The Art Behind Technical Writing

Just as engineering can be part art and part science, so too can technical writing be a mix of disciplines. The scientific part, of course, would be the facts: ensuring that the content is described accurately and precisely using correct grammar, mechanics, and punctuation. But is there an art to technical writing? I would argue yes, even if I’m not writing the Great American Novel.

What to Include

The technical aspects of your content dictate what you write, but so too do the needs of your readers. Let’s say you have to write (as I often do) about a space launch vehicle. You could include details about the design, the propulsion system, or the payload it carries. You might need to discuss the jobs it creates or the amount of money it brings into the local economy where it’s built. You might need to write about the materials out of which it is made, the processes that go into its fabrication, or the testing needed to ensure that its structure will be secure upon liftoff.

What determines your content? Your audience. And regardless of whether you’re writing for engineers, politicians, or the parents of high school students, writing for people is an art. Why? Because you have to use a bit of imagination and intuition to determine what you think will interest that particular audience.

Other factors influence what you include, such as where your audience will be reading or hearing the content: is it a public forum, such as a science fair? Is the audience a classified meeting in a Sensitive, Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF)? Is the purpose of the content to argue for public funding by the government? Is there a decision to be made about how the rocket will be flown or what payload it will fly? The answers you receive to any or all of those questions will determine what your content will include. You also must consider the format your readers are requiring? Do they need a full, written report, a two-page summary, or a one-page brochure?

Your focus determines your content–not just what is included but what words are chosen to convey it.

What to Leave Out

The answer to “What do you leave out?” becomes easier once you know your audience, situation, and expected outcome. The short version is: “Anything that doesn’t help you achieve your objective.”

Mind you, opinions will vary on what that might include. One writer might make a good case for including a particular piece of data about the engine if that data supports the document’s purpose (to demonstrate its performance). Another writer might dispense with the fact because she sees the document’s purpose as demonstrating the utility of the entire rocket, not just the engines.

Those small decisions about what to include and what to leave out are part of the “art” of technical writing. Depending on the number of people working on a project, you might get more opinions about what or what not to include, but in the end, it’s the creativity and word-driven sensibility of the writer or editor that brings the document to life. There are always facts and calculations to be made when writing your content, but there’s also that unspoken something called inspiration the moves you toward a final product. Don’t neglect it!

 

 

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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