At Publitek, our team of writers spend the best part of their working day writing. The idea of facing a blank page every morning leaves some people cold, but it doesn’t have to. Writing, as it applies to the services provided to our clients, follows some fairly simple Golden Rules, which I’m going to share with you in this blog.

Writers write, right?

How to write a technical article

“Without rule 3 you could easily veer off course” Image credit: Mark Duffel

Before you can start to write the perfect technical article, you need to break the goal down into its three constituent parts; writing, perfection and a technical article. The good news is, you can already write. You may or may not think of yourself as a competent writer, but trust me, you are. Or at least you can be. Writing is something we all learn at an early age; it is a life-skill that has very clear rules. From this point of view, writing well becomes objective; if you follow the established and documented grammatical rules, your writing will be ‘correct’. There are even software tools and online platforms that can check your writing to make sure it complies with these grammatical rules. Once you get really proficient, you can break these rules with abandonment, rather than by accident, for extra emphasis. All the great writers do this. Some of the not-so-great writers get away with it. The key here is to remember there has to be a good reason for breaking the rules, and not knowing them isn’t a good reason.

Laying your trail of breadcrumbs

Writing well means communicating what’s inside your head to others in a way that makes sense to them, not just you. This raises the important topic of interpretation. In many forms of creative writing, reader interpretation is crucial, but for a technical article I would suggest that inviting reader interpretation should be used with caution. There will be times when you want the reader to arrive somewhere thanks to the trail of ‘breadcrumbs’ you’ve provided. But if that trail gets confusing, due to an unintentional (and metaphorical) fork in the road, then you risk losing the reader along the way. For technical articles, clarity is important. Understanding what you want to say is Golden Rule Number 1 and it is crucial that you have this defined before sitting down at that blank sheet of paper. If you do, that creative white space no longer seems quite so daunting. At Publitek, every piece of content we create starts life as a briefing form, which I like to describe as robust, but not rigid. We use these to define and agree the topics, key points and premises that we’ll be writing about.

You can’t please all of the engineers, all of the time

The next topic to address is the idea of ‘perfection’. Here, the sad news is, there is no such thing. What appears as perfect to some will be hogwash to others, and that’s the nature of humans. The most important point here is to always write with your audience in mind, and that’s advice that can be applied to any form of writing. The concept of a technical article is entirely subjective; it depends on the technical knowledge of the reader. You shouldn’t attempt to write anything that will appeal to everyone, because it will either be bereft of any real detail or be so tediously long that nobody would ever read it. Knowing your audience is Golden Rule Number 2. This is particularly important when writing for publication in a trade magazine, because if you don’t write with the audience in mind the editor is unlikely to accept it for publication.

The last part of the equation is understanding what constitutes a technical article. You may work for a company with great technology, but you don’t need to tell the reader how good it is in every sentence. As I’ve already said, the term ‘technical’ will be subjective, but let’s assume that the article is aimed at an engineering audience. This immediately pares down the potential readership, but that’s ok, for the reasons outlined above. However, even within an engineering audience there will be different skill levels and specialities. The question now becomes, how much of that engineering audience am I trying to reach? This is where we begin to shape the flow of the article.

Like any piece of creative writing, a technical article should follow a story arc; it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning will define the context for the middle and the end. If the context allows, the beginning will introduce the topic in a way that outlines the challenges and solutions covered in the rest of the text, in a way that will resonate most with the target audience.

This introduces the third Golden Rule; work within the context of your objective. This isn’t quite so simple as rules 1 and 2, but it is perhaps the most important. Without rule 3 you could easily veer off course and write an article that is little more than an advert. Failing to follow rule number 3 will also render rules 1 and 2 moot because you will have lost the audience before they have a chance to appreciate your proficiency in the first two.

Phil's Golden Rules to Great Technical Articles

Rule 1: Know what you want to say
Rule 2: Know who you want to say it to
Rule 3: Know your objective and stick to it
Rule 4: Know your subject
Rule 5: When it’s not quite right, you’ll know

Engineers like to be intrigued

We call it a story arc because we can think of it as a continuous, sweeping path from the beginning to the end, but as anyone who reads any kind of literature will appreciate, good stories always have a twist or two. This ‘sleight of hand’ is important, because it keeps the reader interested. Plot twists may not have a home in technical articles, but intrigue is important. Engineers are inquisitive, so will be looking for the ‘Aha!’ moment from the very first line. Delaying the big reveal can suspend this moment, but it shouldn’t be completely unexpected when it does arrive. Presenting a logical, reasoned argument is a key ingredient of a technical article, the more focused the article, the more detail required. The only way I know of doing this is to really understand the subject matter. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, knowing your subject is Golden Rule Number 4.

Technical writing with style

It would be nice to round the number of golden rules up to 5, wouldn’t it? The rules described so far in are in no particular order, but they are all important. What remains is a long list of additional points that, effectively, come down to personal style. I don’t recommend imbuing technical articles with personality, as that isn’t the point (writers, please check your ego at the door). What is important is that the reader feels like the writer understands them. This isn’t just a repeat of Golden Rule Number 2, it goes further than that. It means being objective and not trying to hang the entire article off one point. It also means developing a style that eases the process of writing, conveys the authority and expertise of the writer, and leaves the reader feeling like the time they invested in reading your article was time well spent. This can really only happen with trial and error. To liken it to a contemporary megatrend, think of it as training an artificial intelligence; the more it fails, the better it gets. If I had to express that simply, as Golden Rule Number 5, I’d say practise, practise, practise.

At Publitek, we are trusted with generating millions of words of content every year, for a wide range of clients offering some sort of technology. Our writers have honed their skills over years of practice, they research the market, assess the solutions, evaluate the features and benefits and present the facts in a way that makes sense to engineers at every level. If that’s the sort of thing your company is looking for, drop me a line.

Philip Ling
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