Happy’s Essential Skills: Technical Writing


Reading time ( words)

Technical writing is one of those topics that they don’t really talk about in college—at least not where I went. Writing and English has never been a strong like of mine compared to science and math. So I did my required time in English and wrote my lab reports the best I knew how. Even my senior projects and graduate reports were mostly graphs, tables, figures and drawings and the necessary information to explain what they were.

After taking my first job with Hewlett-Packard, it took me only a year to realize one startling fact: Only the bosses get to go to conferences! Junior engineers don’t get to go to conferences. But I wanted to learn more, meet other engineers in printed circuit manufacturing, see the latest equipment and listen to technical papers about my new field. Then I discovered the secret solution: If I presented a technical paper, the company was happy to send me to the conference.

I set out to write my first technical paper and discovered the process of technical writing and company legal reviews. I presented my first paper on our automated plating project at NEPCON in Anaheim in 1971. All went very well—and I decided that I would write a technical paper every other year. That went well for a while, but then I was writing a technical paper every year, then two or three a year for magazines, and soon marketing was asking me to write five or six each year, since I was writing a lot about HP hardware and software. This progressed over the next 40 years to columns, blogs, book chapters and eventually, an entire book.

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Figure 1: General overview of technical writing applications.

Why is Technical Writing Important?

Technical writing consists of straightforward, easy to understand explanations and/or instructions dealing with a particular subject. It is an efficient and clear way of explaining something and how it works. An author writes about a particular subject that requires directions, instructions, or explanations. Technical writing has a very different purpose and is comprised of different characteristics than other types of writing, such as creative, academic or business.

The subject of technical writing can be one of two things:

  • Tangible: Something that can be seen or touched (e.g., a computer or software program, or how to assemble a piece of furniture).
  • Abstract: Something that involves a series of steps unrelated to a tangible object (e.g., steps required to complete a laboratory process).

 Some examples of technical writing include:

  • Technical papers
  • Instruction manuals
  • Policy manuals
  • Memos
  • Grants
  • White papers
  • Process manuals
  • User manuals
  • Reports of analysis
  • Instructions for assembling a product

Writing Processes

I believe that it is always good to have a process, and technical writing is a perfect fit for that. Some of the problem solving processes discussed in previous installments of this series are useful, like the scientific method. But all processes start with an idea or even just a thought like, “What are you going to write about?”

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Figure 2: General technical writing process.

Mind-Mapping

A mind map is defined by Wikipedia as “a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank landscape page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.”  Figure 3 shows a typical Wikipedia mind map.

For any form of topic organization, I find that being able to see it arranged graphically is very helpful, and would strongly recommend the mind-mapping approach. It's also brilliant for taking notes at meetings—I've even projected notes while the meeting was taking place, so that everyone could see what they had said and its context!

This method is illustrated in Figures 4 and 5, in which a simple mind map is built on the topic of stencil printing variables. In the most complete version, some of the groupings and causal linkages have been drawn and appropriate notes have been added.

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Figure 3: Wikipedia mind map of typical guidelines.

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Figure 4: Stages in the evolution of mind-map notes.

Mind maps are considered to be a type of spider diagram. A similar concept is brainstorming. Brainstorming will be covered in an upcoming column.

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