Technical writing covers an array of complex topics, but you don't need complicated sentences to convey complicated ideas. In fact, simple sentences can help to convey technical information more clearly, so editing for concision and clarity is key in technical writing.
Take it from William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction: "Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose."
For further information on technical writing, attend the next session of our "Technical Writing" workshop (or watch the video). Workshops are offered in the first four weeks of each quarter; you can sign up during workshop season through WCOnline. See the whole workshop list here.
Determining how much to explain and how much technical terminology to use can trip up technical writers. Consider who your audience is and how much background information you need to provide for those readers to understand your topic.
A common consideration when writing a thesis is to imagine your audience as other students in your field, who may not know the details of your specific research but have a significant amount of background knowledge. However, when your document is intended for an interdisciplinary audience, you will need to explain a lot more of the basic concepts than you would for a field-specific audience.
Active or Passive Voice
While you may have heard that the active voice is preferable to the passive, different fields have different style conventions: some fields use passive voice to avoid referring to the author(s), while others use the first person ("I" or "we"), and still others use the third person ("the author" or "this research").
Reading articles in your field can help you determine what the preferred style is in your field; if you find inconsistencies, check with your advisor on which style to use.
Lists, Tables, and Figures
Use lists, tables, and figures strategically. Some information is better presented as a numbered or bulleted list instead of a paragraph; list formatting tends to make the information easy to spot on the page and clearly differentiates list items. Tables are also helpful tools for presenting information in a concise, easy-to-read format, while figures help your readers to visualize information. For more guidance, see our resources on graphics and posters.
Technical Writing Links
- GWC workshop video (1:10:07): "Technical Writing"
- Handout: "The 'Paramedic Method,'" J. M. Gay
- Handout: "Sciences," UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center
- GWC Video (8:17): "Achieving Concision with Prepositions"
- Video (3:46): "Technical Writing: How to Simplify Sentences," Kristin Sainani, Stanford University
- Handout: "Preparing a Scientific Paper for Publication," AIP Style Manual, 4th ed.
- Article: "Elements of Technical Writing Style," Richard S. Barr
- Book: Scientists Must Write: A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students, 2nd ed., Robert Barrass, Routledge
Scientific Reports Links
- Handout: "Scientific Reports," UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center
- Handout: "Writing a Scientific Research Article," Columbia University
- Article: "The Science of Scientific Writing," George Gopen and Judith Swan, American Scientist
- Online lab manual: Descriptions - Mechanism and Process, Leo Finkelstein, Jr., General Engineering
- Book: Style and Ethics of Communication in Science and Engineering, Jay D. Humphrey and Jeffrey W. Holmes, Morgan & Claypool Publishers
- Book: The Craft of Scientific Writing, 3rd ed., Michael Alley, Springer
- Book: Writing Science in Plain English, Anne E. Greene, University of Chicago Press, 2013
Book: Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences, Nicholas J. Higham, 2nd ed., Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, 1998