Ten ways to improve your technical writing



If a chemical engineer cannot write a

coherent report, the true value of his

or her investigation may be distorted

or go unrecognized.


                         Robert W. Bly, Bob Bly Communications


            Better technical writing can result in proposals that win contracts, advertisements that sell products, instruction manuals that technicians can follow, and letters, memos, and reports that get your message across to the reader. Here are ten tips on style and word choice that can make writing clear and persuasive:

            Know your reader-Are you writing for engineers? managers? technicians? Make the technical depth of your writing compatible with the background of your reader.

            Write in a clear, conversational style-Naturally, a technical paper on sizing pumps shouldn’t have the same chatty tone as a personal letter. But most technical professionals lean too much in the other direction, and their sharp thinking is obscured by windy, overly-formal prose.

            The key to success in technical writing? Keep it simple. Write to express-not to impress. A relaxed, conversational style can add vigor and clarity to your work.


Formal technical


Informal conversational


The data provided by direct examination of samples under the lens of the microscope are insufficient for the purpose of making a proper identification of the components of the substance.

We can’t tell what it is made of by looking at it under the microscope.

     We have found during conversations with customers that even the most experienced of extruder specialists have a tendency to avoid the extrusion of silicone profiles or hoses.

     Our customers tell us that experienced extruder specialists avoid extruding silicone profiles or hoses.

     The corporation terminated the employment of Mr. Joseph Smith.

     Joe was fired.



            Be concise- Technical professionals, especially those in industry, are busy people. Make your writing less time-consuming for them to read by telling the whole story in the fewest possible words.

            How can you make your writing more concise? One way is to avoid redundancies-a needless form of wordiness in which a modifier repeats an idea already contained within the word being modified.

            For example, a recent trade ad described a product as a “new innovation.” Could there be such a thing as an old innovation? The ad also said the product was “very unique.” Unique means “one of a kind,” so it is impossible for anything to be very unique.

            By now, you probably get the picture. Some other redundancies that have come up in technical literature are listed below, along with the correct way to rewrite them:



Rewrite as:

advance plan


actual experience


two cubic feet in volume

two cubic feet

cylindrical in shape


uniformly homogeneous



            Many technical writers are fond of overblown expressions such as “the fact that,”

“it is well known that,” and “it is the purpose of this writer to show that.” These take up space but add little to meaning or clarity.

            The following list includes some of the wordy phrases that appear frequently in technical literature. The column on the right offers suggested substitute words:


Wordy phrase

Suggested substitute

during the course of


in the form of


in many cases


in the event of


exhibits the ability to



            Be consistent- “A foolish consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This may be so. But, on the other hand, inconsistencies in technical writing will confuse your readers and convince them that your scientific work and reasoning are as sloppy and unorganized as your prose.

            Good technical writers strive for consistency in the use of numbers, hyphens

units of measure, punctuation, equations, grammar, symbols, capitalization, technical terms and abbreviations.




            For example, many writers are inconsistent in the use of hyphens. The rule is: two words that form an adjective are hyphenated. Thus, write: first-order reaction, fluidized-bed combustion, high-sulfur coal, space-time continuum.

            The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual [1], Strunk, and White’s “The Elements of Style” [2], and your organization’s writing manual can guide you in the basics of grammar, punctuation, abbreviation and capitalization.

            Use jargon sparingly-Chemical engineering has a special language all its own. Technical terms are a helpful shorthand when you’re communicating within the profession, but they may confuse readers who do not have your special background.

            Take the word, “yield,” for example. To a chemical engineer, yield is a measure of how much product a reaction produces. But, to car drivers, yield means slowing down (and stopping, if necessary) at an intersection.

            Other words that have special meaning to chemical engineers but have a different definition in everyday use include: vacuum, pressure, batch, bypass, recycle, concentration, mole, purge, saturation, catalyst.

            Use legitimate technical terms when they communicate your ideas precisely, but avoid using jargon just because the words sound impressive. Do not write that material is “gravimetrically conveyed” when it is simply dumped.

