Technical writing

There is a general perception that professional writers have it all figured out where perfect grammar is concerned, truth is writers make mistakes and as much as they try to avoid them, it still pops up in their work. Writers need to remember that they are humans too and their passion for writing doesn’t make them perfect. We’ve put together a list of the most common grammatical errors professional writers make in their writing

  1. Apostrophes

It is confusing sometimes knowing where to use an apostrophe. The key is to remember that if you’re using an apostrophe to combine two words, the apostrophe should fall where the word would spilt. This error is common with the following words it is – it’s, We are – we’re, they are – they’re.

  1. When to use too/to/two

To: a preposition followed with a noun.

I am going to the restaurant.

These clothes belong to Sarah

Too: synonym for the word ‘also’

I love her too

I was at the mall too

  1. Overuse of Adverbs

A word or phrase that qualifies a verb or adjective usually ending in ‘ly’. If you use them sparingly that’s okay but overusing adverbs indicates weak verb choices, hence top writers use juicer verbs instead.

“Really awful” modifies the verb “bad” a better choice would be “appalling”.

  1. Cautious use of prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases are the nouns or pronouns that follows the preposition to show location, direction or time. Excessive usage affects the wording of your writing so simplify where possible.

Wrong – The school bus came up the top of the hill

Correct – The school bus crested the hill

  1. Wrong use of words

These are words used in the wrong context; they sound the same with similar spelling and sometimes, the spell checker might not pick it up.

Sea/see

Weather/Whether

Cloth/clothe

Leave/live

  1. Split infinitives

When you split an infinitive, you insert an adverb between the two parts. It sounds correct because its’ been used for a long time and copywriters in advertising are sometimes guilty of this error. Writers should remove split infinitives from parts of the text that isn’t internal thought or dialogue.

Common split infinitives

To go boldly

To quickly go

To impatiently wait

In these verb phrases, the adverb should follow the verb. What is the target audience? How natural would the revision be with the adverb before the infinitive? Read the sentence out to know if it sounds better with the split infinitive.

  1. Subject-Verb Agreement

Singular verb should be used with singular subject and the same rules apply to plural verb. This might seem obvious but it is a common error with skilled writers to end a singular verb with the letter ‘s’

  1. Changes in tense

Your starting tense should remain consistent throughout the piece, although a change might be required to reflect changes in time but unnecessary shifts are unclear to the audience.

Wrong: when I go to bed at night, I always drank tea before sleeping.

Correct: When I go to bed at night, I always drink tea before sleeping.

  1. Spelling errors

Writers should have a spell checker on their PC, these are good tools for highlighting errors in your work. A recommended tool for professional writers is Grammarly, which offers a free plugin for Microsoft Word and some popular browsers like Mozilla Firefox. Some common words include Accommodate, access, chauffer, embarrass, address, ecstasy and many more.

  1. Dangling Modifiers

Grammatical error that occurs when an adverb, adjective or modifying phrase is used in a sentence but the modifier is unclear.

Wrong: Listening to loud noise slowly gives me a headache

Correct: when I listen to loud noise, I slowly develop a headache

  1. Contractions

Contractions join with pronouns or verbs and a verb contraction shortens a verb phrase or verb.

Wrong: ain’t

Correct: am not or is not

  1. Avoid vague statements

Quantify your sentences where possible, vague statements lack credibility and are open to misinterpretation.

Wrong: Microsoft made huge profits last year

Right: Microsoft made a profit of $250million in 2016.

  1. Comparison: using “like” instead of “as though”

The two words are not exchangeable. Like, can only be followed with a pronoun or noun. As though precedes verb clause because it creates the expectation of an event that is action based.

  1. Pronoun case

Pronoun case describes the status of the pronoun as a direct object, indirect object or subject. Writers sometimes use the subjective case where the objective should be used.

Subject: I, we, he, they, who

Object: me, us, him, them, whom

  1. Double Negatives

While most languages possess double negatives, Standard English forms do not. Unfortunately, this is a popular trend for sarcasm or emphasis.

Wrong: He don’t know nothing about the robbery

Correct: He doesn’t know anything about the robbery.

  1. Sentence Structure

Correct sentence structure confuses the most experienced writers. The proverb of knowing the rules before breaking them is invaluable here to understand that sentence structure is not rigid and it will continue to change.

  1. Sentence splices

To splice is to join so when a writer joins independent sentences with a comma instead of coordinating conjunction, that’s a sentence splice.

Incorrect: We have hundreds of clothes to arrange, it will be impossible to finish it before the exam.

Correct: We have hundreds of clothes to arrange; it will be impossible to finish it all before the exam.  

  1. Run-On Sentences

This is a type of sentence that combines comma splices, fused joins or conjunctions two or more independent linking clauses.

Wrong: Peter enjoyed the guitar Amanda gave him at his birthday however he prefers a piano.

