Business and Technical Writing
My introduction to business and technical writing came when I was a computer programmer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Dayton in 19XX. I soon realized that business and technical writing was much different from the type of writing that I had done as a student or for other purposes. Over the course of my 30-year career in the U.S. military, I had the opportunity to develop these skills and to put them to use in a variety of ways, including writing technical manuals, procedural guidelines, and reports for my superiors and for others would rely on these materials for training purposes.
I also learned to prepare non-technical reports for business purposes. Although business and technical writing are not necessarily synonymous, there are many similarities between the two. Because of these experiences, my writing style now tends to be direct and more succinct than most, qualities that work well in the business or technical fields in which the reader wants to obtain as much information in as little time as possible. The trick to good technical writing is the ability to condense language without sacrificing important pieces of information in the process.
Using Reports and Proposals as Business Tools
Technical writers and the authors
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It is important to remember that business and technical writers almost always know more than their readers about a given topic (Jameson, 2004, p. 230). While it is true that some readers may have an equal or even a greater knowledge about a specific topic than the writer who prepared the technical manual or report, it is the author who has assumed the role of expert in the piece.
It is better to err on the side of providing too much explanation with appropriate subheadings that make it possible for more knowledgeable readers to skim through those sections in search of information that is more appropriate for their level of knowledge, than it is to provide inadequate information that could lead to incorrect assumptions or other mistakes.
As a business tool, technical writing must be easy for the intended audience to understand. This requires a writer who is not only knowledgeable about his or her subject, but who also has an intimate understanding of the needs of his or her target audience. During my military career, I was required to write technical manuals, including computer operations manuals that provided instructions for running the information management system on a main frame computer. As a military writer, I was aware of the pay grade and qualifications of the military personnel who would be using the materials that I produced.
Consequently, I could assume a certain level of knowledge because I knew what was required of an individual who was working in that position. This made my job as a technical writer somewhat easier, even when I knew that the intended audience was expected to have a very low level of pre-existing knowledge. Companies who develop their own training materials would also be able to take advantage of this same type of expectations within their target audience.
This knowledge about the target audience is admittedly a unique advantage to the military environment or in other closed systems. In business, it is not always clear who the end user of the manual will be or what his or her qualifications and understanding of the material might include. Consequently, business and technical manuals that are intended for more general distribution must address the knowledge levels of all of the target market, including those who have no previous knowledge and those who are relatively well-versed in a particular procedure or product. In both cases, the job of the writer is to create a tool that will be easy to use and helpful for the target audience.
Finally, it should be noted that readers also have a responsibility to use these tools correctly. The writer cannot be held responsible for mistakes that are made because documents that were misread due to either carelessness or laziness on the part of the reader. While the writer should make every effort to make the information as clear as possible and to provide all of the information that the target audience may need, the writer cannot ensure that the reader will actually use the materials as they were intended.
As Test Director for several Air Force Materiel Command modernization programs, I was required to develop test plans, test analysis reports, concepts of operations and written correspondence to various Air Force Logistic Centers and Major Air Commands. A significant percentage of this material was devoted to instructing the target audience on how to review and to eventually use the information that was being provided.
Although writing is primarily a text-based medium, it may be necessary in some cases for the writer to create charts, graphs, and other visual aids as part of the manual or report. Visual aids serve several purposes. The primary purpose of visual aids is to help to illustrate a point that the writer has made in the text. This may include a visual representation of some statistical information via a pie-chart, columns, or through some other means. In other cases, visual aids may be used to help keep the attention of the reader.
During my years in the military, I observed an increasing need for visual aids which I attributed to the increased influence of television. The ultimate result of the influence of television in business and technical presentations has been the nearly ubiquitous use of PowerPoint presentations. Unfortunately, research indicates that PowerPoint often lowers the overall quality of the presentation and the information that is presented (Cyphert, 2004). The same might be said of the excessive use of charts and other visual clutter in a technical manual. While some illustrations may be beneficial or even essential, the over use of excessively creative graphs can distract from the intended message of the document.
Gathering and Interpreting Information
Tools are only as strong as the materials that were used to make them. Technical and business writing rely on information. Bad information results in an ineffective manual and can have catastrophic results. Writers must know where to find information and how to evaluate the information that they have found.
