Technical Writing Prose Style*

Technical Writing Prose Style is a style of writing that typifies the texts of professional and technical writers.

A Technical Writing Prose Style shares some attributes with a Substantive Prose Style.

*Alternative Titles: Business Writing Style; Professional Writing Style

Key Terms: Rhetorical Stance; Persona; Tone; Voice.


Universally Loved Stylistic Attributes

A Technical Writing Prose Style often shares a number of universally praised stylistic attributes, including

Not surprisingly, critical readers across discourse communities abhor vagueness, unsupported claims, and a lack of organization. No one likes a sentence that goes on and on in multiple directions. People don’t want to be bored or confused. And they expect attributions for citations.

Rhetorical Situation

Different rhetorical situations invoke different writing styles. What the author says and how they say what they say is constrained by their audience — the people who will read the text.

Academic Writing

Academic writing is usually conducted to demonstrate what you know or have learned to an audience. It usually has a specific audience who wants to read, or at least expects to read, your writing from beginning to end. Traditionally, this audience is called the teacher as examiner. At times teachers may ask students to conceive of a different audience when writing, yet students may see that as a ruse because they know their teacher and know what their teacher really wants and expects to earn a grade.

Academic style — apart from things like lab reports where scientific conventions prevail — encourages writers to spread out and develop ideas. Because academic audiences tend to be fairly educated and interested in the topic, academic writers may communicate in long, complicated sentences and long paragraphs.

Professional or Technical Writing

The audience for professional and technical writers is quite different than the audience for academic texts.

Professional writing is fundamentally transactional: usually if you are writing it is because you are trying to solve some kind of a problem. Your audience — the people you are writing to — probably need to do something in response to your writing. They may not be expecting your writing. They probably don’t want to read your writing. Your writing is interrupting their day.

Formatting & Visual Language

Academic writing, depending on audience, can have extremely long paragraphs. In professional-peer review journals, paragraphs can be 300 to 500+ words long.

In contrast, professional and technical writing rarely deploys long paragraphs. Rather, professional and technical writers use formatting and visual language to make documents more inviting and easier to navigate/read. They break longer paragraphs into smaller content chunks. They avoid repeated subjects and verbs by dropping longer sentences into bulleted lists. They use Header 1 Tags and Header 2 Tags (and so on) to further chunk content so readers can skim rather than read.

[ Sentence Schemas |Sentence Order within Paragraphs | Topic Sentence ]

Most importantly, professional and technical writers use visual language rather than alphabetical language whenever possible. There really is truth to the old truism that a picture tells more than a thousand words.

Conciseness

Because of the transactional nature of professional and technical communication, it favors conciseness. Time is money. Readers aren’t reading for pleasure. All they want is to get the information they came for as quickly as possible.

Technical audiences are fickle, distracted, and easily confused. Unlike the teacher-as-examiner audience of school-based texts, technical audiences know less than the writer. They aren’t looking to see whether the writer understood the lecture or text. Instead, they are trying to understand a topic or process.

Professional writing is all about conciseness, active voice, direct writing, and short paragraphs with a clear, and single main idea.

Point of View

Because professional and technical writers presume their audience — which they tend to call users rather than readers — are reading the text to understand how to do something or how something works, they generally keep the spotlight on the topic rather than the writer’s thoughts or feelings about the topic.

Organization

Most often, business and technical style values direct organization, especially in correspondence like letters, memos and emails. This strategy presents the purpose of the document in the first paragraph (sometimes the first sentence) and provides supporting details in the body.

[ For more on direct organization, please see Deductive Order, Deductive Reasoning, Deductive Writing ]

Professional and technical writers employ a direct organization in reports and other long documents, which may begin include an executive summary that provides an overview of the entire document. Typically, reports and other long document will also begin with a summary and/or direct statement of the purpose of the document before moving into the main body.

In contrast, an indirect approach to organization leads with relevant, attention-getting details that do not directly state the purpose of the document.

[ For more on indirect organization, please see Inductive Order, Inductive Reasoning, Inductive Writing ]

Most often, in business and technical communication, indirect organization is employed when the writer is delivering bad news or anticipate an audience that is resistant to the main message and may require some persuasion.

Sentence Style

In some ways the syntax, the sentence patterns of professional and technical writers are similar to that of academic writers or even creative writers. As mentioned at Styles of Writing, good writing is good writing at a foundational level.

Thus, when writers violate conventions for forming sentences—e.g., they introduce a comma between a subject and a verb—they break comprehension, regardless of the audience reading the text.

Professional and technical writers, like writers of other communities of practice, may tackle some really sophisticated, complicated topics. Given form follows function, it’s not surprising that explicating causal and correlational relationships warrants some fairly long winded sentences.

That said, the emphasis, the second law of the professional and technical writer’s catcheticsm (after the focus on audience), is that sentences should be short as possible. This doesn’t mean sentences should adopt a primer style but it does mean that sentences need to move from the given to the new and keep the same grammatical subject from sentence to sentence (when possible) in order to create flow.

Content Attributes of Professional & Technical Writing

Effective professional and technical writing is honest, accurate, correct, and complete.

Readers and users of technical documents need to be confident that they can rely on the information being provided. Your own ethos and the ethos of your company is always on the line, and never more so than when you are producing documents for external audiences.

Readers and users rely on you to be

  • truthful
    • lying about the facts seldom helps a company prosper. You need to check and double check your facts. Check all of the details for accuracy
  • reader-based
    • edit and proofread. Eliminate sources of confusion or error (correctness)
  • complete
    • Avoid lawsuits! Ensure you have included all of the information the audience needs
  • accessible
    • produce readable, legible, understandable texts that are physically available to readers and users.

Multi Channeled & Creative in Terms of Medium

Our final comment regarding the attributes of professional and technical writing may be our most contentious: in terms of channel and medium, professional and technical writers are more flexible, less convention-bound than academic writing. IOWs, they are likely to be willing to move beyond traditional genres and alphabetical text to embrace the possibility of new media.

Additionally, in workplace contexts, it’s not uncommon for writers to remediate a text—e.g., to distribute an important message in multiple channels. For instance, a business might publize a partnership with a new company via its corporate website, blog, twitter account, and stockholder report.