Correct: Peter enjoyed the guitar Amanda gave him at his birthday; however, he prefers a piano.

  1. Inflated sentences

Communicate your message to readers using direct words instead of empty sentences that muddle up your message. Wordy sentences are annoying and frustrating because readers have to look for the passage instead of seeing it once they start reading your work. Streamline your sentences with nouns and strong verbs, not adverbs or trite adjectives.

Wrong: It has come to our attention that your utility bills are overdue and we ask you to pay them at your earliest convenience to avoid disconnection.

Correct: Your utility bills are overdue. Pay now to avoid disconnection.

  1. Incorrect irregular verb use

Grammar error with irregular verb forms are common in articles written by university graduates and media journalists.

Incorrect: Sanchez is alleged to have went into Peter’s room and stolen that some shirts.

Correct Sanchez is alleged to have gone into Peter’s room and stolen some shirts.

  1. Tautologies

When you express the same thing twice with different words, that’s’ tautology.

Wrong: John made a kite with his own hands for Diana

Correct: John made a kite for Diana

  1. Sentence Fragments

This is a dependent phrase or clause used by a writer as a complete sentence. The best rule is to see if the fragment sounds right in a defined text.

Wrong: Michael listened for the sound of crickets, nothing; there was none of the usual sounds of night, absolute silence.

Correct: Michael listened for the sound of crickets. Nothing. There were none of the usual sounds of night. Absolute silence.

  1. Semicolons and Commas

Some writers do not use commas in their work. This is safe for simple sentences but complex constructions require the occasional use of semicolon. The problem is the reckless insertion of comma after every couple of words.

  1. Incomplete comparisons

Wrong: My boat is bigger, cheaper and better.

Right: my boat is bigger, cheaper and better than Phil’s.

  1. Coincidence/irony

Do not make assumptions for the latter when it is the former. Irony is the expression of one’s meaning and the real meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning, usually for an emphatic effect. Coincidence is when an event happens by chance. There is a clear distinction between the two so avoid mixing it up.

Content is king concept

The art of writing has undergone many changes as technology expands and dictates what writers should be doing to reach target audiences. Things like SEO writing and keyword density have altered some of the mechanics of article writing, but there are some tried and true techniques that never change, no matter how much the digital landscape may evolve.

These techniques can be implemented in any style of article writing, including industry article writing. Writing for trade magazines or websites can be intimidating at first but by following these simple, timeless writing tips you’ll be able to tackle industry article writing with relative ease. These tips are even praised by professional article writers, working in the profession for years.

 Create and Stick to a Plan

Whenever you begin an article, it’s important to go into it with a well thought-out plan to help you focus throughout the actual writing phase. Sometimes, when an article is written without a plan, the results will seem disorganised and lacking in structure. The article may even drift from subject to subject, without any real cohesion. This happens because, without a plan, a writer may follow their own wandering thoughts and write accordingly, instead of writing in an outlined and logical fashion. Disorganised articles can confuse readers and will more than likely put them off reading to the end, or remaining on your website at all.

By focusing on your article and your plan, you will be able to create a clear and informative piece of writing that your readers will enjoy. This is important in industry article writing, since trade magazine or website readers are looking for specific information from an industry expert. They won’t believe you know what you’re talking about if your article has no focus or structure. If you submit an article lacking in clarity or organisation, it’s unlikely that you’ll even have your work published, or that you’ll hear back from the magazine/website/blog editor at all.

 Research Your Topic

While using your own experience in article writing is common and encouraged, you should always do additional research when delving into industry article writing. Writers are known for doing large amounts of research before putting pen to paper; it helps to figure out what information you want to put in your piece beforehand, as this will help you source relevant data.

In industry article writing this may mean looking up facts and figures in order to back up concepts about market trends within your chosen field. If you carry out detailed, insightful research, then you’ll also avoid having to resort to filler or useless content to meet a word count quota.

While doing research you may also want to perform interviews with industry authorities and key players in the business. These interviews will provide you with more information on your topic, enhance your overall article, and prove that you have the proper knowledge of the subject at hand.

Write in Appropriate Tone and Language

Different styles of writing require their own tone and language. Entertainment writing can benefit from a friendly and informal tone, while more technical article writing may need more of a professional and authoritative perspective. This is more subjective than other writing tips, since article writers can select the tone of their own writing and fit it to their topic or publisher.

No matter the tone of the article, though, it’s important to keep the language simple and plain. Industry articles and similar writing styles are meant to be informative and to the point, there is no call for flowery language or fluff. Audiences are looking specifically for facts and updates regarding their trade and will more than likely skip over any unrelated content. Simple language will also ensure that your readers understand the piece; choosing complex or imposing words instead of a common vocabulary can be a quick way to alienate your readership.

