Technical communication has an important purpose: to instruct.
Readers of user guides and other instructions are busy people and, most often, would rather not have to read your text. So, do them a favor by making your writing clear and effective. Here are five tips for optimizing your techcomm:
Imperative Sentence Structure
Imagine you are in the room with your reader, walking them through a process. How would you phrase each step?
The most effective solution is to use the second person verb tense. For example:
Avoid: To view the order history, users can click the My Orders button at the top of the screen.
Instead, write: To view your order history, click the My Orders button at the top of the screen.
By addressing the reader directly, you lock in their attention.
Effective technical writing should be written so as not to draw the reader’s attention to grammatical elements.
Parallel structure is the use of consistent parts of speech in equivalent structures. For example, list elements should be of the same part of speech.
Example: Put on a smock, shoe covers, and safety glasses before entering the lab room.
By minimizing changes in parts of speech, we keep the reader’s focus on what is being said, not how it is stated.
Keep your sentences short and simple. Tell the reader what to do and (if necessary) where and how. Your reader should never have to re-read a sentence to understand what it means.
Example: Heat the solution to 55°C. Remove from heat.
This way, each sentence provides a single piece of instruction.
Consistent Word Choice
Be consistent in the words you use in your technical writing. Word choices are usually dictated by industry standard terminology and corporate style guides. Learn which words are used in your industry and company and stick with them!
Examples: home page vs. homepage, wire vs. cable
This rule also applies to dialectal variances, such as US English versus UK English. Inconsistent word choices muddle your instructions and confuse your readers.
In technical communication, it is important that each sentence has a single, distinct meaning. When reviewing your writing, ask yourself if any part of the instructions can be interpreted differently than intended. Never assume what your readers know.
Your readers will thank you!