Five things you should do when writing technical copy

In a previous blog post, Keith Wilson, our most experienced (and oldest!) technical writer, talked about five common mistakes to avoid when you’re writing copy of your own. This time he takes a positive view, and talks about five things you definitely should do. 

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  1. Get the units right! Technical writing often involves units – metres, seconds, volts, and so on – and the abbreviations for units. To create a good impression with technically savvy readers, make sure you write these units correctly. With SI (Système Internationale or International System) units, which means most metric units, there should always be a space between the number and the unit. For example, 35km is wrong – it should be 35 km. This applies to ALL SI units. Also, be careful about the use of capital and small letters. The abbreviation for second is s, but S means siemens, which is a unit of conductance. And 1 MHz is one million hertz, whereas 1 mHz is one-thousandth of a hertz and 1 mhz is just plain wrong! If in doubt, check – there’s lots of guidance on the web.
  2. Decide on a language. You’ll probably be writing in English, but is it UK English or American English? There are more differences than you might think, so you need to decide on one or the other and stick with it. It doesn’t look good if sometimes you prioritize things and other times you prioritise them! Do make sure that your spell checker is set for the correct language, or you may find that even if you type the UK English spelling of a word, it “helpfully” autocorrects it to the American English spelling – or vice versa, of course.
  3. Be consistent. It’s easy to be inconsistent, especially with unusual company and product names. If the product name is correctly spelled as SparkyVolts, make sure you spell it this way throughout your piece and never, for example, as Sparkyvolts or Sparky Volts. Also try to be consistent in the way you refer to things. For example, if you talk about “the company” in some places, “the business” in other places and “the organisation” in others, think carefully about whether this might cause confusion. Unless you’re writing a mystery story, confused readers aren’t happy readers, and you’ll end up losing their attention.
  4. Proofread it – all of it! It’s tedious, I know, but it’s absolutely essential to proofread everything you write – you’ll be surprised at the mistakes you find and you’ll probably be happy that no one else will ever get to see them! If at all possible, get someone else to proof read your work after you’ve checked it yourself. They may well spot things you’ve missed. Use your word processor’s grammar and spelling checkers to help with proofreading, but don’t rely on them completely. Humans still proof read better than machines. Here’s another tip – always remember to proof read the miscellaneous bits like picture captions, titles and section headings. They’re the most prolific source of errors that go undetected until it’s too late!
  5. Use capitals carefully. You must have seen text written by someone addicted to capital letters. You know the sort of thing: The Programmable Controller was mounted in a Control Panel, and provided with a Touch-Screen interface for use by the Machine Operator. This looks horrible and those extra capitals make it hard to read. Ideally, keep your use of capital letters to a minimum. Most of the time, initial capitals only need be used for proper names and, of course, at the start of a sentence. Job titles are a bit of grey area. Most authorities say they shouldn’t be capitalised but if your managing director wants to be a Managing Director, it’s probably better not to argue.
 In summary, take a little care over your writing. You may spend longer on it, but you’ll produce better results with more impact and far fewer errors. And your readers will love you for it.

About the Author: Keith Wilson

Keith Wilson

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