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Technical Writing & Technical Writers

Technical types underestimate their ability to write

The beauty and utility of language are connected

Technical writers face common problems and challenges

To succeed you need more than technical expertise

Technical writing needn’t be dry

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Technical types underestimate
their ability to write

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

There’s a conspiracy afoot in this country, and I’m here to expose it. I take this action, I might add, at great risk to my professional standing in the English Majors and/or Teachers Guild of America.

The plot: Convince science-minded people they can’t write. The subplot: Assure them that if they’re good with their facts and figures, their incompetence in writing doesn’t matter, that writing is something only "writers" do. The perpetrators: English majors.

That’s right. Those English majors may seem like nice, harmless people, but they’re not. They’re nefarious, and they’re everywhere. Worse yet, they’re learning how to disguise themselves. Some have exchanged their wire-rimmed glasses for the heavy, black-rimmed type. Others are wearing plastic pocket protectors stuffed with silver twist-top pens and mechanical pencils.

But don’t let appearances fool you. They may act and dress the way you do, but they don’t think the way you do. And they’re out to undermine your confidence.

William Zinsser first blew their cover in his 1988 book, Writing To Learn, when he wrote, "The fear of writing is planted in countless people at an early age -- often, ironically, by English teachers, who make science-minded kids feel stupid for not being `good at words,’ just as science teachers make people like me feel stupid for not being good at science.

"Whichever our type," Zinsser continued, "the loss of confidence stays with us for the rest of our lives."

The English-major conspirators are playing games with your mind. They undermine your confidence by placing unwarranted emphasis on three common deficiencies of scientific and technical writers:

Fear You don’t like to write. Never have, never will. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You might as well not even try to improve your writing skills.

Misperception Writing skills don’t matter. Your true value to your organization is not what you communicate but what you know. Fussing over style and stylistic effect, using writing techniques to create special emphasis, or attending to the sound of language as well as its content is for wimps.

Ignorance Why waste 10 minutes reviewing the basic conventions of comma placement when you can make up the rules yourself?

Now, here’s the dirty truth. What the perpetrators fail to acknowledge are your natural strengths and abilities as writers. Think about it. Don’t the following traits apply equally to the science-minded and the language-minded?

*Attention to specific, concrete detail.

*Ability to think logically and to present information coherently.

*Recognition that certain rules, structures, and practices generally produce predictable results.

If the English majors could only get past their short-sightedness, they might offer you a few basic principles of good technical writing, such as:

Write with the reader in mind. Avoid the content-is-everything fallacy. Define technical jargon for a broader audience. Identify key terms and concepts.

Know when to use the active voice and when to use the passive. Use the active voice to emphasize the performer of the action; use the passive voice to emphasize the receiver of the action.

Use sentence structure to your advantage. Avoid a monotonous succession of long or short sentences. Use a variety of sentence structures and lengths to create a more vivid, energetic style.

Proofread not only for accuracy of content but also for correctness of language. Mechanical errors in language can undermine your credibility in technical matters.

So if you’re a scientific or technical writer, take my advice: Beware of English majors. Avoid them at all costs, both at work and in social settings. They’re out to get you.

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

The beauty and utility of language
are connected

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

I was on a plane en route to Atlanta, reading a story in the newspaper about the Minnesota State Fair, when I came across this passage:

"Fairs come at the twilight of the year, when the harvest is in and the year’s work is almost done, when the land prepares for its long winter sleep. The final event of the departing summer, the Minnesota State Fair marks a time of celebration, a time of optimism and satisfaction with a job well done. Like a warm, soft Minnesota night, it is a time of rest and play and renewal, a time for learning and contemplation and wonder, a time for dreaming."

With those words, Karal Ann Marling, an American Studies professor and author of Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair, did more than describe the significance of the fair. She also captured the wistful mood of a passing season.

How did she do it? Why was I so taken with the passage?

At first I thought it was her rich, evocative language. But when I read the passage a second time, I realized it was more than that: It also was the sound of her language.

It was the rhythm and soft cadence of her sentences. It was the gentle refrain of phrases punctuated by repetitions of "when" and "a time." One, two. One, two. One, two, three. And within the last sentence a kind of counterpoint before and after the repeated phrase: One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One.

My reason for traveling to Atlanta was to present a writing workshop to the auditing division of a large corporation. I would be working with a group of auditors to help them write their audit reports more effectively. I would be concentrating on the basics: how to organize and format material for clarity and emphasis, how to eliminate unnecessary words, how to support important points with specific detail, and how to avoid common errors.

I would be working, in other words, with language in a purely utilitarian fashion – or so I thought.

What I had not anticipated, however, was the eagerness and intensity of the auditors. They asked me questions about using verbs rather than nouns to write in a more animated style. They asked me when to use the first person for emphasis and when not to. They wanted to discuss tone and voice and personality in writing.

