Technical Writing (By a Fiction Author)
The first time I learned about the topic of technical writing was in college. In my senior year and the administrators had just approved a new class called Technical Writing. Up until this point, I had no idea that this type of writing was even a discipline. I just assumed all Engineers knew how to write; they just wrote “technically” when they needed to. A friend of mine took the first class and from the description, it sounded like a class that I would be interested in. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow me to take the class and I graduated without it. As my career in Electrical Engineer began, I started down the path of writing business proposals and generating technical documents by the boat load.
When I was about 25, my boss suggested that I take a technical writing class. UCSD extension offered such a class and I jumped at the opportunity. After all, the company paid for it. The class was a positive experience that focused on being a better technical communicator. On a side note, I met a girl there and she invited me to a party where I met a girl that I dated. I also found out about the drink “boba” at the local food court. I also got many UCSD parking tickets. Punishing poor students. Jerks! I guess a few negatives as well. Back to the blog. The main takeaway from this technical writing class was to look at each sentence and make sure that it was clearly stated and conveyed the exact meaning in as few words as possible.
Up until that point in my life, my writing was all over the map. My sentences were unfocused and my writing contained extra junk. This included adding unrelated opinions, humor and thought-provoking observations. That was just my personality and it made for some very interesting technical documents. The readers of those early technical documents were probably amused and it took them an extra amount of effort to extract the relevant information.
Overall, the technical writing class forced a big change in my writing. I began carefully going over each sentence to tighten them up in order to convey only what was necessary. To me, writing became a game and I went very far with my attempts to make every single sentence “technical.” This resulted in terse and cryptic documents. In the many years that followed taking this class, I honed my technical writing skills and eventually, my writing became less cryptic. There is a definite art to technical writing. It involves organizing the facts and presenting them in a logical way.
A good technical writer must also avoid the many writing pitfalls to make a great technical document. For example, not using the first person to describe some technical subject even if the author participated solely in its operation. Not turning the document into a story or keeping the reader in suspense. Presenting the facts in order and not including irrelevant facts.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many reference books on technical writing. The ones that I have found read like an unorganized collection of writing tips with lots of examples. A great opportunity exists in making a good technical writing guide. No, I have no interest in creating such a guide. Now, writing a book about creating good business plans or great patents. AHH! Stay focused.
Since that class, I worked really hard to improve my technical writing skills. Fifteen years later, there was a defining moment in my effort to become a great technical writer. I had lost my full-time job and I was trying to switch my career to being a full-time consultant. One of my clients had their office far away and I had to do all my communications over email. Generally, on technical topics, I prefer to walk to the other person’s office and discuss it. However, due to the distance, this approach wasn’t possible.
My main communication method was email and I would work for hours crafting perfect emails to convey my exact technical thoughts. The result was a big nothing. Nobody was reading my exquisitely crafted emails. In retrospect, I think my emails were too descriptive and lengthy. This experience left me jaded and from that point forward, I put a lot less effort into my technical writing.
I was very aware of this change in attitude and I knew that my writing didn’t have much focus. I also knew that my level of pride had slipped. A few years later, I was again laid off and had time to burn. I decided to write fiction and the result was 3 books. When I submitted my first book, my editors pointed out that my grammar was poor and I began to put a lot of focus into proper sentence structure. They also pointed out that my writing was bland. Specifically, I was missing content and emotion. The result was that I put a lot more effort into my writing.
In January of this year, I got back into full-time employment and of course, began writing technical documents. I could immediately tell that my technical writing had changed. I shifted my focus from making terse logical sentences to sentences with correct structure That flowed. I think the biggest change was my new use of contractions and more “flowery” words to describe technical subjects. The overall result was a more fluid approach toward my technical documents. I suspect that my technical co-workers think that I’m a more formal person by my writings. Perhaps snooty?
This new focus and learning experience also made me realize that my fellow Engineers had really bad English skills. When I read their technical documents, the grammar and spelling mistakes now leap off the page. It takes some personal effort not point out their mistakes. Of course, I hold no malice towards my fellow Engineers. After all, I used to be an engineer who wasn’t a part-time author.
Taking an overall perspective on my writing path is amusing to think about. My English experience started out very bad. I had a lot of trouble in the beginning and it was very clear that being good at writing was never going to happen. That young boy would have been surprised that I took an interest in technical writing. He would have been stunned that I became an author.
What does my future technical writing hold? Right now, it looks like I have a bunch of boring reports and lots of emails ahead of me. I don’t mind. That’s all part of the job. If done correctly, it can even be fun.
You’re the best -Bill
July 04, 2018
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