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TECHNICAL WRITING

A L L I S O N G RO S S , A N N E M A R I E H A M L I N , B I L LY M E RC K , C H R I S RU B I O, J O D I N A A S ,

M E G A N S AVAG E , A N D M I C H E L E D E S I LVA

Open Oregon Educational Resources

Technical Writing by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise
noted.

C O N T E N T S

Acknowledgements vii

External Link Disclaimer viii

CC BY (Attribution)
Introduction 1

1. PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATIONS

1.1 Texting 7

1.2 E-mail 8

1.3 Netiquette 10

1.4 Memorandums 12

1.5 Letters 15

2. AUDIENCE ANALYSIS

2.1 Types of audiences 21

2.2 Audience analysis 22

2.3 Adapting your writing to meet your audience’s needs 24

3. PROPOSALS

3.1 Some preliminaries 29

3.2 Types of proposals 30

3.3 Typical scenarios for the proposal 31

3.4 Common sections in proposals 32

3.5 Special assignment requirements 34

3.6 Proposals and audience 35

3.7 Revision checklist for proposals 36

4. INFORMATION LITERACY

4.1 Information formats 39

4.2 The information timeline 42

4.3 The research cycle 43

4.4 Research tools 44

4.5 Search strategies 49

4.6 Evaluate sources 55

5. CITATIONS AND PLAGIARISM

5.1 Citations 61

5.2 Plagiarism 65

6. PROGRESS REPORTS

6.1 Functions and Contents of Progress Reports 69

6.2 Timing and Format of Progress Reports 70

6.3 Organizational Patterns or Sections for Progress Reports 71

6.4 Other Parts of Progress Reports 72

6.5 Revision Checklist for Progress Reports 73

7. OUTLINES

7.1 Creating and using outlines 77

7.2 Developing the rough outline 79

8. CREATING AND INTEGRATING GRAPHICS

8.1 Deciding which graphics to include 83

8.2 Other considerations: audience 84

8.3 Other considerations: placement and context 86

8.4 Samples 87

8.5 Guidelines for graphics: a final review 90

9. ETHICS IN TECHNICAL WRITING

9.1 General Principles 95

9.2 Presentation of information 98

9.3 Typical Ethics Issues in Technical Writing 99

9.4 Ethics and documenting sources 102

9.5 Ethics, Plagiarism, and Reliable Sources 103

9.6 Professional ethics 104

10. TECHNICAL REPORTS: COMPONENTS AND DESIGN

10.1 Cover letter 107

10.2 Cover page 108

10.3 Abstract and executive summary 110

10.4 Table of contents 113

10.5 List of figures and tables 115

10.6 Introduction 117

10.7 Body of the report 119

10.8 Conclusions 124

11. BASIC DESIGN AND READABILITY IN PUBLICATIONS

11.1 On Style Conventions 133

11.2 Concept 1: Know Your Audience 135

11.3 Concept 2: Know your Purpose 141

11.4 Concept 3: Make Your Publication More Inviting Using Basic Principles of
Readability: CRAP

143

11.4 Concept 3: Make Your Publication More Inviting Using Basic Principles of
Readability: CRAP, continued

163

11.4 Concept 3: Make Your Publication More Inviting Using Basic Principles of
Readability: CRAP, continued

168

11.4 Concept 3: Make Your Publication More Inviting Using Basic Principles of
Readability: CRAP, continued

173

11.5 Slides and PowerPoint presentations 179

11.6 Conclusion 181

12. EMPLOYMENT MATERIALS

12.1 Preparation 185

12.2 Resume Formats 189

12.3 Resume Sections and Guidelines 195

12.4 Cover Letters 201

12.5 Next Steps 204

13. COMMUNICATING ACROSS CULTURES

13.1 Understanding Culture 209

13.2 Understanding Cultural Context 211

13.3 Deepening Cultural Understanding 212

13.4 Defining Intercultural Communication 214

14. THINKING ABOUT WRITING

14.1 Getting Curious 219

14.2 Genre, Genre Sets, Genre Systems 221

14.3 Methods for Studying Genres 228

14.4 Conclusion 236

AC K N O W L E D G E M E N T S

About this free online technical writing textbook

Much of this text, published under a Creative Commons license, was originally developed by Dr.

David McMurrey, who is both a technical writer and a college instructor. For more about him and his

original work, please visit his biography page at: https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/index.html.

