Archive for February, 2009

The Technical Text

February 19, 2009

By Nirmaldasan

Technical writing is the art of communicating technical knowledge to a specified audience. The topic may be as simple as a recipe or as complex as an integral equation. Some of the common technical documents are business letters and user manuals. The nature of the subject and audience determines the style and structure in which technical content is packaged. The text may contain definitions of technical terms, descriptions of products, instructions and examples. In most cases, text is accompanied by graphics/tables/illustrations. Some of the text structures are a) inverted pyramid b) topic-development-conclusion and c) situation-problem-solution-evaluation.

Technical writing requires an understanding of three principles: a) brevity b) clarity and c) scannability. Brevity is the avoidance of superfluous words, phrases and sentences. Clarity is the unambiguous and logical presentation of data or ideas. Scannability is the use of lists, visuals and tables based on the principles of brevity and clarity.

Technical writers have to choose words with care. The P-F-S rule describes a hierarchy of Precise, Familiar and Short words. The order of choice is P-F-S, P-F, P-S, P. There may be more than one precise form of expression. Technical writers have to first seek a word that is precise, familiar and short. If not available, then precise and familiar word is the next choice. This is because a familiar word is better than a short but difficult word. If even a P-F word is not available, then go for the P-S word. The final choice is the P word. We have ignored the F-S words because in technical writing precision is more important than familiarity and brevity.

Technical writers should also take care in constructing sentences and paragraphs. They need to know basic grammar and the different kinds of sentence styles. Some of the common grammatical mistakes are dangling modifiers, misplaced phrases, subject-verb disagreements and wrong tenses. Some of the stylistic errors are redundancies, weak be-verbs, unnecessary expletives and overnominalisation. These problems are dealt with by David A. McMurrey in his book on technical writing. The book deals with all aspects of technical writing and is available online at

A well-written technical text, based on the principles stated here, may now be checked for readability using the FORCAST formula. Patrick FORd, John CAYlor and Tom STicht developed this formula for measuring readability of technical materials. Sticht, who headed the team, published an article about the formula in 1973. Here is the formula: 20 – N/10. N is the number of monosyllabic words in a sample passage of 150 words. The greater the score, the greater the reading difficulty.

If the FORCAST score is high, the text has to be rewritten. The formula seems to suggest that monosyllabic words enhance reading ease. It may not be wise to write to a formula. Moreover, the formula is only indicative of reading difficulty. Nevertheless, it may be stated as a principle that monosyllabic words are better than polysyllabic words. But brevity may be sacrificed if precision is at stake.

The rewritten text must now be reviewed by peers and then the final version lands on the desk of technical editors.

(presented at the SDNB Vaishnav College, 19 February 2005)