have learnt in school, there is nothing clever about writing long, complex sentences. For technical writing it is simply wrong. You must get used to the idea of writing sentences that are reasonably short and simple. In many cases shorter sentences can be achieved by sticking to
the following principles: 1. A sentence should contain a single unit of information. Therefore, avoid compound sentences wherever possible. In particular, be on the lookout for words like and, or and while which are often used unnecessarily to build a compound sentence.

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2. Check your sentences for faulty construction. Incorrect use of commas (see Section 4.3 for how to use commas correctly) is a common cause of poorly constructed and excessively long sentences. Example (this example fixes some other problems also that are dealt with below) Bad: “Time division multiplexed systems are basically much simpler, the combination and separation of channels being affected by timing circuits rather than by filters and inter-channel interference is less dependent on system non-linearities, due to the fact that only one channel is using the common communication medium at any instant.” Good: “Systems multiplexed by time division are basically much simpler. The channels are combined and separated by timing circuits, not by filters. Interference between channels depends less on non-linear features of the system, because only one channel is using the common communication medium at any time.” 3. Use parentheses sparingly. Most uses are due to laziness and can be avoided by breaking up the sentence. Never use nested parentheses if you want to retain your reader. Learning about some of the principles described below, especially using active rather than passive constructs, will go a long way toward helping you shorten your sentences. Just as it is bad to write long sentences it is also bad to write long paragraphs. A paragraph should contain a single coherent idea. You should always keep paragraphs to less than half a page. On the other hand, successive paragraphs that are very short may also be difficult to read. Such an approach is often the result of poorly structured thinking.
If you need to write a sequence of sentences that each express a different idea then it is usually best to use bullet points or enumerated lists to do so. We consider these next.

3.2 Bullet points and enumerated lists
If the sentences in a paragraph need to be written in sequence then this suggests that there is something that relates them and that they form some kind of a list. The idea that relates them should be used to introduce the list. For example, the following paragraph is a mess because the writer is trying to make what is clearly a list into one paragraph: Getting to university on time for a 9.00am lecture involves following a number of steps. First of all you have to set your alarm – you will need to do this before you go to bed the previous night. When the alarm goes off you will need to get out of bed. You should next take a shower and then get yourself dressed. After getting dressed you should have some breakfast. After breakfast you have to walk to the tube station, and then buy a ticket when you get there. Once you have your ticket you can catch the next train to Stepney Green. When the train arrives at Stepney Green you should get off and then finally walk to the University. The following is much simpler and clearer: To get to university on time for a 9.00am lecture: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Set alarm before going to bed the previous night Get out of bed when the alarm goes off Take a shower Get dressed Have some breakfast

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6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Walk to the tube station Buy ticket Catch next train to Stepney Green Get out at Stepney Green Walk to the University

The simple rule of thumb is: if what you are describing is a list then you should always display it as a list. The above is an example of an enumerated list. The items need to be shown in numbered order. If there is no specific ordering of the items in the list then you should use bullet points instead. For example consider the following paragraph: Good software engineering is based on a number of key principles. One such principle is getting a good understanding of the customer requirements (possibly by prototyping). It is also important to deliver in regular increments, involving the customer/user as much as possible. Another principle it that it is necessary to do testing throughout, with unit testing being especially crucial. In addition to the previous principles, you need to be able to maintain good communication within the project team (and also with the customer). The paragraph is much better when rewritten using bullet points: Good software engineering is based on the following key principles: • • • • Get a good understanding of the customer requirements (possibly by prototyping). Deliver in regular increments (involve the customer/user as much as possible). Do testing throughout, (unit testing is especially crucial). Maintain good communication within the project team (and also with the customer).

There are numerous examples throughout this report of bullet points and enumerated lists. You should never be sparing in your use of such lists. Also, note the following rule for punctuation in lists: If all the list items are very short, by which we normally mean less than one line long, then there is no need for any punctuation. Otherwise use a full stop at the end of each list item.

3.3 Using the simplest words and expressions possible
On a recent trip to Brussels by Eurostar the train manager made the following announcement: “Do not hesitate to contact us in the event that you are in need if assistance at this time”. What she meant was: “Please contact us if you need help now”, but she clearly did not use the simplest words and expressions possible. While this may be acceptable verbally, it is not acceptable in writing. The golden rules on words and expressions to avoid are: • • • • Replace difficult words and phrases with simpler alternatives;
Avoid stock phrases; Avoid legal words and pomposity; Avoid jargon.

We will deal with each of these in turn.

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3.3.1 Replace difficult words and phrases with simpler alternatives Table 1 lists a number of words and expressions that should generally be avoided in favour of the simple alternative. Table 1 Words and expressions to avoid

Word/expression to avoid utilise facilitate at this time in respect of commence terminate ascertain in the event of in consequence enquire

Simple alternative use help now about start end, stop find out if so ask

Word/expression to avoid endeavour terminate transmit demonstrate initiate assist, assistance necessitate in excess of dwelling

Simple alternative try end, stop send show begin help need more than house

Also, unless you are talking about building maintenance or computer graphics, never use the verb ‘render’ as in: The testing strategy rendered it impossible to find all the faults. The ‘correct’ version of the above sentence is: The testing strategy made it impossible to find all the faults. In other words, if you mean ‘make’ then just write ‘make’ not ‘render’.

