Top 5 tips to make your ‘technical’ writing more engaging

Christine Nairne

Tesserae Communications


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 5 tips to help make your technical writing more interesting and engaging.

Tip 1 – be focussed

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 focussed 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.

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.”

Finally say “In summary…” and round it all up neatly and briefly.

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

Tip 2 – simple sells

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

I know that the heartfelt argument of technical enthusiasts 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 and why they are important.

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.

Tip 3 – telling a story

To make points clearly and memorably you need to catch your reader’s attention in the first sentence and keep their interest to the end. 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.

My favourite example of technical storytelling 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.

Tip 4 – be yourself

In most cases, you’ll 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.

Tip 5 – 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 your answer isn’t an unequivocal ‘yes!’, go back to the first draft stage – I promise you will be pleased that you did.

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