Nikolay Abdrakhmanov and Tara Howard
Shine in a Sea of Style: Writing Style and Clarity
The amount of grammatical and stylistic choices in the sea of style is virtually limitless. The communication beacon that stands strong draws the communicator to proper sentence structure, active instead of passive voice, professionalism in writing, and development of good patterns in various documents. The beacon of clarity looks at protocols, formatting, and content requirements to ensure a safe journey to success. Page layouts and fonts are the lens of the beacons indicating a clear path.
Writing Style and Clarity
Table of Contents
The way you write a document determines how effectively you present an idea in a business environment. On your journey to successful writing, it is important for you as a technical writer to clearly and concisely communicate your point to the audience. The first section of this chapter explains basic rules of language and will briefly present along with sentence structure and punctuation. The next section addresses persuasiveness and voice. The last two sections describe different types of documents used in a technical environment and the techniques used to edit them.
Refresh your memory by reviewing some basic grammar. No matter how gifted you are in writing, you can use a reminder of those grammar rules you might forget.
Parts of Speech
You probably have not thought much about the parts of speech since you learned them in elementary school. They are so fundamental to writing that you use them almost unconsciously. However, you should remember that even the best writer may occasionally use them incorrectly. This can ruin an otherwise perfect document.
Parts of Speech
Now you have looked over the parts of speech, you should review how they are combined into sentences through clauses.
o Independent- Words that combine to form a complete thought. They combine with other types of clauses to form a variety of sentences.
Ex: I wrote the technical report.
o Dependent- Goes along with independent clauses to complete a thought in a sentence.
Ex: I sent that memo to Jan, because she needed to be informed about the policy changes.
It is important for you to remember the types of sentences so that you may use them to your best advantage in your writing. Varying your sentence structure adds interest to your writing, and keeps it from becoming monotonous.
Compound- Requires two independent clauses put together by a conjunction.
Ex: Our Company will go under, or we will be bought out by a large corporation.
o Complex- Combines a dependent and an independent clause to form a sentence.
Ex: The emails sent out yesterday provided a warning to what the memo will contain.
o Compound-Complex- Contains at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause.
Ex: Producing business documents becomes a mundane task in an office, which can only be made interesting by the creativity of the writer.
Use proper punctuation conventions in technical writing separates clauses and increases the readability of sentences. It is important for you to clearly understand their use.
Persuasiveness in Writing
In a technical environment you need to understand how the audience can perceive the document you present. It is imperative to understand how voice alters how a document reads to the audience and how writing in an active voice increases the reader’s interest. Jargon is another element in technical documentation; when using overly technical terms it often distracts the reader and creates confusion. Finally, the relationship between rhetoric and technical communication is explained to you.
Passive voice is writing when the action is taken upon the subject of a sentence rather than the subject being the active agent. Passive voice deviates from clarity and causes confusion. Using active voice labels the subject of the sentence as the doer. This increases persuasiveness of a document as ideas are presented clearly and keeps the reader’s attention.
You need to know who your audience is before you begin writing any piece of technical writing. This keeps your style of jargon and rhetoric relative to whoever reads your exposition. Avoid using technical jargon when writing to the general audience and write professionally when you address a memo to your supervisor. Remember that each person wants information to be presented in a certain way. Always know and expect what the reader wants.
By writing clearly you also know what the reader perceives when he reads your document. Editing is important to reduce unexpected reactions the audience might conceive reading your document.
Technical writing focuses upon presenting raw information; still, in some documents you need to persuade the audience. Persuade by appealing to the logos, ethos, or pathos of the reader. Logos creates an argument path that the audience can follow. Ethos puts credibility into your document using the expertise of your sources. This makes research important when you create rhetoric dependent documents, such as a project proposal or a background report. Ethos is the most difficult tool of rhetoric. Technical communication is audience-centered and this makes it difficult to convey emotions without fear that someone will perceive it differently. Using rhetoric is vital when you create any business document.
Professionalism in Writing
Since most of your writing will be done in the business environment it is crucial to write professionally.
