Why Are So Many Knowledgeable People Such Bad Technical Writers?


By:  Murray Brookman

Science and engineering were once considered the only subjects for technical writing. This limitation no longer applies. All professional fields require technical documents that help readers perform tasks and understand specific information. No matter what your job is, technical writing will be important to your work because you will communicate your technical knowledge to others both inside and outside the organization.

Consider: an engineer writes an article for a professional journal; a police officer writes an arrest report; an artist writes a grant application; a dietitian writes a brochure; a technician writes an instruction manual; you respond to a request for a proposal.  Anyone who writes about job-related information prepares technical documentation that supplies information to readers who will need it for a specific purpose. QUESTION:  Are your readers getting your message?

How is it that companies who are smart enough to design automatic teller machines, CAD/CAM systems, or a network that allows computers to talk to copy machines, cannot manage to write intelligible and reader-friendly documentation? There are two main explanations: first, some do not care; second, some do not know how.

Long before there were online user manuals for computers, there were instruction books, process procedures, and assembly guides. Unfortunately, for as long as there has been such literature, much of it has been unreadable. Why? Traditionally, engineers and manufacturers do not like to spend time, effort, or money on these documents. Moreover, a good many engineers, scientists, systems analysts, etc., hate to write. And the writing they hate the most is explaining complicated technical information to people who know less than they do.

Many organizations are indifferent to this situation. They set aside almost no time to get a technical document written and often assign the task to people with other “more urgent” things to do. Or, they delegate it to an employee who has never written a complicated technical publication before and who may lack the authority and leverage to do it well. Ironically, the writing of online documentation is often entrusted to the same programmers who wrote the cryptic screens and messages that send users to their bottles of aspirin in pain and desperation.

In organizations that do care, matters are a little better. Still, the central problem effecting the writers of technical information – including professional technical writers – is that they have not received enough guidance and instruction on what the readers’ needs are. Most people who are about to write a technical document have never written one nor have a “good" one to refer to as a model.

Even though there is about 40 years of research on techniques that make technical documents more accessible and reader-friendly, many people faced with writing a technical project have never been exposed to it; thereby causing another problem: too many decisions about technical documentation, especially about editing and refining them, devolve into disputes about personal preferences.

So in one extreme, technical documentation is often written by technical experts who dislike writing, give it as little effort as possible, and use no formal criteria. Or at the other extreme, the documentation is written by artisan technical writers who lack the formal criteria needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the product in view of the needs of the readers.


Good news. Only three broad elements are essential to consider in writing any technical document: reader, purpose and situation. The reader of a technical document seeks information for a specific purpose, and the writer’s goal is to design a document that will serve the readers' needs and help the reader understand and use the information efficiently.

Technical Writing Examples

  • Correspondence
  • Reports
  • Proposals
  • Procedural Writing


The process of writing a technical document includes three general stages – planning, multiple drafting and revising. But consider that this process is not always linear. Many writers change their minds about the content or format while they are drafting, while others may have a new idea as they are revising. No single writing system is appropriate for all writers.


Although technical writing has specific and strict “Rules-Of-The-Road”, the stages of writing are true for all types of writing as follows:

1. Planning:

In the planning stage, a writer analyzes the reader, the purpose and the situation, gathers information, and tentatively organizes the document. All these items may recur many times during the writing process. 

2. Understanding Page Layout and Design:

Document design refers to the physical appearance of a document. Because written text and its presentation work together to provide readers with the information they need, think about layout and design during the planning stage of a technical writing project. Layout and design features increase the usefulness of a technical document in several ways:

  • They guide the readers through the text by directing attention to individual topics
  • They increase the reader’s interest in the document
  • They create a document that reflects the image you wish readers to have

The principles of page layout and design are many and should be given attention to any technical project. And remember, page layout and design principles are very different depending upon whether the document will be published in print format, electronic format, or both. If the document is to be published in both media, you will have two different documents. 

3.  Analyzing Readers:

No two readers are alike; however, they are alike in that they need documents that provide information they can understand and use. Therefore, the technical writer is researching questions such as:

  • Who are the specific readers?
  • Why do they need this document?
  • How will they use it?
  • What is their attitude about the subject?
  • What is the level of their technical knowledge?
  • How much do they already know?
  • Do they have preferences in how the information is presented (tables, graphs, etc.)? omplish something specific

4.  Analyze Purpose:

A technical document should accomplish something specific.

  • To Instruct
  • To Record
  • To Inform (for decision making)
  • To Inform (without decision making)
  • To Recommend
  • To Persuade
  • To Interest 

5. Analyze the Writing Situation:

No writer on the job works completely alone or with complete freedom. The organizational environment may help or hinder the process. Here are some examples of organizational influences:

  • Is the subject controversial?
  • What created the need for the document?
  • What is the deadline for the document?
  • What external groups are involved in the project?
  • What future events depend on the document?

6 . Gathering Information:

Generally, you will have some information when you begin a technical writing project. On the other hand, some writers are given a project that they know nothing about (writing an operation manual for a new piece of equipment) and they must do extensive interviews with technicians or engineers, and make direct observations

7. Organizing the Information:

As you gather information, you will probably think about how best to organize your document so that the readers can use the information efficiently, such as:

  • Does the subject have related segments?
  • Does the reader prefer some topics appear in a particular place?
  • Which order of appearance will assist readers in understanding the material

8. Multiple Drafting:

Revision takes place throughout the writing process, but particularly after you have begun drafting.  When reading the draft consider such things as:

  • Content
  • Organization
  • Headings
  • Openings and Closings
  • Graphic Aids
  • Language
  • Reader Usability
After you are satisfied with the revisions, then edit the document for correct grammar, punctuation, spelling and the organization's editorial style. And, keep in mind that for most technical writing projects, approximately 20 percent of time and budget will be used in the revision process.

By:  Murray Brookman

© 2015 Alliance Training and Consulting, Inc.



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