Institute of Human Origins - March 2024


Forums / General Science and Teaching / Technical Writing: Useful Technical Writing Also Made Easier

General Science and Teaching

Technical Writing: Useful Technical Writing Also Made Easier

Author Post
T.R. Girill T.R. 2410 Points

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Nat. Lab. (retired)
[email protected]

Technical Writing: Useful Technical Writing Also Made Easier

'Scientific Papers Made Easy' (Stuart West and Lindsay Turnbull,
Oxford Univ. Press, 2023) sounds like a book that many students have
longed for--and it was even endorsed by a positive review in the
May 5, 2023, issue of AAAS's Science. Ironically, the 'made easy'
advice, though genuine, is relatively brief. Most of the book, and
its real payoff for (young) technical writers, is its astute review
of techniques to make scientific reports and articles more USEFUL
for those who read them. After all, there is no point in 'easily'
writing technical text that its audience cannot actually use.

Easier Drafting

An example of West and Turnbull's 'made easy' advice comes early in
their book, where they coach inexperienced writers on the best
sequence for drafting a technical report or article. The 'natural,'
default writing order is from front to back, starting with the
abstract and introduction and ending with the project discussion.
But there is NO need to draft in reading order.

Instead, West and Turnbull advise writing 'from the inside out'
(pp. 10-17). That is, start with the most specific content first,
before attempting the more-abstract, big-picture analysis which
is easier with the help of earlier-drafted context. They suggest
beginning with the methods section, concrete and focused naturally
--'you simply tell everyone what you did' (p. 19). With these
details in hand, the writer can more easily take on the results
and their assessment. Finally, return to write the abstract and
introduction LAST, after the writer has the rest of the text
available to review, condense, and use as self-scaffolding.

More Useful Design

Most of West and Turnbull's advice addresses meeting audience needs,
since that is what makes technical text useful (and interesting),
whether it was easy to write or not.

They are quite explicit about audience support as an obligation
that every technical writer has: 'its your job to make your paper
easy for potential readers' (p. 4) 'do whatever helps your
reader' (p. 16). Much of the book unpacks the 'whatever' here--
and of course its very existence betrays how often real scientists
need such a reminder!

Sentence-Level Advice

At the sentence level, reader support takes the form of
(1) avoiding long, jargon-filled sentences and (2) ordering text
to keep the reader focused: 'remember to put why before how'
(p. 63). The reader can better appreciate procedural details or
techniques if they are motivated first: 'we carried out two
experiments to test our assumption that oranges containing
higher levels of vitamin C could be stored longer...' (p. 63).

Paragraph-Level Advice

Conciseness helps readers at the paragraph level too, of course.
Science writers certainly want to reveal the problems(s) that
they undertook and the result(s) achieved, but always with reader
impatience in mind. Clarifying crucial details can often save
space in the long run: always feature the magnitude of a found
effect, for example, not just the direction (p. 57). And
'remind' readers of the scientific significance of each reported
result, not their mere existence.

Special Reader Support

West and Turnbull also emphasize what most writing books ignore:
that often hurried readers of a technical text just skim the
text, or even skip whole sentences or paragraphs (pp. 124, 162).
Someone may read the results section who ignored the careful
summary of methods, while others just jump from one figure
caption to another. To compensate, West and Turnbull advise
a terse recap of problems addressed or techniques used, so that
the 'results' and 'discussion' sections are still meaningful in
isolation (p.122). Likewise, inserting extra, overt subheads
into any long section makes it more meaningful even for impatient
text skimmers (p. 53).

Thus the insider, experience-based text-design tips from West
and Turnbull's guide nicely inject insights from their long
science careers to improve the reports and drafts of even
beginning science and engineering students.

[For more on helping students prepare effective text, see
For more on making technical text generally more helpful, see]

Post Reply

Forum content is subject to the same rules as NSTA List Serves. Rules and disclaimers