He kindly gave his text a CC-BY license at our request so that we could adapt our text from it. We

extend our sincere appreciation to Dr. McMurrey, the team of consultants at Saylor University whose

work shared via open educational resources is also featured in this text, and the host of educators,

librarians, and professionals who have shared their creations with a Creative Commons license. Our

thanks as well to our colleague, Dr. Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, whose work we consulted and adapted

into this text.

Additional materials have been adapted or created by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele

DeSilva of Central Oregon Community College, and Megan Savage, Jodi Naas, Allison Gross,

and Billy Merck of Portland Community College.

We also extend our gratitude to Open Oregon Educational Resources for the grant funding to

pursue this project and especially to Amy Hofer of Open Oregon for her knowledgeable and helpful

answers to many questions.

TECHNICAL WRITING vii

E X T E R N A L L I N K D I S C L A I M E R

This textbook links to external websites over which the authors have no control. The authors have

made efforts to ensure that external links are accurate and operational, but problems are inevitable. If

you find a problem, please report it to Michele DeSilva at [email protected]

viii ALLISON GROSS, ANNEMARIE HAMLIN, BILLY MERCK, CHRIS RUBIO, JODI NAAS, MEGAN SAVAGE, AND MICHELE DESILVA

I N T RO D U C T I O N

Technical writing courses introduce you to some of the most important aspects of writing in the

worlds of science, technology, and business—in other words, the kind of writing that scientists,

nurses, doctors, computer specialists, government officials, engineers, and other such people do as a

part of their regular work. The skills learned in technical writing courses can be useful in other fields

as well, including education and social sciences.

To learn how to write effectively for the professional world, you will study common types of

reports, special format items such as lists and headings, simple techniques for creating and using

graphics in reports, and some techniques for producing professional-looking final copy.

Technical writing courses build on what you have learned in other writing courses. But there is

plenty new to learn! If you currently have a job in which you do some writing, you will discover that

you can put what you learn in your technical writing course to immediate use.

A B O U T T E C H N I C A L W R I T I N G

While technical communication is essential in a wide range of fields and occupations, technical

writing is also a fully professional field of its own with degree programs, certifications,

and—yes!—even theory. It is a good field with a lot of growth and income potential, and an

introductory technical writing course is a good way to start if you are interested in a career in this

field or will work in a career in which writing is a component.

W O R K P L AC E W R I T I N G

However, many students of technical writing courses are not necessarily planning for a career as a

technical writer. That is why this course provides you with an introduction to the kinds of writing

skills you need in practically any technically oriented professional job. No matter what sort of

professional work you do, you are likely to do some writing—and much of it may be technical in

nature. The more you know about some basic technical writing skills, the better job of writing you’re

likely to do. And that will be good for the projects you work on, for the organizations you work in,

and—most of all—good for you and your career.

T H E M E A N I N G O F “ T E C H N I C A L”

Technical communication—or technical writing, as the course is often called—is not writing about a

specific technical topic such as computers, but about any technical topic. The term “technical” refers

to knowledge that is not widespread, that is more the territory of experts and specialists. Whatever

your major is, you are developing an expertise—you are becoming a specialist in a particular technical

TECHNICAL WRITING 1

area. And whenever you try to write or say anything about your field, you are engaged in technical

communication.

I M P O RTA N C E O F AU D I E N C E

Another key part of the definition of technical communication is the receiver of the information—the

audience. Technical communication is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners

or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, level of understanding, and background. In

fact, this audience element is so important that it is one of the cornerstones of this course: you are

challenged to write about technical subjects but in a way that a beginner—a nonspecialist—could

understand. This ability to “translate” technical information to nonspecialists is a key skill to any

technical communicator. In a world of rapid technological development, many people are constantly

falling behind. Technology companies are constantly struggling to find effective ways to help

customers or potential customers understand the advantages or the operation of their new products.

So relax! You don’t have to write about computers or rocket science—write about the area of

technical specialization you know or are learning about. And plan to write about it in such a way that

even Grandad can understand!