Information literacy has been defined as “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand” (National Forum on Information Literacy, 2008). The National Forum on Information Literacy (NFIL) has recognized several subcategories that fall beneath the larger umbrella term of information literacy, including Business Literacy, defined as “the ability to use financial and business information to understand and make decisions that help an organization achieve success”.
Media Literacy, defined as “the ability to decode, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms”; and technology literacy, defined as “the ability to use media such as the Internet to effectively access and communicate information” (NFIL). All three of these categories have important implications for business and technical writers. Writers who are not information literate will have a difficult time finding the information that they need to create necessary documents.
Writers who cannot prioritize information may feel overwhelmed by extraneous and irrelevant data from multiple sources. These are crucial skills for any writer and are especially important for those who work in technical and business writing.
In addition to meeting his or her own information needs, information literacy also enables the writer to facilitate the use of information by others. As a Project lead for the Security Service Division Branch, I was required to write Staff Summaries to higher echelon personnel in order to obtain approval for changes in the configuration for some of the information system features. My superior officers did not have the time to dwell over volumes of papers explaining in detail the state of information technology. They required a easily digestible form of information that was accurate and concise.
I encountered this same need for information literacy when I was serving as Test Director for several Air Force Materiel Command modernization programs. During this assignment, I was required to develop test plans, test analysis reports, concepts of operations and written correspondence to various Air Force Logistic Centers and Major Air Commands. I also prepared Statements of Work, Proposals, and Justifications and Approvals to obtain contractor support or to obtain other goods and services for the government information management systems. All of this required the ability to translate technical data into what was essentially consumer information.
Ronald Reagan is said to have insisted that his advisors present him with their summation of a particular issue on a single page. This appreciation for brevity without sacrificing essential meaning is the soul of technical writing, especially in the military.
When possible, it is best to go directly to primary sources. This may mean the designer of a particular piece of equipment, the developer of a particular procedure, or the documentations that was created as these items were developed. Primary sources also include the results of valid surveys, interviews, and other data that was collected during the research process.
Unfortunately, primary sources are not always available to technical writers or to business writers. It may not be feasible for a writer to conduct a survey regarding the application of a specific procedure or some other topic. In this case, writers may rely on data that has been collected and validated by others. Examples of this data include reports about the data that com from government agencies or articles that have been reviewed and published in credible journals. These secondary sources can save time and can help the writer to interpret the data. Secondary sources, however, must be used with caution and must be carefully reviewed for credibility and validity.
Finally, all sources, including primary and secondary sources, must be accurately cited. The citation of sources gives credit to those who created the material that was used to produce the new manual or report. In a very real sense, these authors are the writer’s collaborators. As such, they must be recognized. The citation of sources also increases the credibility of the new report or manual, especially if the writer is unknown or is not a recognized expert in the field. For example, as a Project lead for the Security Service Division Branch, I was required to develop security procedures, standards, and audit documentation to protect the government information management systems from unauthorized users.
A less experienced writer working in this situation may have believed that he, as the creator of the procedures, was the ultimate authority. In reality, my work was made more credible through my use of other sources of information about computer security problems, statistics, and other data from previous research. The procedures that I developed were still of my own design, but the fact that they were supported by external data made them more credible and more likely to be followed.
The Mechanics of Writing
Once the information has been collected, reviewed, and evaluated, the writer may begin the actual writing process. As a writer for the military, I learned that it was essential that I understood exactly what type of document I was expected to create. There are different forms for reports, proposals, and other documents. In some cases, using the wrong form creates confusion, undermines credibility, and defeats the purpose of the operation. At first, I dismissed these differences and this slavish insistence on format as just another example of the military’s love of procedure.
Over time, however, I realized the importance of using standard forms for proposals, reports, and other documents that I was required to produce. One simple but critical example is in the use of verb tense. Reports are typically written in past tense because they reflect events that have already occurred or research that has already been conducted. Proposals, on the other hand, are typically written in the future tense and reflect events and outcomes that are anticipated but have not yet occurred.
Business documents follow another set of expectations, depending on the nature of the correspondence. Someone who is unfamiliar with technical or business writing might think that these are trivial or obvious points; however, a review of only a few documents written by inexperienced writers would illustrate the inconsistencies that occur in this area and the potential confusion that those inconsistencies can create.