3.3.2 Avoid stock phrases
Stock phrase like those shown in Table 2 should be avoided in favour of the simpler alternative. Such phrases are cumbersome and pompous. Table 2 Stock
phrases to avoid

BAD There is a reasonable expectation that … Owing to the situation that … Should a situation arise where … Taking into consideration such factors as … Prior to the occasion when … At this precise moment in time … Do not hesitate to … I am in receipt of …

GOOD Probably … Because, since … If … Considering … Before … Now … Please … I have …

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3.3.3 Avoid legal words and pomposity
Lawyers seem to have a language of their own. This is primarily to ensure that their documents are so difficult to understand that only other lawyers can read them. This ensures more work and money for lawyers because it forces ordinary people to pay lawyers for work they could do themselves. For some strange reason ordinary people often think they are being very clever by using legal words and expressions in their own writing. Do not fall into this trap. Avoid legal words like the following: forthwith henceforth hereat hereof hereto herewith Of the (4th) inst. thereat therein thereof whereat whereon

Also avoid nonsensical legal references like the following: “The said software compiler…” which should be changed to “The software compiler…” and: “The aforementioned people have agreed …” which should be changed to “A and B have agreed…”

3.3.4 Avoid jargon
Expressions like MS/DOS, Poisson distribution, and distributor cap are examples of jargon. In general, jargon refers to descriptions of specific things within a specialised field. The descriptions are often shorthand or abbreviations. If you are certain that every reader of your report understands the specialist field then it can be acceptable to use jargon. For example, if your only potential readers are computer specialists then it is probably OK to refer to MS/DOS without the need to explain what MS/DOS is or stands for. The same applies to Poisson distribution if your readers are all statisticians or distributor cap if your readers are car mechanics. In all other cases (which is almost always) jargon should be avoided. If you cannot avoid it by using alternative expressions then you should define the term the first time you use it and/or provide a glossary where it is defined.

3.4 Avoiding unnecessary words and repetition
Many sentences contain unnecessary words that repeat an idea already expressed in another word. This wastes space and blunts the message. In many cases unnecessary words are caused by ‘abstract’ words like nature, position, character, condition and situation as the following examples show:

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BAD The product is not of a satisfactory nature The product is not of a satisfactory character After specification we are in a position to begin detailed design We are now in the situation of being able to begin detailed design

GOOD The product is unsatisfactory The product is unsatisfactory After specification we can begin detailed design We can now begin detailed design

In general, you should therefore use such abstract words sparingly, if at all. Often writers use several words for ideas that can be expressed in one. This leads to unnecessarily complex sentences and genuine redundancy as the following examples show: WITH REDUNDANCY The printer is located adjacent to the computer The printer is located in the immediate vicinity of the computer The user can visibly see the image moving He wore a shirt that was blue in colour The input is suitably processed This is done by means of inserting an artificial fault The reason for the increase in number of faults found was due to an increase in testing It is likely that problems will arise with regards to the completion of the specification phase Within a comparatively short period we will be able to finish the design WITHOUT REDUNDANCY The printer is adjacent to the computer The printer is near the computer The user can see the image moving He wore a blue shirt The input is processed This is done by inserting an artificial fault The increase in number of faults found was due to an increase in testing You will probably have problems completing the specification phase Soon we will be able to finish the design

Another common cause of redundant words is when people use so-called modifying words. For example, the word suitable in the sentence “John left the building in suitable haste” is a modifying word. It is redundant because the sentence “John left the building in haste” has exactly the same meaning. Similarly, the other form of a modifying word – the one ending in ‘y’ as in suitably – is also usually redundant. For example, “John was suitably impressed” says nothing more than “John was impressed”. Other examples are: BAD absolute nonsense absolutely critical considerable difficulty considerably difficult GOOD nonsense critical difficulty difficult

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Modifying words can be fine when used with a concrete reference, as in the example “Jane set John a suitable task” but in many cases they are not and so are best avoided: Here are the most common modifying words to avoid: appreciable approximate comparative definite evident excessive fair negligible reasonable relative sufficient suitable undue utter

Finally, one of the simplest ways to shorten and simplify your reports is to remove repetition. Poorly structured reports are often characterised by the same idea being described in different places. The only ‘allowable’ repetition is in introductions and summaries, as we shall see in Section 5.4. You can avoid repetition by checking through your report and jotting down a list of the key ideas as they appear. Where the same idea appears more than once, you have to decide once and for all the place where it should best go and then delete and/or merge the text accordingly.