R E A L LY T E C H N I C A L W R I T I N G

Keep relaxing, but you should know that professional technical writers do in fact write about very

technical stuff—information that they cannot begin to master unless they go back for a Ph.D. But wait

a minute! The technical documents have to ship with the product in less than nine months! How do

they manage? Professional technical writers rely on these strategies to ensure the technical accuracy

of their work:

• Study of books, articles, reports, websites related to the product

• Product specifications: what the product is supposed to do, how it is designed

• Interviews with subject matter experts: the product specialists, developers, engineers

• Product meetings during the development cycle

• Live demonstrations of the product

• Familiarization with similar, competing products

• Experimenting with working models of the product

• Subject matter experts’ review of technical writers’ work for technical accuracy and completeness

Of course, experienced technical writers will tell you that product development moves so fast that

specifications are not always possible and that working models of the product are rarely available.

That’s why the subject matter experts’ review is often the most important.

T E C H N I C A L- W R I T I N G A N D AC A D E M I C W R I T I N G C O U R S E S

You have probably taken at least one academic writing course before this one, so you will be familiar

with some of the practices of writing for your college classes. The video below will introduce you to

some of the differences between academic and technical writing.

2 ALLISON GROSS, ANNEMARIE HAMLIN, BILLY MERCK, CHRIS RUBIO, JODI NAAS, MEGAN SAVAGE, AND MICHELE DESILVA

In technical-writing courses, the main focus is typically the technical report, due toward the end of the

term. Just about everything you do in the course is aimed at developing skills needed to produce that

report. Of course, some technical-writing courses begin with a resume and application letter (often

known as the cover letter), but after that you plan the technical report, then write a proposal in which

you propose to write that report. Then you write short documents (memos, emails, outlines, drafts)

where you get accustomed to using things like headings, lists, graphics, and special notices—not

to mention writing about technical subject matter in a clear, concise, understandable way that is

appropriate for a specific audience.

Caution: You should be aware that technical-writing courses are writing-intensive. You will

probably write more in your technical-writing course than in any other course you have ever taken. If

you are taking a full load of classes, working full time, and juggling unique family obligations, please

consider whether this is the right time for you to take technical writing. Consult with your professor

about the workload for this class in order to make your decision.

C H A P T E R AT T R I B U T I O N I N F O R M AT I O N

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon

Community College, from Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0

TECHNICAL WRITING 3

1. PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATIONS

Professional communication in written form requires skill and expertise. From text messages to

reports, how you represent yourself with the written word counts. Writing in an online environment

requires tact, skill, and an awareness that what you write may be there forever. From memos to letters,

from business proposals to press releases, your written business communication represents you and

your company: your goal is to make it clear, concise, and professional.

Chapter Attribution Information

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon

Community College, from the following sources:

• Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0

• Professional Writing by Saylor Academy – CC: BY 3.0

• Communicating Online: Netiquette by UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology –

CC: BY-SA 4.0

1 . 1 T E X T I N G

Text messages and e-mails are part of our communication landscape, and skilled business

communicators consider them a valuable tool to connect.

Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of brief messages, or texting,

has become a common way to connect. It is useful for short exchanges, and is a convenient way to stay

connected with others when talking on the phone would be cumbersome. Texting is not useful for

long or complicated messages, and careful consideration should be given to the audience. Although

texting will not be used in this class as a form of professional communication, you should be aware of

several of the principles that should guide your writing in this context.

When texting, always consider your audience and your company, and choose words, terms, or

abbreviations that will deliver your message appropriately and effectively.

T I P S F O R E F F E C T I V E B U S I N E S S T E X T I N G

• Know your recipient. “? % dsct” may be an understandable way to ask a close associate what the

proper discount is to offer a certain customer, but if you are writing a text to your boss, it might be

wiser to write, “what % discount does Murray get on $1K order?”

• Anticipate unintentional misinterpretation. Texting often uses symbols and codes to represent

thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Given the complexity of communication, and the useful but limited

tool of texting, be aware of its limitation and prevent misinterpretation with brief messages.

• Contacting someone too frequently can border on harassment. Texting is a tool. Use it when

appropriate but don’t abuse it.

• Don’t text and drive. Research shows that the likelihood of an accident increases dramatically if

the driver is texting behind the wheel. 1 Being in an accident while conducting company business

would reflect poorly on your judgment as well as on your employer.