Writing Reports and Proposals
The people who read my manuals and reports in the military were reading for information and not for enjoyment. This is a significant difference. Business and technical writers should understand that their readers may not have a great deal of time to devote to reading and interpreting their reports. A well-written abstract, in which the main points of the report are summarized in a clear and succinct way, can provide invaluable assistance for readers who do not have the time to peruse dozens of reports in search of the information that they require.
The body of the report, while obviously more detailed than the abstract, should also be as concise as is possible without sacrificing the quality of the information that it is meant to convey. Unlike other forms of prose, business and technical writing makes extensive use of bullet points and other types of lists to emphasize information. Readers seem to appreciate the concise format of lists.
Business writing must also be concise and accurate, but is less technical than technical writing. For example, the information needs of an engineer who is installing some new type of widget would be much different than the information needs of the executive who must make the decision of whether or not to purchase this same widget. The engineer is concerned with the technical specifications of what he will be installing, how it will work with the existing system, and other specific details.
The executive, on the other hand, is concerned about the potential benefits and costs of this item, how it might improve productivity, and what will be required in terms of training, maintenance, and other associated expenses. While individuals in both of these positions are concerned with the same item, they have very different concerns. The effective business writer understands these differences and makes the appropriate adjustments.
Once again, I witnessed these differences first hand during my military career. When I was writing training manuals, I realized that the information needs of the individuals who would be eventually using the manuals I was writing was very different from the information needs of the individuals who would eventually use the data that would be created by the system. In this case, the writer becomes a liaison between the two groups, anticipating the questions of one and the possible responses of the other.
Insights into business and technical writing
As a form of communication, writing serves many purposes in our daily lives. Through text, we can express opinions and emotions. We can argue and persuade others to take a particular position. The purpose of technical writing, however, is simply to convey information in its purest and most accurate form.
Technical writing is considered by many to be dry and difficult to wade through; however, it is this dryness and the absence of rhetorical clutter that makes it possible for the writing to be understood. Effective technical writers are not concerned with the aesthetics of their prose. Their only concern is in the reader’s ability to obtain the necessary information. Creativity is only valued if it helps the reader to better understand the information.
During my military career, I had the opportunity to review many documents and manuals that had been prepared by various writers dealing with a wide array of applications. In most cases, these writing samples reflected the same discipline that characterizes other areas of military life. In the cases in which that characteristic military discipline was missing, the works were usually sent back for a revision with firm instructions to the writer about what was and what was not needed from this particular work.
Business writing is also highly disciplined, but includes a broader scope than strictly technical writing. Unlike technical writing, business documents must often include a call to action that solicits a response from the reader. Business writers must be accurate and concise, but they must also be persuasive. When necessary, effective business writers can be as motivational as they are instructive.
Applications to other areas
My military experience has direct implications in civilian communications. The disciplined style of written communication that I learned in the military has allowed me to create precise documents that are easy for the intended audience to follow. As a student, I have used these skills to create research papers that cover my assigned topics completely without using an excessive amount of words.
In some ways, my terse use of language also makes it difficult for me to meet what I perceive as arbitrary page requirements on papers in some courses, especially when these papers require me to express in 10 pages what could be said more efficiently and just as effectively in five. At such times, I remind myself that academic writing is very different from technical writing.
At the same time, my work in creating proposals allowed me to develop the ability to build a logical argument and to present it on paper. I have learned how to find, review, and evaluate data from a variety of credible sources. I apply these skills to almost everything that I read, checking the sources for articles, looking for logical flaws, or finding rhetorical manipulations in arguments. I have developed a strong opinion that a high degree of information literacy is essential for citizens in a democracy. Sadly this literacy, along with the ability to state facts in a concise format, appears to be missing.
Cyphert, D. (2004). The problem of PowerPoint: Visual aid or visual rhetoric?. Business Communication Quarterly, 67 (1), p. 80+. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from www.Questia.com database.
Jameson, D. (2004). Conceptualizing the writer-reader relationship in business prose. The Journal of Business Communication, 41 (3), pp. 227+. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from www.Questia.com database.
National Forum on Information Literacy (2008). Definitions, Standards, and Competencies Related to Information Literacy. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from http://www.infolit.org/definitions.html