            Avoid big words-Technical writers sometimes prefer to use big, important-sounding words instead of short, simple words. This is a mistake; fancy language just frustrates the reader. Write in plain, ordinary English and your readers will love you for it.

            Here a few big words that occur frequently in technical literature; the column on the right presents a shorter-and preferable-substitution:


Big word                                            













Prefer the specific to the general-Technical readers are interested in detailed technical information-facts, figures, conclusions, recommendations. Do not be content to say something is good, bad, fast or slow when you can say how good, how bad, how fast or how slow. Be specific whenever possible.




a tall spray dryer                                  

a 40-foot-tall spray dryer


oil refinery                               



unfavorable weather conditions


structural degradation

a leaky roof

high performance

95% efficiency


            Break the writing up into short sections-Long, unbroken blocks of text are stumbling blocks that intimidate and bore readers. Breaking your writing up into short sections and short paragraphs-as in this article-makes it easier to read.

            In the same way, short sentences are easier to grasp than long ones. A good guide for keeping sentence length under control is to write sentences that can be spoken aloud without losing your breath (do not take a deep-breath before doing this test).

            Use visuals-Drawings, graphs, and other visuals can reinforce your text. In fact, pictures often communicate better than words; we remember 10% of what we read, but 30% of what we see.

            Visuals can make your technical communications more effective. The different types of visuals and what they can show are listed below:


Type of visual                        

This shows...

Photograph or illustration

...what something looks like


...where it is located

Exploded view

...how it is put together

Schematic diagram

...how it works or is organized


...how much there is (quantity);

   how one thing varies as a

   function of another

Pie chart

...proportions and percentages

Bar chart

...comparisons between quantities  


...a body of related data

Mass and energy balances

...what goes in and what comes out


            Use the active voice-In the active voice, action is expressed directly: “John

performed the experiment.” In the passive voice, the action is indirect: “The experiment was performed by John.”

            When possible, use the active voice. Your writing will be more direct and vigorous; your sentences, more concise. As you can see in the samples below; the passive voice seems puny and stiff by comparison:


Passive voice             

Active voice

Control of the bearing-oil

supply is provided by the

shutoff valves.

Shutoff valves control the

bearing-oil supply.


Leaking of the seals is  

prevented by the use of


O-rings keep the seals from leaking.


Fuel-cost savings were

realized through the

installation of thermal insulation

The installation of thermal insulation

cut fuel costs.


                                                                          Kenneth J. McNaughton, Editor







1. U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, 1973 (out of print).

2. Strunk, William Jr., and White, E.B., “The Elements of Style,” 3rd ed.,

1978, Macmilan, New York.

3. Bly, Robert, and Blake, Gary, “Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style,” McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1982.


The author

Robert W. Bly is the director of Bob Bly Communications, a company specializing in industrial publicity and sales promotion, 336 East 81st St., New York, NY 10028, tel. 794-8731. Previously, he was advertising manager of Koch Engineering, and also worked as a marketing communications representative for Westinghouse Electric Corp. Bly holds a member of AIChE. He is co-author of “Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style” [3].


The average engineer in industry cannot write clear, lucid prose. He or she may know the basics-sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, exposition. But most engineers have just a few poor stylistic habits that mar their technical writing, making it dull and difficult to read.

            Why do engineers write so poorly? Many feel that writing is time consuming, unimportant, and unpleasant. Others lack confidence in their ability to communicate, or simply don’t know how to get started. A third group has the desire to write well, but lacks the proper training.

            In seminars given at New York University, the American Chemical Society, the Society of Technical Communication, and other organizations, I have surveyed dozens of

engineers to discover which problems occur most frequently in their writing. Below are the five most common problems in technical writing, along with tips on how to recognize them and how to solve them.


Poor Organization

            According to the survey, poor organization is the number one problem in engineering writing. As CPI 100 editor Jerry Bacchetti points out, “If the reader believes the content has some importance to him, he can plow through a report even if it is  dull  or has lengthy sentences and big words. But if it’s poorly organized-forget it.  There’s no way to make sense of what is written.”

