Get Real: The Prerequisite to Good Technical Writing

by J. M. Haile

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims . . .

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (essay), 1946.

Above all, technical writing must be clear, but clear writing does not happen by accident. If clear communication is not at the front of the writer's mind, then clear communication will not be achieved. This is not to say that the writing should be an end in itself—writing merely for the sake of writing—but it does require that the writer believe that the ultimate goal will be best served by communicating clearly and concisely.

Most bad technical writing is created because writers have aims other than to communicate:

  1. Shoddy operating manuals, users manuals, and software documentation are created because the writers need to complete an onerous task, not because they aim to help readers take advantage of technology.
  2. Muddled progress reports and project reports are written to satisfy the demands of management, not to clarify what has been done, what needs attention, and what remains to be accomplished.
  3. Obscure journal articles are written to enhance resumes and reputations, not to add techniques and knowledge to the technical literature.
  4. Confusing and misleading grant proposals are written to get funding, not to communicate a substantial plan for meaningful research.

Too often, bad writing is a habit learned and perfected in school. Students write term papers, lab reports, and theses to earn grades and degrees when they should be using writing to clarify thought and communicate. Here are some possible reasons for such misplaced emphasis.

  1. Many students do not appreciate that their writing will actually be read and interpreted by others. What is the source of such an attitude? In some cases, the students themselves read little or find little meaning in the things they do read. In other cases, they place little value in their writing—it's simply another exercise to be endured, not an opportunity for growth and learning.
  2. Often lab reports and theses are viewed as afterthoughts: the primary objective is to collect data and interpret that data, while the reporting of results is deemed inconsequential. But data and interpretations of data remain meaningless until they are communicated. Such attitudes are often passed tacitly to students from their instructors—instructors who overly emphasize apparatus, experimental technique, and analysis while giving short shrift to communicating results.
  3. Writing is just too darn hard; and indeed clear writing, like any worthwhile pursuit, demands perseverance and practice.

But in any event, it is wasted effort to try to teach the mechanics of good technical writing until students have closed the "sincerity gap." The rules of grammar and guidelines for style are irrelevant unless the student has clarity of purpose. The student must believe in the writing—that it has value and meaning, that it will be read and interpreted by others, that writing clearly can contribute to their own growth and enhance their own technical skills. Otherwise, they are only going through the motions, with their minds preoccupied by other things.