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Getting Technical With Technical Writing

By Trent Lorcher

Tired of writing poetry? Want to know how to write something useful? This description of technical writing with examples will help you do just that.

Technically, That's not Technical

The trashcan in my classroom caught on fire last week. I grabbed the fire extinguisher. Not being the most technical savvy professor Fire Extinguisher on campus, I didn't exactly know how to use it, so I resorted to reading the instructions. One of my students had replaced the instructions on the extinguisher with the following:

When a fire is burning hotter than bituminous coal in the belly of a furnace and it requires not a little water, you're in luck, for you have found the metaphorical Balm of Gilead to quench the flaming obstruction.

  1. Extract the metallic pin in the like manner Odysseus extracted the Wooden Horse plan from his mind.
  2. Think of the fire as a tree that you really need to chop down and the extinguisher as your ax. Aim accordingly.
  3. Much like a tender chicken must be roasted slowly, so must the fire extinguisher lever be pressed.
  4. Sweep the extinguisher from side to side much in the same way Emily Dickinson uses her many-colored broom.

Thanks for teaching me all these literary devices. I hope you find them as useful as I have.

As I ran out of the burning building, I realized I should have focused a little more on technical writing.

Technically, This Is Technical (Writing)

Technical writing is a type of writing that helps someone solve a problem or acquire necessary information about a specific subject. Examples of technical writing include instruction manuals, recipes, how-to guides, text books, multimedia presentations, and operating instructions. Every occupation and field of study has its own language that's incorporated into specialized reports and other written work. This, too, is considered technical writing.

The following is an example on how to write technically:

  1. Know your audience - This is true for all types of writing. You must know to whom you are writing. If you're writing, for example, an instruction manual on how to program a cell phone for the general public, you're going to use words that most people will understand. If you're writing the same manual for a group of software designers for Verizon Wireless, you're going to use more technical terms and more complex functions.
  2. Write an introduction - Keep the introduction short. Let the reader know who needs to read it and why they need to read it. If the reader belongs to the "who" group and your "why" solves his problem, then you have just grabbed his attention. (See the introduction to this how-to-example.)
  3. Be direct - Readers of technical writing are not looking for a life-changing literary experience. They have a problem. They want you to solve it. If it's an instruction or how-to manual, use the imperative voice. If it's a technical analysis or a report for the boss, leave out any unnecessary words.
  4. Use space - If this example was one long paragraph instead of a numbered list, you would have clicked off it immediately. Brains like order and space. Small paragraphs are good. Numbered or bulleted lists are great. If a specific order is required, use numbers; otherwise, use bullets.
  5. Try it before you submit it. It's a good idea to test your technical writing, especially if it involves instructions. You can also have a friend try it. The directions must be clear enough for someone else to follow. Your tester/guinea pig/editor may point out ambiguous instructions or unclear explanations that you may not have discovered.

Technically, These Are Great Examples

So you were just given a technical writing assignment and you need some ideas. Try these.

  • Write two instruction manuals on how to use Facebook, Twitter, or any of those other social media things high school kids are so good at. Write the first manual for people like your Uncle Ned who goes to his mailbox to check his e-mail. Write the second manual for your peers.
  • Take a multi-step assignment from one of your classes and rewrite the instructions. Make the instructions step-by-step. Show the newly written instructions to your teacher and make sure you captured the essence of the assignment. He or she may want a copy of them. Ask for money in return.
  • Write a contract regarding chores around your house. Be sure to define all terms. Be specific in what you will do and what is required of the head of household. If you can get your parents to sign the contract, watch out. They probably found a loophole.
  • Using your class schedule, write a course catalog. Another option is to write a survival guide for a class you are taking. Use humor, if you've got it.
  • Rewrite a school policy.
  • Write an annual report on your accomplishments during the current school year. Be sure to provide data.
  • Write specific instructions on how to complete an ordinary task.
  • Write a recipe. This is harder than it seems. The directions must be specific enough for someone to make the food properly.

These are just a few technical writing examples that would make for a great assignment. I hoped they have helped you think of other possibilities as well.