            Poor organization stems from poor planning. While a computer programmer would never think of writing a complex program without first drawing a flow chart, he’d probably knock out a draft of a user’s manual without making notes or an outline. In the same way, a builder who requires detailed blueprints before he lays the first brick will write a letter without really considering his message, audience, or purpose.

            Before you write, plan. Create a rough outline that spells out the contents and organization of your paper or report.

            The outline need not be formal. A simple list, doodles, or rough notes will do-use whatever form suits you. For example, here’s the outline I used to guide me in the writing of this article.







Poor organization-lack of goals, objectives: outlining: types of organizational schemes


Misreading the reader-knowing the reader’s technical background, interests, positions, industry
















                                                                                                     Robert W. Bly

                                                                                                          Technical Writer




Writing in “technicalese” -jargon, clichés, antiquated phrases, “corporitis,” passive vs. active, personal pronouns, conversational tone



Lengthy sentences and paragraphs; big words-the Fog Index


Writer’s Block-how to overcome the fear and stress of writing, tips for getting started.




            By the time I’ve finished writing, some things in the final article might be different from the outline. That’s okay. The outline is a tool to aid in organization, not a commandment cast in stone. If you want to change it as you go along-fine.

            The outline helps you divide the writing project into many smaller, easy-to-handle pieces and parts. The organization of these parts depends on the type of document you’re writing.

            In general, it’s best to stick with standard formats. A laboratory report, for example, has an abstract, a table of contents, a summary, an introduction, a main body (theory, apparatus and procedures, results, and discussions), conclusions and recommendations, nomenclature, references, and appendixes. An operating manual includes a summary; an introduction; a description of the equipment; instructions for routine operation, troubleshooting, maintenance, and emergency operation: and an appendix containing a parts list, spare-parts list, drawings, figures, and manufacturer’s literature.

            If the format isn’t strictly defined by the type of document you are writing, select the organizational scheme that best fits the material. Some common formats include:

·        Order of location. An article on the planets of the solar system might begin with Mercury (the planet nearest the sun) and end with Pluto (the planet farthest out).

·        Order of increasing difficulty. Computer manuals often start with the easiest material and, as the user masters basic principles, move on to more complex operations.

·        Alphabetical order. A logical way to arrange a booklet on vitamins (A,B,B1, and so on ) or a directory of company employees.

·        Chronological order. Presents the facts in the order in which they happened. History books are written this way. So are many case histories, feature stories, and corporate biographies.

·        Problem/solution. Another format appropriate to case histories and many types of reports. The problem/solution format begins with “Here’s what the problem was” and ends with “Here’s how we solved it.”

·        Inverted pyramid. The newspaper style of news reporting where the lead paragraph summarizes the story and the following paragraphs present the facts in order of decreasing importance. You can use this format in journal articles, letters, memos, and reports.

·        Deductive order. Start with a generalization, then support it with particulars. Scientists use this format in research papers that begin with the findings and then state the supporting evidence.

·        Inductive order. Begin with specific instances, and then lead the Reader to the idea or general principles the instances suggest. An excellent way to approach trade journal feature stories.

·        List. This article is a list article because it describes, in list form, the five most common problems in technical writing. A technical list article might be titled “Six Tips for Designing Wet Scrubbers” or “Seven Ways to Reduce Your Plant’s Electric Bill.”

      Once I have an outline with sections and subsections, I organize my information by putting it on index cards. Each card gets a heading outline.

      When you’ve finished taking notes, organize the index cards in stacks. Each stack

contains all the cards you’ve collected under a particular topic. If a stack is small, you might need more information on that topic. Or, you might be able to combine it with another stack. Index cards provide an easy-to-use, modular system of organizing your material.


Misreading the Reader

      When I admit to doing some direct-mail copywriting as part of my consulting work, people turn up their nose. “I always throw that junk in the garbage,” they say. “Who would ever buy something from a letter addressed to ‘Dear Occupant’?”