Proofread Your Work

Finally, article writers the world over will tell you that it’s key to proofread your work before submitting it to an editor. When proofreading, look for spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and similar issues. These errors include things that a word processor’s spell/grammar check might miss, like missing words, for example. Some article writers believe that reading the finished piece aloud helps them catch hidden errors, too. Either way, some form of self-editing will benefit your writing and help you in the long run.

Technical writingHiring a technical writer is no easy task. It’s not the same as going out and looking for a blog post writer. When you’re looking for someone to write blog posts, their portfolio and experience is broken down by niche. So a fitness writer is going to excel in fitness post writing, but what does a technical writer excel in?

Simply put, there is no easy way to know the level of expertise of a technical writer unless they become recognised specialists in their field.

What is a Specialist Technical Writer?

This is a title that can be defined as a few different things. It is sometimes misconceived as a result of the multiple meanings behind the term.

Basically a specialist technical writer may be someone who either:

  1. Specialises in a particular type of technical documentation, such as patent applications or contract writing.
  2. Specialises in document specification and sometimes is referred to as a ‘document specialist’ instead of a ‘technical writer’.

Understanding the difference between the two is very important. You may be able to hire a technical documentation specialist to handle specification work, but the same isn’t usually true in reverse.

This is all pretty simple and the difference between the two should be fairly easy to understand. In most cases, you are merely looking at a technical writer that specialises in a particular type of writing – specialising in document specification is just one example, though it distances itself from other types of technical writing.

Skills of a Specialist vs. Generalist Technical Writer

The skills that a specialist technical writer possess are a lot more advanced than a generalist technical writer. This is because they meet all the standards of the technical documentation that they are responsible for creating.

A major difference in skillset is noticed amongst specialist writers that handle technical specification. This is the backend writing that is often used when manufacturing or developing a product, dealing with investors and other high-up staff, or when making a request for patenting.

Under those circumstances, a specialist technical writer will have a much greater understanding of the terminology used by the business they are working with. They will have a good grasp of everything in place within the business as it relates to the content they will produce. They will also have a good working relationship with members of staff as they will often have to get information from them.

Should You Hire a Specialist?

A specialist technical writer will put a lot more effort into the planning part of the project. They will ensure that the final piece is as accurate as possible. The end result will be documentation that is a perfect fit for its intended use.

A generalist technical writer can still create quality technical content, but he is better at handling the layman terms. He may be effective at functional specification, which is technical documentation that is designed for the users of the product. This type of material often takes the technical “this is how it works” document and breaks it down into layman terms for the user. However, functional specification is often given to testers, stakeholders, and developers.

Ultimately, the specific content need will dictate whether a specialist technical writer is right for the job or not. These are high-level experts who only need to be taken on for the most technical of writing assignments, so be clear and concise with your needs and source the work accordingly.

If you are still confused, working with a technical writing company will make the process easier – they will be able to explain exactly what type of writer you need for the job.

Technical Documents

Technical Document Writers

A technical writer is basically a business analyst and writer packaged as one. There are many reasons that this statement is true. To put it simply, just think about what a freelance technical writer does day to day. They take on a specific type of technical writing project and have to analyse discrete and systemic aspects of a business, their product, etc., and then they have to do it again with a completely different client.

It’s fair to say that technical writing is one of the toughest tasks out there. So the typical business analyst may struggle with creating this type of documentation. A general writer is also not going to have the level of business experience and analytic understanding required to create completely accurate content.

Every Document is Unique in its Purpose

Technical documentation is not something that can be written with references to past work. In most cases, the technical writer is responsible for doing a lot of research for every single document they create. With pages upon pages of highly technical information to process, the planning usually consumes the majority of their time.

A high quality technical writer will not only spend time gathering the right information, but also spend time finding the right terminology. Every word has a precise definition and the right or wrong wording can make all the difference in a technical document.

Interviews with Clients

Technical writers often have to interview their clients. Sometimes this is needed more than once for the same project. The reason for this is simple – the technical document needs to be 100% accurate.

As the technical writer is purely a writer with experience in that form of technical documentation, they don’t have any specific background with the information that they are covering. It’s not the same as a fitness writer who is also a personal trainer; at best a technical writer will have a background in business or experience in the same field of business as their client.

These interviews will be conducted to ensure that all information is correct and no information is missing. This open line of communication is essential if you want the final document to be perfect.

Typical Processes of a Technical Writer

It can be a little hard to picture exactly what a technical writer does. To make it a bit easier to understand, here is an example of the steps that a technical writer goes through:

  1. Identify the educational background of the reader in relation to the subject matter
  2. Create a mission statement to identify the main intention of the document
  3. Perform research and analysis to gather information to back this statement up
  4. Interview the client to ensure all information is accurate and ready to implement
  5. Create a rough draft and present it to their client for review

There may be mini-steps that are taken within each of these steps, of course. There’s an old saying that a technical writer spends 1% of their time actually writing. So you can imagine that there will be a lot of processes that they will go through while developing the content, gathering  information, and conversing directly with the client.