C H A P T E R AT T R I B U T I O N I N F O R M AT I O N

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon

Community College, from the following sources:

• Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0

• Professional Writing by Saylor Academy – CC: BY 3.0

1. Houston Chronicle. (2009, September 23). Deadly distraction: Texting while driving, twice as risky as drunk driving, should be banned. Houston

Chronicle (3 STAR R.O. ed.), p. B8. Retrieved from http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/Deadly-distraction-Texting-while-

driving-should-1592397.php

TECHNICAL WRITING 7

1 . 2 E – M A I L

E-mail is familiar to most students and workers. It may be used like text, or synchronous chat, and

it can be delivered to a cell phone. In business, email has largely replaced print hard copy letters for

external (outside the company) correspondence, and in many cases, it has taken the place of memos

for internal (within the company) communication.1 E-mail can be very useful for messages that have

slightly more content than a text message, but it is still best used for fairly brief messages. Many

businesses use automated e-mails to acknowledge communications from the public, or to remind

associates that periodic reports or payments are due. You may also be assigned to “populate” a form

e-mail in which standard paragraphs are used, but you choose from a menu of sentences to make the

wording suitable for a particular transaction.

E-mails may be informal in personal contexts, but business communication requires attention to

detail, awareness that your e-mail reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it

may be forwarded to any third party if needed. E-mail often serves to exchange information within

organizations. Although e-mail may have an informal feel, remember that when used for business, it

needs to convey professionalism and respect. Never write or send anything that you wouldn’t want

read in public or in front of your company president.

T I P S F O R E F F E C T I V E B U S I N E S S E – M A I L S

As with all writing, professional communications require attention to the specific writing context,

and it may surprise you that even elements of form can indicate a writer’s strong understanding of

audience and purpose. The principles explained here apply to the educational context as well; use

them when communicating with your instructors and classroom peers.

• Open with a proper salutation. Proper salutations demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case

a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. For example, use a salutation like “Dear Ms.

X” (external) or “Hi Barry” (internal). Never use the title Mrs. as you cannot assume a woman is

married. If the gender of a person is not evident, use their entire name, like this: “Dear Sam Jones”

• Include a clear, brief, and specific subject line. This helps the recipient understand the essence of

the message. For example, “Proposal attached” or “Your question of 10/25.”

• Close with a signature. Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains

your name and business contact information.

• Avoid abbreviations. An e-mail is not a text message, and the audience may not find your wit

cause to ROTFLOL (roll on the floor laughing out loud).

1. Guffey, M. (2008). Essentials of business communication (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/Wadsworth.

8 ALLISON GROSS, ANNEMARIE HAMLIN, BILLY MERCK, CHRIS RUBIO, JODI NAAS, MEGAN SAVAGE, AND MICHELE DESILVA

• Be brief. Omit unnecessary words.

• Use a good format. Divide your message into brief paragraphs for ease of reading. A good e-mail

should get to the point and conclude in three small paragraphs or less.

• Reread, revise, and review. Catch and correct spelling and grammar mistakes before you press

“send.” It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written e-

mail than to get it right the first time.

• Reply promptly. Watch out for an emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of

replying to all e-mails within twenty-four hours, even if only to say that you will provide the

requested information in forty-eight or seventy-two hours.

• Use “Reply All” sparingly. Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial e-mail

unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.

• Avoid using all caps. Capital letters are used on the Internet to communicate emphatic emotion

or yelling and are considered rude.

• Test links. If you include a link, test it to make sure it is working.

• E-mail ahead of time if you are going to attach large files (audio and visual files are often quite

large) to prevent exceeding the recipient’s mailbox limit or triggering the spam filter.

• Give feedback or follow up. If you don’t get a response in twenty-four hours, e-mail or call. Spam

filters may have intercepted your message, so your recipient may never have received it.

Figure 1 shows a sample email that demonstrates the principles listed above.

Figure 1. Sample email

From: Steve Jobs <[email protected]>
To: Human Resources Division <[email protected]>
Date: September 12, 2015
Subject: Safe Zone Training

Dear Colleagues:
Please consider signing up for the next available Safe Zone workshop offered by the College. As you know, our department is working toward

increasing the number of Safe Zone volunteers in our area, and I hope several of you may be available for the next workshop scheduled for Friday,
October 9.