      They’re right, of course. Written communication are most effective when they are personal. Your writing should be built around the needs, interests, desires, and profit of the Reader.

      With most technical documents- articles, papers, manuals, reports, brochures,-you are writing for many readers, not an individual. Even though we don’t know the names of our readers, we need to develop a picture of who they are- their job title, education, industry, and interests.

·        Job title. Engineers are interested in your compressor’s reliability and performance, while the purchasing agent is more concerned with cost. A person’s job colors his perspective of your product, service, or idea. Are you writing for plant engineers? Office managers? CEOs? shop foremen? Make the tone and content of your writing compatible with the professional interests of your readers.

·        Education. Is your reader a PhD or a high-school drop-out? Is he a chemical engineer? Does he understand computer programming, thermodynamics, physical chemistry, and the calculus of variations? Write simply enough so that the least technical of your readers can understand you completely.

·        Industry. When engineers buy a reverse-osmosis water-purification system for a chemical plant, they want to know every technical detail down to the last pipe, pump, fan, and filter. Marine buyers, on the other hand, have only two basic questions: What does it cost? How reliable is it? Especially in promotional writing, know what features of your product appeal to the various markets.

·        Level of interest. An engineer who has responded to your ad is more likely to be receptive to a salesman’s call than someone who the salesman calls on “cold turkey.” Is your reader interested or disinterested? Friendly or hostile? Receptive or resistant? Understanding his state of mind helps you tailor your message to meet his needs.






            Writing in “Techicalese”

                        Anyone who reads technical documents knows the danger of “technicalese”-the pompous, over blown style that leaves your writing sounding as if it were written by a computer or a corporation instead of a human being.

            “Technicalese,” by my definition, is language more complex than the concepts it serves to communicate. By loading up their writings with jargon, clichés, antiquated phrases, passive sentences, and an excess of adjectives, scientists and bureaucrats hide behind a jumble of incomprehensible memos and reports.

            To help you recognize “technicalese” (also known as “corporitis”), I’ve assembled a few samples from diverse sources. Note how the authors seem to be writing to impress rather than to express. All of these excerpts are real.

            “Will you please advise me at your earliest convenience of the correct status of this product?

            -memo from an advertising


            “All of the bonds in the above described account having been heretofore disposed of, we are this day terminating same. We accordingly enclose herein check in the amount of $30,050 same being your share realized therein, as per statement attached.”

            -letter from a stockbroker

            “This procedure enable users to document data fields described in master files that were parsed and analyzed by the program dictionary.”

            -software user’s manual

            “This article presents some findings from surveys conducted in Haiti in 1977 that provide retrospective data on the age at menarche of women between the ages of 15 and 49 years. It considers the demographic and nutritional situation in Haiti, the cultural meaning of menarche and the source of data.”

            -article abstract

            How do you eliminate “technicalese” from your writing? Start by avoiding jargon. Don’t use a technical term unless it communicates your meaning precisely. Never write “utilize” when “use” will do just as well.

            Use personal pronouns. If you did the experiment, write “I did the experiment,” not “The experiment was done.”

            Use contractions. Prefer the active voice. Avoid clichés and antiquated phrases. Write simply. Stamp out “technicalese.”


Lengthy Sentences

            Lengthy sentences tire the reader and make your writing hard to read. A survey by Harvard professor D.H. Menzel indicates that in technical papers the sentences become difficult to understand when they exceed 34 words in length.

            One measure of writing clarity, the Fog Index, takes into account sentence length

and word length.

Here’s how it works:

            First, determine the average sentence length in a short (100 to 200 words) writing sample. To do this, divide the number of words in the sample by the number of sentences. If parts of a sentence are separated by a semicolon (;), count each part as a separate sentence.

            Next, calculate the number of big words (words with three or more syllables) per 100 words of sample. Do not include capitalized words, combinations of short words (butterfly, moreover) or verbs made three syllables by adding ed or es (accepted, responses).

            Finally, add the average sentence length to the number of big words per hundred words and multiply by 0.4. This gives you the Fog Index for the sample.

