Why technical writing does NOT have to be boring

by Christine Nairne

Many people think that technical writing is boring. Well, it’s not – provide you follow these tips as shared by Northamptonshire, England based technical writer Christine Nairne of Tesserae Communications…over to Christine:

Why technical writing does NOT have to be boring

Do you think technical writing is boring?

Let’s start at the beginning. What does ‘technical’ mean?

According to definitions anything involving a specific subject, activity or skill that has laws or rules – from knitting to nuclear physics – is technical.

Of course, if you learned knitting – or nuclear physics – at your grandmother’s knee, then it will be straightforward to you. But, what about the rest of us?

We all know more about at least one subject than most people, so we all write technically from time to time.

Here are my top five tips to help make your technical writing more interesting and engaging.

Technical writing tip one – be focused

You know your subject really well, but you won’t be able to explain everything in one go. It’s worth taking time to think about why you are writing (your intention) before you start.

Stay focused on that simple objective and organising your writing will become much easier. Your readers will also find it easier to follow the points you make.

The time-honoured mantra for presentations works well for technical writing too:

Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them and tell them what you told them.

I’m not suggesting that you say the same thing three times – that really wouldn’t be very interesting. To make this approach work for you, consider two things.

First think about structure – explain your intention and how you will achieve it for your readers.

Secondly, be clear – be specific about each point and why it is relevant.

So you can say:

“I am going to explain why x is important. To do this, I’m going to tell you about a, b and c.”

This is the ‘tell them what you are going to tell them’ part.

Then do exactly that – tell them. Talk about a, b and c – clearly flagging up each point.

Finally say “In summary…” and round it all up neatly and briefly by telling them what you told them.

So, in summary, tip one is all about intention, structure and clarity.

Technical writing tip two – simple sells

Having created an interesting and elegant structure, it is important to make your points clearly and simply.

I know that the heartfelt argument of the entrenched technical enthusiast is “they will know what that means, I don’t need to explain it”. You do.

Even if you are writing for a relatively well-informed audience, your readers will find your information much easier to digest if you use simple words and phrases to explain technical ideas. Better still, use metaphors and similes to get people thinking.

For example, you might know that at DBA is a database administrator, but you could say that they ‘hold the keys to the information castle’, just to make it more interesting.

You can even take the database administrator example a step further. Imagine you are looking for someone in your team to volunteer to be trained for the DBA role.

You could invite interest by saying:

The database administrator role involves the use of specialised software and may include capacity planning, installation, configuration, database design, migration, performance monitoring, security, troubleshooting, as well as backup and data recovery. (Thank you Wikipedia)

Or you could say:

As database administrator you will hold the keys to our information castle; you will need to know how big and secure it is and what’s in each room. You will be in charge of renovations and day-today maintenance and moving things safely from one room to another. You will also be responsible security if there’s an emergency.

The second version is almost twice as long, but which one would you read and remember?

Technical writing tip three – tell a story

To make points clearly and memorably you need to catch you reader’s attention in the first sentence and keep their interest to the end. If you don’t, they might only skim through your carefully crafted prose or, worse still, not bother to read any of it.

Everyone enjoys a story with a beginning, middle and end. This is true for technical subjects too.

Let people know how and when you became interested in your subject and why. Your passion will come through.

Explain to them how you found out more and what excited you about it.

Tell them what you do now and what difference it makes.

This is sometimes called the ‘Princess and Dragon’ approach; the princess is trapped in the castle by a dragon (the beginning), the knight finds a clever way to free the princess (the middle) and a grateful king gives the knight his daughter’s hand in marriage (the end).

My favourite example of technical story telling is the case study.

By telling a story about a specific example, you can pack a lot of useful information into a very brief piece of writing. The beginning is the challenge that you needed to tackle, the middle is about the solution you found and the end is about who has benefited and how.

Why technical writing does NOT have to be boring

“According to definitions anything involving a specific subject, activity or skill that has laws or rules – from knitting to nuclear physics – is technical.”

Technical writing tip four – be yourself

In most cases you will be writing about a technical subject because of your expert knowledge. People will want to know what you have to say.

Your writing doesn’t – and shouldn’t – be like a product manual or a research paper.

Add some of your personality, use your own ‘turns of phrase’ and personal experiences to illustrate complicated material.

Ideally your readers should feel that they know a little more about you, as well as your subject.

Most importantly, if you have enjoyed writing something, other people are much more likely to enjoy reading it.

Technical writing tip five – edit, edit and edit again

I mean this literally. More than any other style of writing, the use of the ‘red pen’ is essential for technical writing.

Write your first draft, re-read and amend it as many times as you need to feel happy with it. Then leave it overnight.

When you come back to your draft the next day read it carefully for sense and errors.

Then exercise your ‘editorial muscles’ to cut out everything you possibly can.

When you start to challenge whether every sentence delivers a specific, clear and relevant point, it’s amazing how much can be taken out.

In the interests of clarity and brevity, this editorial workout is unquestionably a good thing.

Put the second draft to one side and think of something completely unrelated for a while – make tea, take the dog for a walk – and then re-read it for the final time.

Check every sentence for meaning and every punctuation mark.

You will be surprised how many small amendments you will make.

Before you press ‘send’ or post your article, ask yourself if you are really happy with the finished piece.

If you’re answer isn’t an unequivocal ‘yes!’ go back to the first draft stage – I promise you will be pleased that you did.

Why technical writing does NOT have to be boring

Christine Nairne

Christine Nairne has many years’ experience of writing technical and other material in both private and public sectors.

Read more about her on her website here.

And if you need help with further aspects of business and other types of writing, don’t forget that it’s just one click away

Questions? Drop Suze a note on suze@suzanstmaur.com.