4. The Form of Technical Writing

​​​​​​Developing your technical form

After revising and editing the content of your text, you should turn your attention into proofreading the appearance of your documents. Form pertains to the format (typography, layout, graphics, etc.) and mechanics (grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.) of technical writing. ​

Formatting

Your documents should have an accessible form/ design that is appealing to your readers. The following page layout settings makes your text easy to follow:

  • Use 12-point Times New Roman, double-space text, and 1" x 1" margins throughout.
  • Include a title page and running heads.
  • Number your pages.
  • Include titles, headings, and subheadings that are parallel and hierarchical.
  • Either have tabs at the beginning of paragraphs or spaces between paragraphs, not both.​

Compact blocks of texts overwhelm readers and impede their abilities to process the information in your documents (see Figure 1). Therefore, when formatting your text, use highlighting techniques, such as:

  1. Boldface Italics and underlined text (do not highlight words by writing them with all capital letters)
  2. White space
  3. Parallel lists (either included in the running text or vertically using bullet points and numbers)
  4. Graphics (table and figures) 
Figure 1 The overall layout for research papers (A) and technical reports (B)


Using Graphics in technical documents

 Graphics help enhance the form (appearance) of your technical documents in order to better communicate your messages to your readers. Graphics (e.g. tables, figures, and graphs) should be used complement your text, especially when describing your data. Illustrations can help visualize, simplify, and clarify data findings. The list below includes some general guidelines relevant to the production and use of illustrations in technical documents.

A.   Graphics should be used to simplify information

  1.  Graphics should tell a story about your data in a clear, concise, and uncluttered way. Avoid using complicated graphics that may confuse readers.
  2. It is more effective to include your tables and figures after explaining them in your text. If you include the visuals before explaining them, your readers may become confused about what those visuals mean, and they will try to either: 1) read and understand those visuals by themselves, which may overwhelm them, or 2) scan your text for explanations, which may lead them to skip over important information.

B.   Graphics should reinforce written text

  1. Graphics should complement your text. Do not include a graph, table, or figure that you do not mention or explain in your running text. The written text should explain to the graphics, and the graphics should support the text. Include extra tables and figures in the Appendices.
  2. Graphics should be used to support the written text, but they cannot replace it altogether. Do not just refer your reader to a graphic. If you cannot explain something in writing, the graphic won't be able to either.
  3.  Keep in mind that different types of visuals present information in specific ways and for specific purposes. For instance, tables work better with quantitative/ descriptive data, and graphs work better to show qualitative trends. You should not include the same data in more than one type of display (either a table or a graph). Pick the best format based on the type of your data.

C.   Graphics should be ethical

  1. Do not use graphics to hide, manipulate, or exaggerate information. Be honest to your readers.
  2. Make sure to cite graphics obtained from secondary sources. In-text citations should be included in the caption and full citations should be included in the list of references. For example: Figure 5 Typical Gradation Curve for Sand (Source: Mehta and Monteiro, 2006). 

  3. If you modify any aspect of the visuals, include “Adapted from" in your in-text citations. For example: Figure 5 Typical Gradation Curve for Sand (Adapted from: Mehta and Monteiro, 2006). 
​

D.   Graphics should be labeled, formatted, and placed properly

  1. Always number and include a title for your visuals (titles go above tables and below figures). Refer to your visuals by their specific numbers in your text (avoid phrasings such as the table below and the figure above—use their specific numbers to refer to them).
  2. Because you need to include a title in the captions of your figures, the graph title inserted automatically by Excel is redundant. Remove it when importing your graphs into Word. 
 Tables should include headings and units for the values included in the rows and columns.
  3.  Tables should include headings and units for the values included in the rows and columns.
  4.  Axes on graphs should be labeled descriptively and should indicate the units. Axes should also have tic marks that are reasonably spaced, and the last tic mark should be at the end of the axis. Space on graphs should be used efficiently, and wasted space should be avoided.
  5. The number labels on the axes should be large enough to read. You may need to change the default settings on Excel and check if those settings change once importing your graphs into Word documents.
  6. Define all the markers and trend lines on your graphs through a clear legend.
  7.  When possible, remove the gridlines on your graphs to achieve a clearer display.
  8. Colorful backgrounds on displays look nice on screens, but technical information tends to be lost when the figure is printed in black and white. Use a white background for all graphs.
  9.  It is not always easy to distinguish among the default colors and symbols when the graphs are printed in black and white. Selecting open and filled markers is one way to distinguish one data set from another. Different line types may also be used. 

  10. Make sure that your visuals, especially tables, are not broken across multiple pages. Also, modify the default settings on Word to create engaging and easy-to-read tables.