During a break I commented on the group’s enthusiasm to one of the workshop participants.

"We’re a hand-picked group," she explained. "Most of us will spend about two or three years traveling around the country doing audits, but we won’t be in these positions for long.

"This division is our company’s training ground for future executives. That’s why we’re so interested in what you have to say about writing. We want to learn anything you can teach us to help make us more successful in our future positions."

Mystery solved. Here, I thought, was the antithesis of the stereotypical, numbers-are-the-only-thing-that-really-counts technical writer. Here was a group of future executives who understood the importance of developing and refining their communication skills.

They wanted to know why a sentence such as "Establishing accounting procedures is one thing; following them is another" sounded better than "Establishing accounting procedures is one thing, but compliance has not been consistently achieved." They wanted to know why balanced sentences had special effect.

The auditors in Atlanta knew something important. They knew if they could write not only with clarity, but also with style and personality – even elegance and grace – their futures were bright.

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Technical writers face common problems
and challenges

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Technical writers are lousy writers. Harry is a technical writer. Therefore, Harry is a lousy writer.

There you have it: the syllogism. Major premise, minor premise, conclusion. The three-step method of argumentation. The most elementary form of deductive thinking. The foundation of logical reasoning.

We couldn’t get along without it.

Despite its usefulness, however, the syllogism has one major shortcoming: If either its major or its minor premise is false, or if its logic is faulty, its conclusion is invalid.

Is it really true, for instance, that all technical writers are lousy writers? And does it follow that because Harry is a technical writer he is necessarily a lousy writer?

Although this particular syllogism is obviously illogical, many people – including many technical writers – accept it without question.

To counter this self-limiting supposition, I offer two points of advice to technical writers: First, don’t assume that because you are good with numbers you can’t be good with language. There are too many examples of talented and accomplished technical writers for this to be true. Outstanding technical writers – such as Madame Curie, Charles Darwin, Paul Davies, Loren Eiseley, Thomas Jefferson, Jane Goodall, Stephen Jay Gould, Douglas Hofstadter, Tracy Kidder, Thomas Kuhn, and Lewis Thomas – come to mind.

Second, don’t underestimate the importance of competent writing. As J.C. Mathes and Dwight Stevenson point out in Designing Technical Reports, your value to your organization is "measured not only by your technical skill and expertise but also by your ability to present your information in writing that is perceived by your audience to be useful, relevant, reliable, and persuasive."

On a more practical level, here are three challenges faced by all technical writers:

Deciding how much detail to include Every writer must make decisions of inclusion or omission, but technical writers, more than others, must make weigh the complexity of their material against their perception of their reader’s knowledge and sophistication. The goal – more easily said than done – is to include just the right amount of detail to get the point across, and not a word more.

Choosing between the active and the passive voice Technical writers tend to prefer the passive voice, often for good reason. They know that the passive voice emphasizes the action performed ("A test well was drilled"), and that the active voice emphasizes the performer ("Our company drilled a test well").

Many technical writers, however, overuse the passive voice, embracing it as a matter of habit rather than a matter of choice. They fail to take advantage of the natural emphasis offered by the active voice, particularly when their own credibility or judgment might help sway the reader. Compare, for example, "The recommendation is made . . ." or "It is recommended . . . " with "We recommend . . ." or "I recommend . . ."

Remembering to vary sentence structure and length Technical writers concentrate on achieving clarity, and rightly so. Their preoccupation with precision, however, sometimes leads them to neglect the sound of their language and the rhythm of their sentences. As a result, they tend to write in a monotonous, plodding style, with one simple declarative sentence following wearily after another. Compare, for example, "There was one delay due to an electrical storm. Another delay was due to a chemical spill" with "There were two delays: one caused by an electrical storm, the other by a chemical spill."

At the risk of presenting a false premise or drawing a faulty conclusion, I ask you to consider a second syllogism: Writers who make negative assumptions regarding their ability often fail to develop their writing skills. Many technical writers make negative assumptions regarding their ability. Therefore, many technical writers fail to develop their writing skills.

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

To succeed you need more than
technical expertise

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

A few weeks ago I wrote about the misconceptions held by writers and editors regarding each other. In response to that column, one reader wrote:

"I loved your column today on writers and editors. I particularly appreciated the last two paragraphs [dealing with types of editing and the natural tension between writers and editors]. . .

"At my work place, the 'natural tension' between those who write technical and scientific documents and those who edit is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

"But our conflicts go deeper than 'natural tension. Where I work (and I assume this is probably true of other organizations) there is a higher value placed on scientific and technical work than on communication.

"Those who are performing technical and scientific activities are more respected and much better paid than those who have skills in editing or crafting messages – regardless of education and experience. I was wondering whether you have encountered this."

Well, yes, I have. And I suspect other readers have as well.

In many work-place environments, technical expertise is more highly valued and rewarded than communication skills. I would argue, however, that the two are equally important.