There is also a lot of effort involved to ensure that all standards and specifications are met. The writer needs to take the time to learn specific processes and complex theories: For instance, when writing about how a type of software works the writer will need to convey specific details pertaining to the programming and non-visible processes of the program.

Basically, a technical writer has to act as a business analyst because they are going to need to analyse the business or part of it in order to create quality documentation. So in order for him to do that, he must put himself in the shoes of a business analyst and must think as a business analyst.

It is important that you understand the level of analytic research involved with technical document creation prior to hiring a technical writing expert. This is because there will be a lot of information and documentation that the writer may need before getting started to ensure that the finished product is perfect.

At Daily Posts we have specialist and generalist technical writers. Our clients often find it hard to frame putting together a brief. In this piece we outline some of the ideas to help you establish a smooth technical copy writing process.

Technical document writing

A technical writer at work

So you’re on the lookout for a technical writer to create a guide or technical document, but ironically you’re the one in need of guidance right now.

Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal. In fact, give yourself a pat on the back, because most people skip the necessary research and then become frustrated when they hire the wrong person for the job.

Technical document creation is a complex art that requires significant domain knowledge, and not just combining words together in an engaging way. You may need more than a generalist; although a highly skilled generalist may be able to get the job done. Knowing exactly what you need from any new type of copy is hard. With technical copy the difficulty goes up a notch or two.

Just as a framework will help your chosen writer in their task, it can be useful to ask yourself some questions so that you can have a framework to make your decisions. Here are some questions to get you on track.

What is the Purpose of the Document?

This is the very first thing that you need to ask yourself.

The answer should be pretty obvious. For instance, if you need a product installation guide then the purpose is to demonstrate how the end user can install the product.

Figure out what the purpose of your document is, and keep that in mind. It will play a role in how you will answer the next few questions.

Who Are Your Readers?

The people that will be reading the document should be at the forefront of your mind as you set forth on the copy writing process. They will determine the format and content that you have the writer include.

You will first want to specify if it’s a front-end or back-end reader. End users and customers are examples of front-end readers. These readers will only need to see information pertaining to the features and functionality of your product. A back-end reader needs more complex copy, to help them understand the processes and procedures that enable the system to work as it should.

There are also technical documents that are produced for business and IT purposes; technical specifications, use cases, change cases and so forth. A lot of the time this content will be used to demonstrate how you want something to work, what features you want it to include, and how you intend to bring it all together. This content may be presented to developers, programmers, business analysts, and other stakeholders.

What Language Should Be Used?

Aside from the prmary language of the document, and whether you need the document to be translated or not, you will also want to consider the complexity level of the document and voice.

Layman terms may be necessary if you are taking the technical components of a product and turning them into an installation guide or specifications booklet for the end user. On the other hand, highly technical terms would be required when dealing with developers, engineers and anyone knowledgeable in the domain. There is no point making things complex for the sake of it, but the writer must be able to write to the level of the reader.

What Should Be Covered?

You should do a detailed outline, or briefing document,  which covers all the information that should be present within the document. What to cover is really driven by the purpose of the document and the type of reader. Break the tasks or systems that you are writing for down into component parts, tasks, steps or chapters. Make the structure clear so that the writer stays focused, but help them understand how everything integrates together too. You should budget for significant research time so that the document author can really get to grips with the subject matter. This will ensure that what you are delivering is usable for its purpose, and that it’s not going to confuse the reader.

The outline and answers to the other questions will be invaluable guidance for the guide/technical writing expert that you hire. The writer may also benefit from interviewing you, or other stakeholders in the project. Ensure that they have access to the documentary and human resources that they need to do a great job. This means introducing them to the team and pre-empting in the introduction that they may need information from the various stakeholders.

Technical team helping a copwriter

Technical team member guiding a copywriter on system processes.

What Standards Must Be Followed?

The type of technical document that you need written should provide clear guidance on which standards need to be followed.

For example, if you need a patent application filled out then it must be done in compliance with patent application form standards.

ISO standards are often used in technical documentation. While this used to be unnecessary, it is quickly becoming a requirement to comply with these standards. So you should have an understanding on which ISO standard your technical writer will be writing to.

What Format Is Required?

There are numerous types of technical document formats. The main formats include Darwin Information Typing Architecture, DocBook, and S1000D. You may want to read up on the differences between these and find out which is most suitable for your project.

Take a process approach to your project and ensure that your chosen writer has the intelligence and inclination to do what they need to do to get the job done. A track record writing technical information may give you confidence, but a discussion on your project will also help you to identify whether they have the mental agility and motivation to deliver what you need to the level that it needs to be done.