Technical writing isn’t just about honing your strength as a writer — it’s a great way to boost your career and establish yourself as a thought-leader. But it takes a lot more than knowledge of grammar and spelling to be good. As an experienced speaker and writer, my colleagues often ask me for advice on writing for publications and conferences. Whether you need help coming up with topics, writing abstracts or outlining your paper, here are my tried and true technical writing tips.
Sometimes the hardest part of getting started with writing is coming up with ideas. I always keep a section of my daily engineering notebook handy that’s dedicated to solely to writing. Anytime an idea pops up, I jot it down. This collection of ideas gives me the perfect place to start when I begin the brainstorming process.
So where do the ideas come from? You might be surprised. Think of key phrases you hear daily in conversations or while reading. If you find a turn of phrase that piques your interest, jot it down! It might lead to expanded ideas.
Pay attention to topics that could be of interest to others, particularly industry trends or upcoming regulations. Think about questions you’re frequently asked — these usually make great topics because they create the opportunity to go more in-depth and address concerns of larger audiences.
Many topics can be recycled and/or repurposed for different publications. There’s no sense in recreating the wheel each time. Think about where it makes sense to reuse content, combine ideas or evolve complex topics.
Finding a Venue For Your Writing
Perhaps the most important part of writing is finding the right venue. After all, what good is a wonderfully written article if the right people aren’t going to read it? Ask your clients which publications they read, and then contact those editors to see if you can submit your work to their publication.
Talk to your marketing department to see what conferences they’re attending. If it’s important enough for your company to attend, you can expect your clients to be there as well, which makes it a great place to distribute your writing.
Know your internal venues as well. Most companies regularly produce content in the form of blogs, magazines, editorials and technical papers. Use these as key outlets for your content. Some may be selective, but most really need content, so approaching them about ideas is a great way to get your feet wet.
Writing a Good Abstract
To earn a spot speaking at an industry conference, you’ll probably have to submit an abstract — and a really good one at that. This is your shot at making a good first impression. Make it count.
An abstract should give a general overview of your presentation and summarize what will be covered. You’ll also want to define the problem and detail how you came to your conclusions. Whet the appetite of your target audience just enough to intrigue them; leave them wanting more. An abstract is a summary, not the first paragraph of your paper.
Involving Clients as Co-Authors
If you want to add even more credibility to your work, consider collaborating with your clients and share a byline with them. Having someone from the industry involved in your writing makes the idea more attractive to those selecting papers for publication. It can also go a long way in strengthening your relationship with that client. Client input can range from writing half the text to merely reviewing what you wrote.
Other Writing Tips
It’s all about location, location, location. Schedule a block of time and find a specific location to write, one where you can concentrate and write free of disruptions.
Avoid blank page syndrome. Sometimes the task of filling an empty page with text seems daunting. Instead of starting with a blank screen every time you sit down to write, when you create a new document, paste any research at the bottom of the page and delete it as you write about it up top.
Don’t forget the basics. Always define acronyms at first use, look for run-on sentences and sentence fragments hidden in your text, and or organize your thoughts into short, discreet paragraphs. Subheadings can break up long papers and help your readers find specific information. Remember to write in a style that reflects your natural voice, clearly communicates technical concepts and engages your audience.
Catch attention with your opening. An interesting introduction draws readers in and gets them in the mood for your topic.
Utilize snazzy titles and clever closings. Headlines pique readers’ interest as they skim articles, while clever closings should always link back to your main theme.
Make sure technical sentences are clear, clean and brief. You are writing for a broad audience, so assume they know less about the subject matter than you do. Concepts need to be simplistic and easy to read. When in doubt, hand it to someone who knows nothing about the topic and see if it makes sense to them.
If you’re a regular technical writer with a few words of advice to share, I’d love to hear from you. What are your go-to tips for improving your technical writing?
Robynn Andracsek is an environmental engineer at Burns & McDonnell. She specializes in air quality permitting and assists industrial and utility clients so they can obtain operating and construction air permits for their projects. An experienced speaker and writer, Robynn is also a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Power Engineering magazine.
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