Figures 2 and 3 below display some of the above guidelines. Notice how the suggested guidelines can improve the clarity and efficiency of graphs and tables in technical documents.  For further information on the use of visuals in technical documents, refer to the APA Guidelines.

 Figure 2 Graphical representation of data

 Figure 3 Tabular Representation of Data

Mastering textual mechanics

Mechanical errors can also reflect badly on you as a credible writer and engineer. Writing mechanics reflect the writer's thoroughness and accuracy. Mechanical errors are especially detrimental when they lead to ambiguous words and sentences, thus resulting in impeding the understanding of the readers. In this section, you will find a list of some common mechanical errors in technical writing. Use this list when proofreading your own technical documents. ​​

Common mechanical errors:This means:Examples
Comma splicesTwo sentences are joined with a comma instead of conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.)

Incorrect:

The amplifier was used to increase the intensity of the sound signals, noise in the room became unbearable.

 

Correct:

The amplifier was used to increase the intensity of the sound signals; noise in the room became unbearable.

 

The amplifier was used to increase the intensity of the sound signals, but noise in the room became unbearable.

 

Fused sentencesTwo sentences are joined without punctuation

Incorrect:

Please come to my office I need to talk to you.

 

Correct:

Please come to my office. I need to talk to you.

 

Punctuating citations Punctuations are placed after, not before, in-text citations

Incorrect:

Indoor air pollution is strongly correlated to cardiovascular diseases. (Smith, 2009)

 

Correct:

Indoor air pollution is strongly correlated to cardiovascular diseases (Smith, 2009).

 

Misplaced modifiersKeep modifiers close to the words that they modify

Incorrect:

The device consists of a screw that is inside a barrel that is driven by an electric motor drive.

 

Correct:

The device consists of a barrel with an enclosed screw that is driven by an electric motor drive.

 

Parallel structureUse similar forms of words/ terms for similar ideas (e.g. in a list)

Incorrect:

The sensor responds to various stimuli, including sound, heat, and vibrating objects that may cause disturbances.

 

Correct:

The sensor responds to various stimuli, including sound, heat, and vibrations.

 

Subject-verb agreementVerbs must agree with their subjects

Incorrect:

The radiometer, along with the receiver, were placed on the lab bench.

 

Correct:

The radiometer, along with the receiver, was placed on the lab bench.

 

Pronoun agreementPronouns must agree with their antecedent nouns

Incorrect:

Everyone on the research team had to receive their training certificates.

Correct:

Everyone on the research team had to receive his or her training certificates.

 

All members had to receive their training certificates.

 

Commonly misused wordsSome words are mistakenly used interchangeably

Comprise/Compose

Comprise: to embrace or include

Compose: made up of, constituted of

 

Affect/Effect:

      Affect: verb (except in psychology)

              Effect: noun (except when used to mean “bring about")

 

Continual/continuous:

Continual: repeatedly

Continuous: without interruption

 

Its/ it's:

Its: possessive (“of it")

It's: contraction (“it is")

 

Like/as:

Like: preposition

As: conjunction

 

Principle/principal:

Principal: most important (adj.), most important person (n)

Principle: law

 

Unnecessary

hyphenation

Use hyphens when two or more words modify another word, and work together as a unit.Acetic-acid water system
Liquid-gas interface
A 20-percent increase
A two- or three-week incubation period

Do not hyphenate most prefixes added to common nouns.

 

precooled not pre-cooled
nonpolar not non-polar
When to spell out numbers Spell out numbers less than 10 and at the beginning of sentences.

Forty-seven percent of the sample evaporated.

The experiment evaporated 47% of the sample.

The experiment included eight samples.

Using units of measurement

Spell out the unit of measurement when no quantity is included

 

Several milligrams, not several mg

Do not use plurals for abbreviated units of measurement

 

60 mg, not 60 mgs

In ranges and series, retain only the first unit of measurement

 

10-12 mg, between 24 and 50 ml

When a sentence starts with a specific quantity, spell it out along with its unit of measurement

 

Twenty-five milligrams of acetone were added.

Thirty-seven percent of the sample was dissolved


Use the percent symbol with a numeral form, without a space

 

30%    65-70%
When to capitalizeNumbered items (figures, tables, etc.) should be capitalized when referred to in the text.  Write the numbers in numeral form.           

As shown in Figure 1
See Table 2
As given in Equation (3)

 

Non-numbered items are not capitalized.

 

As shown in the figures
When referring to formulas, equations, and other items with someone's name, capitalize only the name of the author (not the noun).

Avogadro's number

Newton's first law​

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