There are few career paths in which technical writing skills are unimportant. For those who pursue a science track, it is even more important. Whether it’s a resume, a grant proposal, a project summary, or a monthly report, technical writing plays an important role in finding a job, succeeding in that job, and being chosen for promotions. Simple grammar mistakes or rambling descriptions can distract from the focus of the document and diminish the impact of your work.
Here are five tips for improving technical writing.
It may seem obvious, but the first tip is proofread, proofread, proofread. Spell check cannot be relied on to catch all typos. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen “insure” when it should have been “ensure”, I could retire early. This is a simple mistake that will not be caught by spell check. However, don’t proofread immediately after you’ve finished writing; the work is too fresh in your mind, and you are likely to overlook mistakes. If possible, wait until at least the next day. For an important document, such as a resume, it is helpful to have someone else proofread it also.
Check your grammar
For some people, grammar may be the distant memory of a required class they took long ago. It is also an important component of technical writing. If you can’t remember the difference between an adverb and an adjective, don’t assume that others won’t – take time to brush up on basic grammar rules. If you’re in the middle of a sentence and don’t know whether to use “lay” or “lie”, do a quick Google search. There are many websites that provide quick answers to get you back to writing. Double check any word or punctuation that you are unsure about.
As you proofread your work, ask yourself if each word is really necessary to make your point. Often, descriptive words like “very” or “really” can tend to clutter technical writing without providing any real value. For example, consider the following sentence: The final solution had a very high concentration of 2 mM. Note that the word “very” does not add substantial value. To make the point more effectively, the word “very” could be replaced with something more specific, such as “a high concentration of 2 mM, which was five times the expected value”. Try to use only words or phrases that contribute significantly to each sentence, and be quantitative rather than qualitative when possible.
Keep it short
While decluttering should focus on words and sentences, the overall length of the document should be considered as well. This means determining whether paragraphs or entire sections are really relevant. Consider who your audience is and what level of detail they are interested in. If you’re writing a research paper, a detailed experimental section is highly relevant and expected. However, if you’re presenting the same results to upper management in a two-page summary, they probably don’t care to know how long you stirred the suspension or what size your volumetric flask was. In general, get to the point and stick to the point with technical writing.
Keep it technical
Technical writing should not read like poetry or a riveting fictional novel, because it is typically not something that people like to read in their free time. It is work related and should be highly focused. If you have successfully decluttered and kept it short, it should already be technical. Keep an eye out for rambling sentences. Look for places where quantitative values could improve the impact of the writing. Ask yourself, what is the main point (or points) that I want my audience to walk away with? Make each point as briefly and quantitatively as possible. Then proofread, proofread, proofread.
This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.