Terminology and Jargon
In a business setting, many terms are introduced that a new professional may not understand. Use technical jargon only when communicating with a supervisor or a colleague. When you communicate with a broader audience, especially if they are unfamiliar with the subject, avoid overly technical terminology, and provide simple and clear descriptions. Refer to a technical dictionary for an extensive list of such vocabulary.
These documents communicate in a professional manner to a broader audience outside of your company or organization.
o Purchasing Documents
These documents are sent internally in a company or organization and more informal. The information in these documents needs to be delivered quickly and efficiently.
o Marketing Documents
Chatting and Texting
You can text via cell phones and chat via computer in order to communicate information in a modern office. Email is also a common medium that you can use in a business setting.
The primary benefit of email is speed; there is no faster means for written communication. The downside of text and chat is its informal nature, causing many people to treat this communication informally as it includes unprofessional language. Text is generally populated with abbreviations and acronyms (LOL, BTW, BRB, et al) and emoticons (,). You should avoid using both in a business setting. Always use complete sentences, punctuation, and capitalization. Keep chat and text communications brief and focused.
One of the most critical pieces of the technical writing journey is formatting. Regardless of clear and concise content, a reader’s opinion of the text can be affected when it is distracting to read. Font and style can vary depending upon the author’s purpose and content. Once an author determines the audience, voice, and content, it is necessary to choose a format to complement the document. Steps for formatting a technical document include:
1. Determining the type of document you wish to create from your content.
2. Researching and noting the information to include.
3. Constructing the document using the researched information in an industry-accepted format.
4. Reviewing the document and editing, as needed, to improve consistence and readability.
5. Reading the document objectively and editing a second time to highlight and improve the presentation.
Society no longer works on handshakes and promises; it wants everything in writing. Because people’s livelihood hinges upon success in business, documents must convey content that is appropriate and formatted to express the author’s professionalism and attention to detail. Producing quality documents gives business an advantage in a competitive workplace.
A business letter, unlike personal correspondence, adheres to a formal letter format and use of a polished, professional writing style. It is a reflection of the company, its goals, and what it provides to the customer. A business letter should be written on letterhead and include the following:
o Recipient Name
o Recipient Address
o Introductory paragraph
o Body paragraph(s)
o Closing paragraph
o Sender name and title
o Sender contact information (if not included in, or different than, the letterhead)
For instances when an abbreviated amount of information needs to be conveyed it is appropriate to use memorandums. Memorandums, or memos, are used during project work to provide updated information to teams of people.
While emails are quickly becoming the preferred communication method for most businesses, many industries including banking, real estate, and legal professions still use facsimiles, or simply faxes, to transmit information instantly. Each fax requires a fax cover page. A fax cover page needs a date, sender contact information, recipient contact information, a subject line, and a brief summation. A cover page should be professional, focused, and clear. Remember that this document is transmitted over phone lines and may suffer reduction in quality, so chose simple text and graphics. Additionally, it is common for a fax to be re-sent, further deteriorating quality. Always fax with black ink on white paper to ensure quality at the receiving end.
One of the most widely used communication tools is email. Because emails are readily accessible, instant, and easy to use, they are often the go-to choice for correspondence. Emails help a business communicate ideas and job parameters, perform research, update clients, and build relationships. Create a professional email using the following steps:
1. Complete the Sender field
2. Complete CC (carbon copy) and BCC (blind carbon copy) address boxes, if applicable.
3. Include a subject line that includes topic as well as action items, as needed.
4. Keep emails brief including all-important information.
5. Avoid using all CAPS as it may imply yelling.
6. Do not use emoticons (“”- smiley face) or acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud), BTW (by the way), or the like in a professional email.
7. Include all contact information in your signature line.
Businesses rely on successful marketing to drive sales. Marketing documents should be simple, easy to understand, and focused on the consumer’s attention. Design marketing communication to focus on the audience rather than the product. Talk about the product features only as they benefit the consumer. Marketing campaigns are designed to create familiarity and trust with the audience. Consider GEICO, with a mascot so recognizable that it has become a celebrity in its own right. Both print and web marketing should be easy to read and organized for easy comprehension.
Job Search Documents
To find a job, you need more than hard work and good connections: you need to be able to market yourself to your prospective employers. People will not hire you without being convinced that you are the right person for the job. Interviews are important, but do not underestimate the importance of how you present yourself in writing. A good resume and cover letter will good a long way towards securing the job you want.