            The Fog Index corresponds to the years of schooling you need to read and understand the sample. A score of 8 or 9 indicates high-school level; 13, a college freshman; 17, a college graduate.

            Popular magazines have Fog Indexes ranging from 8 to 13. Technical journals should rate no higher than 17. Obviously, the higher the Fog Index, the more difficult the writing is to read.

            In his book Gene Control in the Living Cell (Basic Books), J.A.V. Butler leads off with a single 79-word sentence.


            “In This book I have attempted an accurate but at the same time readable account of recent work on the subject of how gene controls operate, a large subject which is rapidly acquiring a central position in the biology of today and which will inevitably become even more prominent in the future, in the efforts of scientists of numerous different specialists to explain how a single organism can contain cells of many different kinds developed from a common origin.”


            With 17 big words, this sample has a Fog Index of 40-equivalent to a reading level of 28 years of college education! Obviously, this sentence is way too long. Here’s a rewrite I came up with:


            “This book is about how gene-controls operate-a subject of growing importance in modern biology.”


            This gets the message across with a Fog Index of only 14.

            Give your writing the Fog Index test. If you score in the upper teens or higher, it’s time to trim sentence length. Go over your text, and break long sentences into two or more separate sentences. To further reduce average sentence length and add variety to your writing, you can occasionally use an extremely short sentence of only three to four words or so. Like this one.


Writer’s Block

            Writer’s block isn’t just for professional writers; it can afflict engineers and managers, too. Writer’s Block is the inability to start putting words on paper, and it stems from anxiety and fear of writing.

            When technical people write, they’re afraid to make mistakes, and so they edit themselves word by word, inhibiting the natural flow of ideas and sentences. But professional writers know that writing is a process consisting of numerous drafts, rewrites, deletions, and revisions. Rarely does a writer produce a perfect manuscript on the first try.

            When you sit down to write, let the words flow freely. Don’t worry about style, snytax, punctuation, or typos-just write. You can always go back and fix it later. By “letting it all out,” you build momentum and overcome inhibitions that block your ability to write and think.

            Most writers go through a minimum of three drafts. The first is this initial “go with the flow” draft where the words come tumbling out.

            In the second draft, you take a critical look at what you’ve written. You edit for organization, logic, content, and persuasiveness. With scissors and tape (or the word processor), you add, delete, and rearrange paragraphs. You rewrite jumbled passages to make them clear.

            In the third draft, you give your prose a final polishing by editing for style, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. This is the step where you worry about things like consistency in numbers, units of measure, equations, symbols, abbreviations, and capitalization.

            Here are a few more tips to help you overcome Writer’s Block:

·        Break the writing up into short sections, and write one section at a time. Tackling many little writing assignments seems less formidable a task than taking a large project all at once.

·        Write the easy sections first. If you can’t get a handle on the main argument of your report or paper, start with something routine, such as the section on “Apparatus” or “Procedures.” This will get you started and help build momentum.

·        Write abstracts, introductions, and summaries last. Although they come first in the final document, it doesn’t make sense to try to sum up a paper that hasn’t been written yet.

·        Avoid grammar-book rules that inhibit writers. One such rule says every paragraph must begin with a topic sentence (a first sentence that states the central idea of the paragraph). By insisting on topic sentences, teachers and editors throw up a block that prevents students and engineers from putting their thoughts on paper. Professional writer’s don’t worry about topic sentences for (or sentence diagrams or grammatical jargon or ending a sentence with a preposition). Neither should you.

·        Sleep on it. Put your draft in a drawer and come back to it the next morning. Refreshed, you ‘you’ll be able to edit and rewrite more effectively and with greater ease.

            These-five tips may not make you a best-selling novelist. But, by organizing your material, knowing the reader, avoiding “technicalese,” shortening sentences,  and overcoming Writer’s Block, you’ll write better, faster, and with greater confidence and enjoyment.

            Robert W. Bly, an independent industrial copywriter and technical writer, is co-author of the book Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style (McGraw-Hill). He hold a B.S. in chemical engineering and is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.