Technical Writing: 6 Best Practices for Effective Content


Writing is both an art and a science, with some styles leaning more toward one attribute than the other. For example, content writing is meant to educate, entertain, inform, or inspire to grab a reader’s attention and build relationships with their intended audience. Social media posts, company blogs, web content, and advertising/marketing content are all examples of this writing style.

Technical writers, however, are tasked with revising complex technical information into useful, easily understood language. This ensures that end users understand the technical aspects of the product or service. Examples of technical writing include API documentation, user manuals, product instructions, software guides, white papers, company documents, knowledge-base articles, and other types of technical content.

Good technical writing can be surprisingly hard to find — content is either overly complicated and long-winded or devoid of basic style and grammar. To be effective, technical communication should always be clear, concise, and accurate. Otherwise, the target audience will be unable to effectively understand, interpret, and use the material for their benefit.

Convoluted diagrams, confusing acronyms, and poor punctuation are all common mistakes in technical documentation. Technical writing skills center on simplifying the complex to communicate information with clarity and concision. To create content that readers can easily understand, writers should embrace the following six best practices for technical writing.

1. Understand the intended audience.

David A. McMurrey, professor and technical writer, considers the audience “the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document.” Technical writing is meant to inform and educate, so it’s essential to understand how much end users already know about the subject matter. This enables technical writers to tailor the content, tone, and style to suit an intended audience.

For example, consider the difference between writing a technical guide for developers versus a user manual for a mobile app. The first will contain functional and non-functional requirements, technical terms, workflows, etc. The public-facing user guide, however, might only contain instructions and content related to the user experience. Technical writers can make entirely different documents depending on the type of audience.

2. Get ready to research.

A key element that sets technical writing apart from other styles is that technical writers spend a lot of time conducting research and collecting data to understand the subject and purpose of a technical document. Before writing a word, team members first need to understand the subject matter, purpose, and scope of the technical content.

For example, consider API documentation for a particular product. Before a technical writer can write the guide, they first need to understand components such as installation instructions, code examples, use cases, and troubleshooting error codes. Some technical writers use templates or outlines to focus on specific elements to research and include in the document, which helps to prevent information overload.

3. Write reader-friendly documentation.

People read technical documents to accomplish an actionable goal, such as using a product or service. The easier it is for a reader to understand a piece of information, the more likely they are to achieve the desired result. There are several ways to increase readability, such as using bulleted lists to quickly convey important points or using numbered lists to detail step-by-step processes.

Good technical writing seeks to simply language at every opportunity. If the intended audience is not all that familiar with the subject matter, they will quickly be confused by abbreviations, acronyms, idioms, and needlessly technical terms. Make it a goal to eliminate unnecessary words, simplify sentences, and enhance clarity throughout the writing process.

4. Keep the audience’s attention.

End users have a shorter attention span than ever before, so good technical writing uses a variety of assets to hold a reader’s attention. Images, diagrams, workflows, and screenshots enhance understanding and engage with those who don’t connect well with written content.

Document structure is another important element for end-user readability. Without a clear hierarchy of information, readers have no choice but to scan the entire document to find what they need. The best way to format technical content is to organize it in logical groups, using headings, subheadings, and a table of contents. Vary font sizes and types to help draw the end user’s attention to headings, titles, and important takeaways.

5. Use active voice.

It is a common misconception that passive voice sounds more “professional” and is preferable in scientific and technical writing. This stems from the goal of objectivity in science and engineering — passive voice hides the actor (e.g., scientist, engineer) from the text, which seems more objective.

Active voice is simpler and more concise than passive voice. Importantly, it presents the subject-verb-object relationship that is key to clarifying meaning in the English language. For example, compare the following two sentences:

  • Active voice: The technical style guide includes a new programming language.
  • Passive voice: A new programming language was included in the technical style guide.

In most instances, technical writing uses active voice. However, passive voice may be more appropriate when explaining a process where anyone can perform the action: “Water reclamation — the reuse of treated water — is used to supplement and sustain existing water resources.”

6. Create clear, accurate content.

Editing and revising are essential parts of the technical writing process. This encompasses more than basic functions like spell check, removing redundancy, adding commas, or fixing grammar errors. Revisions in technical documentation also ensure that the content is technically accurate, clear, and easily accessible to the intended audience. Any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in technical writing affect credibility and the user’s perception of the documentation.

Idioms, metaphors, and jargon don’t translate well in technical communication. Keep in mind that not every end user speaks English as their first language, so these linguistic tools will only make the content harder to understand. You never know when a piece of technical writing might be translated, so it’s a good idea to use simple phrases and watch out for words with multiple meanings.

Enhance Your Technical Documentation

While the term “technical writing” seems straightforward enough, a lot of time and effort goes into creating effective, usable content. ProEdit has been a leader in the technical writing industry since 1992. Our team of skilled technical writers have proven, tested experience in technical communication across a range of products and services. If you’re looking to take your technical documentation to the next level, contact us today.