How to write technical copy that makes sense

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

These are the secrets to strong, coherent technical writing.

Most PR pros aren’t scientists, programmers or engineers.

Heck, most of us went into a language-based field because we aren’t that good at math.

But in your career, there will likely come a time when you have to explain a complex, technical product or process to a group of laymen.

Scary, isn’t it?

But what makes for good technical writing are the same things that make for good writing overall: clarity, simplicity and keeping your audience in mind. Combine that with a few tricks from the smarties at Stanford Engineering from Ragan Training’s library and you’ll be well on your way to writing technical material that makes sense to everyone.

Avoid ‘fancy words’

If you’re writing something that’s already complicated, give your readers a break by making the rest of the language around it as simple as possible. For example, Stanford recommends using “find out” instead of “ascertain,” “begin” instead of “commence,” and that old favorite, “use” instead of “utilize.”

You can still use technical terms if you’re sure that your whole audience will understand them. If you aren’t sure, Stanford recommends using these techniques to better explain:

  • Use a synonym: “memory” instead of “RAM.”
  • Describe the term: “RAM allows your computer to run more quickly and efficiently.”
  • Compare the term with a common concept: “RAM is like having a large desk with numerous drawers for storage. You can quickly and efficiently access your files at a moment’s notice.”
  • Define the term: “RAM, or random access memory, is one type of computer data storage systems. It allows your computer to quickly and efficiently access files.”

Move from knowns to unknowns

No matter how complex the topic you’re writing about, you can probably tether new information to something the reader already knows. Drawing from “Rhetorical Grammar” by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray, Stanford recommends beginning with a piece of information that readers already knows before flowing logically into something new. This is a pattern readers subconsciously understand and will help them absorb the new.

  • Before: X has developed fourth-generation (4G) cell phone technology (new info). To support higher data rates for non-voice communication (new info), Y is using 4G cell phone technology (known info).
  • After: X has developed fourth-generation (4G) cell phone technology (new info). Y is using this (4G) technology (known info) to support higher data rates for non-voice communications (new information).

Things to reduce or eliminate

Keep the overall copy flow as clean as possible so the ideas can speak for themselves. To that end, you can reduce these twisty constructions when possible:

  • Vague pronoun references
  • Excessive details
  • Long strings of nouns
  • Passive voice
  • Nominalizations (e.g., using “occurrence” instead of “occur”)
  • Unnecessary prepositional phrases

Rely on your subject matter experts, simplify your copy and you’ll have nothing to fear from technical writing.

For more of Stanford’s Tips, join Ragan Training

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