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The importance of technical writing skills
Many who have worked in the paper industry, or other industries, have at one time or another been required to write technical reports. Others have tried to avoid this "drudge" work, either hoping that someone else would complete the task or not having confidence in their own writing skills. In technically related school curricula, such as engineering, the ability to write is often not the top priority even though it is a part of an engineer's tasks. I recall taking only one technical writing course in my entire college studies. Fortunately, this covered the fundamentals and provided valuable technical report outlines for future use. But there is much more to be considered than simply knowing that most reports usually contain a table of contents, conclusions, recommendations, list of figures, appendices, acknowledgements, and so forth.

The purpose of this article is not to provide report outlines, since a large number of these are available in written literature or on the Internet. Rather, the focus will be on the content of technical reports, and their relevance as a communication tool within the organization. Of course, technical reports are but one part of overall technical writing one may be required to do. Similar principles will apply when writing product manuals, specifications, case studies, training manuals, or even resumes. The technical writer must be able modify the specific principles to suit a broad range of assignments.

What are the important factors to consider when developing the content of a good technical report? One of the top priorities must be to know who needs the report information and is likely to read it. It should be obvious that report information is presented differently if written for other engineers, for management, for a publication, or for the general public. Unfortunately, there is no "one size fits all" of the audiences. This results in the challenge of making the report understandable by the anticipated readers, who may have varying levels of knowledge about the subject. It also means that different reports contain various types of technical data, since what needs to be reported may vary. For example, some reports may require a summary of research work with graphic depictions. The focus should be on serving the needs of a particular audience--not just presenting a summary of technical information with the hope of generating reader interest.

Having decided on the reader audience, there are other aspects to be considered when organizing your report. Some of the key issues are:

• The report content must be strictly organized. There is nothing more frustrating than having to search through page after page of writing while trying to find a piece of key information relevant to the subject matter. Readers should be able to locate information of interest quickly. The outlines mentioned above will be useful when sharing your information in a professional setting.
• The report must be clear and concise. This is very difficult in technical writing, since the writer is intimately familiar with the subject matter and it is easy to assume the reader either can or will take the time to sort out complex explanations.
• Good grammar is essential. This is probably the main reason so many engineers hate to write reports. One helpful technique in this regard is to use short sentences that lead to the main point being expressed quickly. In other words, avoid a verbose writing style because your readers likely don't have the time to read a lot of description. And, it is absolutely critical that the report be free of errors, not only in grammar but in content.
• Unless presenting a summary of past studies, etc, use the active voice in writing, since the information presented is current.
• It may be useful to include industry related information which can be recognized by others in the field and in order to attract outside readers.
• In my opinion, it is best to present the results and conclusions early in the report. This is particularly important if upper management personnel are likely to have interest in the subject. Include also a brief abstract or summary of the content, since this may be the only part read by some managers.
• When making technical studies, it is useful to keep a notebook of ideas and observations that may later be incorporated into the report.

When the report is complete, the information can be used later in a variety of ways to reach a broader audience or to benefit the writer by exposure in the industry. The report information, unless confidential, might be used to construct articles for publications. If the writer possesses public speaking skills, the information could be made available in presentations to industry trade associations. So instead of dreading the task of report writing, consider the longer term career benefits potentially available. Sharpening this skill can boost your visibility to peers and assist in career advancement.

Robert Moore is a retired chemical engineer, and is an experienced technical and fictional writer. His past work experience spanned the chemical, paper and equipment manufacturing industries, including holding management positions at Voith Paper, Scapa plc, and The Mead Paper Corporation. He is also the author of humorous short stories about life in southwest Virginia, circa 1940-1960.


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