From conception to execution, and in some industries, decommissioning, all engineering projects have at least one thing in common: technical communication. Much of what engineers do ultimately needs to be “put on paper,” i.e., documented.
Technical documents must clearly explain complex ideas to technicians, operators, engineers, management, and customers. But why?
Clear, concise, and correct technical documentation…
Helps Reduce Misunderstandings and the Risk of Safety Incidents
The last thing you want as an engineer is a customer or coworker using your product incorrectly, which could happen if your product or service lacks proper technical documentation. Unclear or incorrect instructions in an operating manual, for example, can confuse or mislead the user. If the user proceeds with those instructions, the risk of serious injuries or damage to equipment or the environment increases. Not only does this affect customer retention, but it could mean legal liabilities for the company.
When users have a question about their work, whether it is how to operate equipment or how to use software to complete a task, they can refer to documentation that clearly outlines the steps they need to follow. They don’t have to get bogged down hunting for valuable information, especially in the event of an emergency — when seconds count.
When an end user has a question about how to use a product, they can refer to the manual or other documentation that clearly answers the question. Well written technical documentation reduces costs for the product developer by reducing the amount of service calls to your technical support or engineering teams.
Professionally designed and formatted technical documents make a good first impression. Well-formatted documents also help users easily find information, reducing calls to the helpline or service desk.
As an engineer, explaining highly technical information and ideas in writing can be difficult.
At Shea, our Technical Writers have worked closely with engineers over the last 25 years and have collected lessons learned, shortcuts, common mistakes, and key principles for making writing easier for Engineers. Key principles that our Expert Writers suggest are:
Identify Your Audience
Before you sit down to write, think about who will read your information. Are they customers, other engineers, or management? Why do they need the information? When and where will they read or apply it?
Customers and executives, for example, may not need or have as much technical knowledge as you do. You’ll have to adjust how you approach topics so that someone with limited or no subject matter expertise can understand. Customers may need technical manuals to properly operate equipment, and therefore require clear and concise step-by-step procedures.
Executives may rely on technical reports to make business decisions; the Executive Summary needs to convey results and recommendations, with the technical details in the rest of the report.
Watch Your Language!
Avoid using excessive jargon and complex terminology in your technical writing. You probably use jargon and technical terms or acronyms in your conversations with colleagues, and although they’re not “bad” words, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a place in your technical writing. That’s the case even if your audience is other engineers who know the jargon! There are exceptions to this rule, so you should frequently ask yourself, “Will my audience understand this terminology?”
If you can’t easily avoid jargon or complex terminology in your technical documents, be sure to explain what you mean. One way to do this is to include a guide to acronyms and terms at the beginning of your document so your readers can easily refer to it when they need to.
Use the Active Voice
Sentences written in the active voice clearly identify the action and the subject who performs that action. For example: “The engineers worked on the project.” Passive voice, on the other hand, removes accountability: “The project was worked on.”
Using the active voice helps keep your writing clear and direct without extra fluff. Communication is straightforward and you’re probably using less technical language with this approach.
Don’t Forget Graphics
Technical writing isn’t all writing. Graphics absolutely have a seat at the table. Some concepts, ideas and highly technical information are more effectively communicated — and understood — by showing rather than telling. Use charts, graphs, technical illustrations, and other images that complement your technical content or communicate what cannot be written. Graphics let readers better piece together the information you’re providing and improve readability by breaking up the text.
Seek out Technical Writing Resources
Take some steps to improve your work. This Technical Writing Workshop for Engineers recommends that you bring work-related documents to class so you can apply what you learn in real time. This workshop is offered in-house to entire engineering departments or publicly twice a year for individuals. The next public workshop is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on November 7 and 8, 2023. Seats are limited. Consider registering today.
My Engineers don’t have time for this!
You might be thinking, “My team needs to focus on our engineering work. We’d like to improve our technical documentation, or we might need to start developing content, but we simply don’t have the resources or bandwidth to do so.”
No worries, we can help!
Shea Writing & Training Solutions partners with engineers and their companies to create clear, accurate documentation that saves time and money and increases customer satisfaction.
Contact us today to schedule a no-obligation strategy session to explore the best options for your documentation needs.