Here’s my advice to managers and technical writers:

Recognize the importance of good writing. Unless technical information is communicated effectively, it is of little value to others. Poor writing undermines the credibility of both the individual and the organization.

Know your audience. A common error on the part of technical writers is to overestimate the readers’ knowledge of the material and to offer incomplete explanations. To ensure that you have explained your material adequately for all readers, write for the educated layperson rather than the fellow expert.

State your purpose clearly. This is especially important in technical writing, where your reader may find the material complex and challenging.

Organize your material. Use an outline. Arrange your material logically and sequentially. Consider using a standard three-part format: introduction/purpose, body, and conclusion/summary.

Choose the appropriate method of development. There are seven basic methods of development: description, example, process analysis, division and classification, comparison and analogy, cause and effect, and definition. For explanations and advice on how to use these methods effectively, see my column titled "Choose method of development for your writing" under "Column of the month" on my Web page.

Use an impartial, objective tone. Technical writing is by nature factual and precise. Avoid subjectivity, an overly personal tone, and feeble attempts at humor. (For abundant examples of the latter, see my past columns.)

Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. To compensate for the complexity of your material, write in short, easy-to-understand sentences, and arrange your material in carefully structured, three-part paragraphs (topic sentence, explanation with examples, resolution).

Use visuals to help communicate your message. You know the cliché: A picture – or a graph or chart – is worth a thousand words. Be sure to comment on your visuals and to emphasize salient points.

Avoid misuse of jargon. There’s nothing wrong with jargon or professional shorthand as long as it means something more precise than common language and as long as your reader understands it. A good practice is to define jargon (including acronyms) on first use.

Do not overuse the passive voice. In technical writing, the passive voice often is used to place the emphasis on the receiver rather than the performer of the action. For example, the passive "The weld was tested for metal fatigue" may be preferable to the active "Our engineers tested the weld for metal fatigue." Nevertheless, look for opportunities to use the more energetic active voice, as in "The weld showed no signs of metal fatigue."

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Technical writing needn’t be dry

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Ah, spring in Minnesota. This week we had record-breaking temperatures in the mid-80s. Last week a snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow in the southern part of our state.

But that’s nothing. A few years earlier – 2.5 million, to be exact – the Earth’s temperature cooled, the snow stopped melting, and glaciers scraped and gouged much of the terrain in Minnesota, creating its present network of lakes, hills, and rivers.

A scientific or technical writer might describe the phenomenon in this way:

"Four glaciers occurred from 2,500,000 to 10,000 years ago during a geological epoch known as the Pleistocene. During this epoch cooler temperatures caused snow around Hudson Bay to stop melting and over time the snow formed a glacier. The glacier started moving south at the rate of one inch to 10 feet a day. In places the snow reached a thickness of two miles and its tremendous weight altered the landscape beneath it."

And the reader might say, "Thanks for the information, but your writing style, though clear, is dull and uninviting." And the reader would be right.

The word choice is unexceptional, the sentence structure monotonous. Note the lack of commas, which usually indicates a lack of subordinate clauses, as well as the pairing of sentences around the word and – two common flaws in scientific and technical writing.

In contrast, consider the following passage from Paul Lehmberg’s book, In the Strong Woods: A Season Alone in the North Country:

"During the last geological epoch (the Pleistocene – 2,500,000 to 10,000 years ago), Earth’s climate cooled several degrees and snows in the region of what is now Hudson’s Bay no longer melted. Piling up layer upon layer, the mass of snow became ice, and when it reached a thickness of three hundred feet the body of snow and ice began to move. It had become a glacier."

Note Lehmberg’s variety in sentence structure, not only in his use of introductory elements marked with commas, but also in his combination of long-short sentences at the end of his paragraph. In the next paragraph Lehmberg uses colorful comparisons and vivid verbs to breathe life into his description:

"Spreading out like batter poured onto a griddle, it lumbered south over the Canadian Shield and into the Quetico at the rate of an inch to ten feet a day. By cementing uptorn rock debris into its snout and underbelly as it heaved down out of the North, the glacier quarried for itself, cutting, scraping, gouging edges and planes that completely destroyed existing drainage patterns in its track, and the sheer weight of one of these icy leviathans, some of which grew to a thickness of two miles, flattened the crust of the earth."

Then, according to Lehmberg, as the glacier melted, it didn’t just reveal an altered landscape – it left behind "a barren profusion of scoured and tortured bedrock littered with gravel, rocks, and boulders, all awash in the meltwaters of rotting hulks of ice stranded like whales on a beach. The glaciers had stripped away intervening Earth history and left exposed a moonscape of Precambrian rock – rock of the same age as that buried at the bottom of the Grand Canyon."

As illustrated by Lehmberg, technical writing can be more than precise and informative; it can be vivid and memorable.

 

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