3.5 Using verbs instead of nouns
Look at the following sentence: “Half the team were involved in the development of system Y”. This sentence contains a classic example of a common cause of poor writing style. The sentence is using an abstract noun ‘development’ instead of the verb ‘develop’ from which it is derived. The simpler and more natural version of the sentence is: “Half the team were involved in developing system Y”. Turning verbs into abstract nouns always results in longer sentences than necessary, so you should avoid doing it. The following examples show the improvements you can achieve by getting rid of nouns in favour of verbs: BAD He used to help in the specification of new software Acid rain accounts for the destruction of ancient stone-work When you take into consideration … Clicking the icon causes the execution of the program Measurement of static software properties was performed by the tool The analysis of the software was performed by Fred The testing of the software was carried out by Jane It was reported by Jones that method x facilitated the utilisation of inspection techniques by the testing team GOOD He used to help specify new software Acid rain destroys ancient stone-work When you consider … The program executes when the icon is clicked The tool measured static software properties Fred analysed the software Jane
tested the software Jones reported that method x helped the testing team use inspection techniques

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The last example is a particular favourite of mine (the bad version appeared in a published paper) since it manages to breach just about every principle of good writing style. It uses a noun construct instead of a verb and it includes two of the forbidden words (facilitated, utilisation). However, one of the worst features of this sentence is that it says “It was reported by Jones” instead of simply “Jones reported”. This is a classic example of use of passive rather active constructs. We deal with this in the next section.

3.6 Using active rather than passive style
Consider the following two sentences: 1. Joe tested the software 2. The software was tested by Joe Both sentences provide identical information. The first is said to be in the active style and the second is said to be passive style. In certain situations it can make sense to use the less natural passive style. For example, if you really want to stress that a thing was acted on, then it is reasonable to use the passive style as in “the city was destroyed by constant bombing”. However, many writers routinely use the passive style simply because they believe it is more ‘formal’ and ‘acceptable’. It is not. Using the passive style is the most common reason for poorly structured sentences and it always leads to longer sentences than are necessary. Unless you have a very good reason for the change in emphasis, you should always write in the active style. The following examples show the improvements of switching from passive to active: BAD The report was written by Bloggs, and was found to be excellent The values were measured automatically by the control system It was reported by the manager
that the project was in trouble The precise mechanism responsible for this antagonism cannot be elucidated The stability of the process is enhanced by co-operation GOOD Bloggs wrote the report, and it was excellent The control system measured the values automatically The manager reported that the project was in trouble We do not know what causes this antagonism Co-operation improves the stability of the process

3.7 Using personal rather than impersonal style
Saying “My results have shown…” is an example of a sentence using the personal (also called first person) style. This contrasts with: “The author’s results have shown…” which is an example of the impersonal (also called third person) style.

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Whether to use personal or impersonal style is a subject that still causes fierce debate. Some writers feel that a report is not truly scientific if it is written in the personal style, and they back up this claim by pointing to prestigious scientific journals that insist on third person writing. In fact, it is hard to find any reputable journal that continues with such a policy. The most important justification for using first person style is that it is more natural and results in simpler sentences. Many examples of the kind of poor sentence structure that we have seen in the previous two sections (using passive rather than active style and using nouns rather than verbs) are caused when authors are forced to write in the third person. Consider the following examples: BAD GOOD

The current research work of the author of I also describe my current research work this report is also described In the previous report of the
authors the In our previous report we discussed in rationale for the proposed method was detail the rationale for the proposed discussed in detail method However, it is the writer’s belief that this However, I believe this situation should situation should not have occurred not have occurred Examination and discussion of the results We must examine and discuss the results obtained, are necessary before a decision can before we decide be taken In many cases you have to include excruciating diversions to make what you are trying to say unambiguous if you insist on the impersonal style. For example: “The author’s results have shown …” may actually be ambiguous because it is no longer clear which author you are really referring to. This leads to the contorted refinement: “The results by the author of this report show …” which sounds pompous and unnatural. It certainly compares poorly with “My results have shown…” In the following example: “Recent experiments involving formal inspections have resulted in …” it is not clear whether the writer is referring to their own experiments, other researchers’ experiments, or a combination of the two. Even worse than ambiguity is where use of impersonal rather than personal style introduces genuine uncertainty. For example, consider the following: “It is not possible to state the exact mode of operation of the drug”. This leaves serious doubts in readers’ minds. It might mean that the authors do not know how the drug works, but it might also mean that the operation of the drug is impossible. Finally, many authors who are reluctant to use the personal style, but realise that they cannot write a sentence naturally without it, opt to use the expression ‘one’ as in “One can conclude from the experiment …”. You should avoid this, as it sounds pompous. If you feel uneasy about saying “I” then say “we”. In other words the ‘royal’ we is better than the royal ‘one’.

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3.8 Explain new ideas clearly
If you are trying to introduce or explain a new idea or abstract concept then there are three techniques you can use to help your readers and improve your message: • Use examples: In Section 3.6 I described the concepts of active and passive constructs. Before attempting a formal definition I provided some examples. Take a look back at how I did this and apply the same approach in your own reports. The general rule is to try to provide an example before providing an abstract definition or generalisation. Use analogies: Suppose you wanted to explain what email was to somebody who had just woken from a 20-year coma. You could try telling them that email was much like sending a letter, but without having to physically use a stamp and f