One of the most important documents you will ever create is your resume. This is the tool you will use to market yourself. Keep your resume to one page in length unless you have work or technical experience that warrants the extra page. Order of composition for a general resume is:
1. Contact Information
3. Work History
4. Education and Credentials
Keep font-styles simple and easy to read. Do not use script-styled fonts. Times New Roman and Arial are examples of simple fonts. Keep content precise and do not estimate. Use exact dates and include contact information for former employers. Use the work-history section to elaborate on projects and teams you worked on, as well as skills you used in the workplace.
All resumes should be accompanied by a cover letter written for the job. Never use canned cover letters. A cover letter should include:
o Introductory information (who you are, where you went to school, etc.)
o Summary of your skills
o Reason why you are a good fit for the position (both personality and skill set should be included)
o Closing paragraph
After the interview, always send a handwritten thank-you note. If that is not feasible emails are acceptable, though not suggested.
In technical writing, documents like technical and user manuals are commonly needed. You should familiarize yourself with how to execute these documents.
A technical manual provides specifications and process descriptions for the end user. Technical manuals contain information about various products, from nuclear reactors to a cell phone. Technical manuals are used by industry professionals to gain knowledge of new technology. When designing a technical manual, include a schematic or diagram of the product (example of a circuit diagram at right).
Unlike a technical manual, a user manual is designed to introduce a new user to a product. It is important to document a systematic process. Preparation for creating a user manual requires some planning. Steps in the planning process are:
1. Log all facts known about the product or process.
2. Catalog all sizes, weights, elements, and pieces.
3. Diagram the product or process.
4. Include a legend.
The next phase involves compiling the information collected into a user-friendly format. Lay out your user manual as follows:
1. Cover Page
2. Table of Contents
3. Diagram or schematic of the product including legend
4. Technical specifications
5. Step-by-step instructions
6. Customer service contact information including ordering parts and accessories, troubleshooting, and general customer service
8. Copyright information
Number the steps and proceed through the entire process. For a more complicated process, it may be beneficial to breakdown the documentation to mini-processes or functions. Then, a user can use the manual for a specific. Remember to include illustrations of movements to aid the user to complete each step. Finally, have a person unrelated to the project edit the document to find steps you may have missed. This is one of the most important steps, as the author of a technical document is often too close to the subject matter to recognize missed information.
Technical reports can be classified as proposals, background reports, empirical research reports, feasibility reports, or proposals.
Background reports are used in conjunction with proposals and other reports to educate the audience on the fine points of the attached document. The information contained in a background report helps the reader understand specific information about the report. It is an educational tool providing a big-picture of the technical report it references. Be mindful of the audience and be sure to include all information in the background report they will need to understand the proposal.
Empirical Research Reports
Empirical research reports are a staple of research projects. It is used to convey information about research projects including theory, protocols, results, and discussions. The format below is standard in the industry and may be used for all types of empirical research reports from grammar-school level through post-graduate thesis and professional projects.
Empirical Research Report Organization
The feasibility report is the end product of a feasibility study. Feasibility studies are undertaken to evaluate the effect of changes to protocol, business development, product additions and discontinuation, financial changes as well as systems and technology changes on a business. Feasibility reports gauge the allocation of resources from labor to funding, planning for changes and guide the decisions of a business as it pertains to the proposed changes. The benefit of a feasibility study is to provide decision-makers with a realistic result of proposed changes so they can make an educated decision on implementing the change.
The proposal is the cornerstone of business development. Think of the proposal as a tour of your company introducing your staff and technical skills, designed to earn a client’s confidence. Construct your document using the following basic structure:
1. Title Page
2. Table of Contents
The content will vary depending on the product being promoted, but the style should remain the same. Take care to use utmost professionalism. Demonstrate your knowledge through charts, graphs and other aesthetic visuals that add interest and vibrancy. Facts build trust; use facts cited from authoritative sources.
This section has jogged your memory on the basics of grammar and style. Using this knowledge, you can create usable, persuasive documents. You should now be able to write confidently and effectively any document that you undertake.