Notes on Tech Writing

A simple flow chart

Last time, I shared an overview of what a Tech Writer does in the high-tech world. I focused on the high-tech computer industry because that’s where I spent my career. But Tech Writers can work in almost any field. All it takes is a little knowledge or passion for an industry or field.

The health care industry is another place for a Technical Writer. A writer who can translate a complicated medical procedure into language the layman can understand is invaluable. The medical industry can use all levels of writing. Doctors and nurses need instructions on proper handwashing and surgical scrub techniques, connecting monitors, and reporting progress. Believe it or not, that is within the purview of a Tech Writer, who specializes in clear, concise instructions.

You can almost always tell when someone other than a trained writer has written a passage. Consider the instructions that come with a build-it-yourself piece of furniture, say a bookcase or toy at Christmas. Even with pictures, the instructions are frequently inadequate and frustrating. That’s where a hands-on writer can help.

Try your hand at writing a set of simple instructions. If you want to see how you like one aspect of Tech Writing, take a few minutes to layout, step-by-step, how to perform a simple function on your smartphone. Then hand the instructions you just wrote to a friend and ask them to perform the steps you just penned. That’s an aspect of Tech Writing that is more difficult to master than you realize.

So, how can you strengthen those instructions you just wrote?

I mentioned last time all the companies for which I worked used style guides, the guidelines the company expected the writers to follow. Those style guides also agree that writers document in active voice, second person, present tense. Let’s look at each requirement.

Active Voice

Why active voice, you ask. For several reasons, actually. The first being clarity.

When you write in active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the function of a verb. For example, “The processor executed four instructions,” is active, where “Four instructions were executed by the processor,” is passive. In the first example, the processor (the subject) is doing the executing (the verb). In the second example, instructions (the subject) are being executed (the verb). (Hint: One way to help identify passive construction is to look for the “to be” verbs.)

I practiced for years before I could write active voice without thinking about it. Even now, when I read a novel for fun, I have a hard time because I unconsciously rewrite passive voice in my head.

Another reason to write active voice is it is much easier to translate. These days, many companies are trying to trim costs, so they rely on machine translations. While using an online application to translate a text from English to, say, Chinese, can make the task less time-consuming, something inevitably gets lost in that translation. Part of the reason for that is word choice, and that is a subject for another day.

Second Person

Second person? Really?

Yes. Chances are, you are trying to teach someone something, just like I do here. If you’ve noticed at all, I have been writing directly to you. It has nothing to do with making the text more “personable,” but rather to instruct. Think about it. You’re teaching your daughter to use a crescent wrench. What pronouns do you use to instruct her on the proper use of the said tool? You speak directly to her.

For one thing, it simplifies the text. Try to explain something throughout a document using the term “the user.” You’ll find yourself using twice the words you need, especially when you want to keep the text concise and straightforward.

Present Tense

Present tense makes the action immediate. “Do this, then do that.” Again, it’s another way to keep the text clear and concise. It brings the event to something happening now.

Much of Tech Writing is instructing, so if you write in simple present tense, you can show what the user is supposed to see as they progress through the document. The main reason to write in the present tense is to show what is happening right now.

Tech Writing is a career that, if exercised correctly, can help clarify even the most complicated topics. Whether you are writing simple instructions for the layman or creating complex high-level documentation for cutting edge design engineers, Tech Writers add value to a company by keeping their documents readable and simplified.

Writing and editing instructions and descriptions is only one aspect of the field. Tech Writers also make sure the legal language is present to protect the company, they make sure no patented, confidential information gets released to customers, and they ask appropriate questions to clarify the text for the end-user.

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