For more information on the Safe Zone program, please visit http://www.cocc.edu/multicultural/safe-zone-training/
Please let me know if you will attend.
Steve Jobs

CEO Apple Computing
[email protected]

C H A P T E R AT T R I B U T I O N I N F O R M AT I O N

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon

Community College, from the following sources:

• Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0

• Professional Writing by Saylor Academy – CC: BY 3.0

TECHNICAL WRITING 9

1 . 3 N E T I Q U E T T E

Netiquette refers to etiquette, or protocols and norms for communication, on the Internet. We create

personal pages, post messages, and interact via online technologies as a normal part of our careers,

but how we conduct ourselves can leave a lasting image, literally. The photograph you posted on your

Facebook page or Twitter feed may have been seen by your potential employer, or that nasty remark

in a post may come back to haunt you later.

Following several guidelines for online postings, as detailed below, can help you avoid

embarrassment later.

K N O W YO U R C O N T E X T

• Introduce yourself.

• Avoid assumptions about your readers. Remember that culture influences communication style

and practices.

• Familiarize yourself with policies on Acceptable Use of IT Resources at your organization. (One

example of a college’s acceptable use policy can be found here: https://www.cocc.edu/

departments/its/network-administration/files/

cocc_acceptable_use_of_information_technology_resources_12.pdf/ )

R E M E M B E R T H E H U M A N

• Remember there is a person behind the words. Ask for clarification before making judgement.

• Check your tone before you publish.

• Respond to people using their names.

• Remember that culture and even gender can play a part in how people communicate.

• Remain authentic and expect the same of others.

• Remember that people may not reply immediately. People participate in different ways, some just

by reading the communication rather than jumping into it.

• Avoid jokes and sarcasm; they often don’t translate well to the online environment.

R E C O G N I Z E T H AT T E X T I S P E R M A N E N T

• Be judicious. What you say online is difficult to retract later.

• Consider your responsibility to the group and to the working environment.

10 ALLISON GROSS, ANNEMARIE HAMLIN, BILLY MERCK, CHRIS RUBIO, JODI NAAS, MEGAN SAVAGE, AND MICHELE DESILVA

• Agree on ground rules for text communication (formal or informal; seek clarification whenever

needed, etc) if you are working collaboratively.

AVO I D F L A M I N G : R E S E A RC H B E F O R E YO U R E AC T

• Accept and forgive mistakes.

• Consider your responsibility to the group and to the working environment.

• Seek clarification before reacting.

• Ask your supervisor for guidance.*

R E S P E C T P R I VAC Y A N D O R I G I N A L I D E A S

• Quote the original author if you are responding to a specific point made by someone else.

• Ask the author of an email for permission before forwarding the communication.

* Sometimes, online behavior can appear so disrespectful and even hostile that it requires

attention and follow up. In this case, let your supervisor know right away so that the right

resources can be called upon to help.

C H A P T E R AT T R I B U T I O N I N F O R M AT I O N

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon

Community College, from Communicating Online: Netiquette by UBC Centre for Teaching,

Learning and Technology – CC: BY-SA 4.0

TECHNICAL WRITING 11

1 . 4 M E M O R A N D U M S

A memo (or memorandum, meaning “reminder”) is normally used for communicating policies,

procedures, or related official business within an organization. It is often written from a one-to-all

perspective (like mass communication), broadcasting a message to an audience, rather than a one-

on-one, interpersonal communication. It may also be used to update a team on activities for a given

project, or to inform a specific group within a company of an event, action, or observance.

M E M O P U R P O S E

A memo’s purpose is often to inform, but it occasionally includes an element of persuasion or a

call to action. All organizations have informal and formal communication networks. The unofficial,

informal communication network within an organization is often called the grapevine, and it is often

characterized by rumor, gossip, and innuendo. On the grapevine, one person may hear that someone

else is going to be laid off and start passing the news around. Rumors change and transform as they

are passed from person to person, and before you know it, the word is that they are shutting down

your entire department.

One effective way to address informal, unofficial speculation is to spell out clearly for all employees

what is going on with a particular issue. If budget cuts are a concern, then it may be wise to send

a memo explaining the changes that are imminent. If a company wants employees to take action,

they may also issue a memorandum. For example, on February 13, 2009, upper management at the

Panasonic Corporation issued a declaration that all employees should buy at least $1,600 worth of

Panasonic products. The company president noted that if everyone supported the company with

purchases, it would benefit all.1

While memos do not normally include a call to action that requires personal spending, they

often represent the business or organization’s interests. They may also include statements that align

business and employee interest, an