Structure and organization: sentences in technical writing


You are expected to write sentences that are:
This means they need to:
Examples

Clear
Avoid needlessly complex phrases We used a 150mbps wireless nano WPS-compatible power saving USB adapter.​

(Long chains of adjectives and noun modifiers added before nouns can unnecessarily complicate your documents. Instead, add such defining adjectives and noun modifiers after the noun and/or split them over multiple linked sentences.)
ConciseAvoid longwinded sentences with needless adjectives, adverbs, and verb phrasesThe successful implementation of our design by the construction team relies very heavily on a rather thorough understanding of the somewhat complex nuances of our progressive approach.​

(Details are not always informative. Avoid descriptions that do not add meaning to your sentences. Removing the underlined words in this example will still deliver the same meaning. Long-winded sentences usually include unnecessary words that can be easily removed.)
Avoid empty and unnecessary expressions Consider the following expressions:

at this point in time (now)

has the ability to (can)

in the event that (if)                    

in the vicinity of (near) 

owing to the fact that (because)           

there is no doubt but that (No doubt)

it is my intent to show that (Results show…) ​

(Prepositional phrases and phrasal verbs lead to long and convoluted sentences. Usually, such expressions can be replaced by single words, or can be completely removed without affecting the meaning.)
FamiliarStart with what is known and add new content towards the end of the sentenceThe design team considered three alternatives for the cell tower location and evaluated them based on five design criteria. The alternatives were:

1)   The east slope of the hill
2)   The west slope of the hill
3)   The peak of the hill

Based on the evaluation of the design criteria, alternative 1 fulfills….

(In technical writing, sentences usually start with known information that was introduced earlier in the text. This helps contextualize the new information and helps readers process information faster.)
​Direct​


Include short subjects that are close to their verbs (do not separate subjects and verbs with details)
The ability of the freeway to accommodate nature- and human-induced wear and tear given the longevity and effectiveness of the material used is one of the considerations that the City will discuss prior to approving the project.

(The verb “are" in the above sentence occurs too far from its subject: “the ability of the freeway." This impedes understanding the content. In this case, flipping the sentence will allow for a shorted subject: Prior to approving the project, the City will consider the ability of the freeway to ….)
List items at the end (rather than at the beginning or middle) of the sentence.

 

Consider the following sentences:

Understanding the collection of programs that deliver the machine learning functionality, managing the machine learning risk, and ensuring machine learning compliance were influential in assessing the effectiveness of machine learning initiatives.   

Several factors were influential in assessing the effectiveness of machine learning initiatives, such as: understanding the collection of programs that deliver the machine learning functionality, managing the machine learning risk, and ensuring machine learning compliance.​

(The first sentence starts with listing items. As a result, the main idea of the sentence is not understood until the very end. To avoid crowding your sentences and confusing your readers, start your sentences with the main idea, and list items at the end.)
Eliminate the needlessly passive voice* and use the active voice to establish responsibility.  
Consider the following sentences:

For testing static stability, it was determined appropriate by the research team to initiate and release perturbations in the structures.

In order to test the static stability, the research team decided to initiate and release perturbations in the structures.​

(Generally, the active voice is more direct and straightforward. Notice in the above examples how the active voice allows the writer to: use a stronger verb [decided vs. was determined] and to express the main idea more effectively and concisely. This structure is easier for readers to follow and understand.) ​
* Using the proper voice in technical writing:

There are several misconceptions regarding the use of the passive voice in technical writing. Many students assume that technical and professional writing is mostly passive. In reality, however, the choice to use either the passive or the active voice has to be strategic. In other words, writers should structure sentences based on the meaning that they intend to communicate.

Remember, the subject of the sentence determines whether that sentence is active or passive:
Active voice

FCB Engineering completed the site's environmental assessment.

The subject is the entity performing the action.

Passive voice


The site's environmental assessment was completed by FCB Engineering.

The subject is the entity receiving the action.

By structuring your sentence in the active voice, you are emphasizing the performer, or the agent, of the action (in the above example, FCB Engineering). This emphasis is especially important in situations where you want to establish responsibility for engineering-related actions (such as observations, decisions, recommendations, etc.). In those cases, your readers need to identify the agent responsible for the actions because it will help them assess the credibility and salience of the information communicated.

By structuring your sentence in the passive voice, you are emphasizing the object, or the recipient, of the action (in the above example, the site's environmental assessment). This emphasis is especially important in situations where the performer of the action is either unknown or unimportant, or when you have already established who the agent is and the object of the action is the main topic of interest. This is why the methods sections in technical papers mostly use the passive voice. In this section, the readers already know who performed the procedures (the engineers, the technicians, etc.), and they are more interested in learning about the procedures themselves. (For example, it is repetitive and wordy to write: The research team drilled the borings to provide stability... The research team drilled the boreholes to depths ranging between 10 to 15 meters.) 
 

Therefore, using the active or the passive voice is dependent on the subjects of your sentences. Choose your subjects to be:

1.    Short (as explained above, avoid long subjects that are too far from their verbs)

2.    Known information (as explained above, sentences should start with known information)

3.    The main focus of the sentences (as explained above, the main idea of the sentence should be identified at the beginning of the sentence).

By choosing the proper subjects, you will be automatically using the proper voice in your sentences.  
You are expected to write sentences that are:
This means they need to:Examples
Simple**
Include only one main idea per sentence. Consider the following sentences:

Flooding is an extreme weather condition that has increased in frequency due to climate change, and through both direct and indirect means, the public's safety is threatened as a direct cause of the rise in moisture content.


Flooding is an extreme weather condition that has increased in frequency due to climate change. Beside their direct impacts on public safety, floods can also have indirect effects on public health. For instance, the resulting increase in the moisture content of indoor environments may lead to asthma.

(In the second example, different ideas are included in independent sentences, which makes the sentences easier to understand.)

​**Exceptions to using simple sentences:
Two (or more) ideas can effectively be connecte​d in a single, complex sentence when:

1-    each idea is relatively simple, and
2-    the relationship between the ideas is important and serves one of the following functions:
Basis of information
Based on our initial observations, we conclude that...
The technical team examined the design codes provided by the... 
MethodIn this experiment, the response of clay to various forces was measured using a rheometer.
Purpose
We monitored the water quality over a ten-year period to observe any changes in water composition.
ConditionIf air quality monitors are misplaced, they can lead to inaccurate readings.​​
Specific detailOver 100 buildings were offered water-damage treatments, including grey water treatments, black water treatments, and mold remediation.
Reason or cause
​Porous pavements are commonly used in areas prone to flashfloods because of their ability to absorb large amounts of rainwater.​​
An evaluation or comparison
In 2017, the annual rainfall recorded at the station was 239 millime​ters, which is 27% lower than the annual rainfall recorded in 2016. ​