4-4-00 Version http://www.cs.ucla.edu/~klinger/basics.html

Scientific or technical writing is above all to be clear and succinct. One can work to build skill at writing. Those with skill do better in their professional careers.

Much writing is a matter of style: a free choice. But standards include better style. Some things just don't work. They fail to create effective communications.

Titles, excerpts and suggestions derived from the many books directed to improving effective technical writing follow.

Sageev, P., Helping Researchers Write... So Managers Can Understand, Second Edition, Columbus Ohio: Battelle, 1995 , ISBN 0-935470-77-8.

Sageev states:

"Researchers and managers spend approximately 30 percent of their time writing and reading reports, memos, and proposals. The annual cost to U.S. industry alone is $7 billion! ... despite this investment, managers find it hard to understand technical documents prepared by researchers ... researchers are not trained to plan or write for managers.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style; on the World Wide Web at

http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html (or former site http://www.cc.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby).

Buy and read this basic reference. Items from Strunk follow:

1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic. If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. ... Ordinarily, however, a subject requires subdivision into topics, each of which should be made the subject of a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached. ...

2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.

Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which

a. the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;

b. the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and

c. the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.

Ending with a digression, or with an unimportant detail, is particularly to be avoided.

Writing well in technical areas means sticking to simple declarative sentences.

The writing has as its purpose enabling the reader to discover the value in your work.

Presenting specifics is best. Anything else tends to read like a promise (i.e., something as yet unfulfilled) or self-praise (e.g., an unsupported claim).

Instead of talking about what the work possibly ("will," "could," "should," "might," "may") concerns, stick to matter of fact and straight-forward description.

Avoid writing about your own judgement. Take the position that every word you write is there to lead the readers to come to a conclusion themselves based on just the evidence you include. [Omit words like "our topic is/was important," "the problem is very hard," "complicated," "challenging," "great thing."]

Ensure that the first sentence of anything labels the purpose of what follows. Titles aren't repeated in such sentences, they are amplified, elucidated, furthered. The reader becomes aware of the purpose of a paragraph early on, as he/she begins to read it. The unit (phrase, sentence, paragraph) enables retaining the reason it is an entity after reaching the end.

Don't make an argument without providing evidence backing your side of the issue.

A topic sentence comes at or near the beginning. Likewise, the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence. The final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence. Don't end with a digression or detail.

Avoid repeating a word or phrase in a sentence.

Eliminate words or phrases that blur, bury or mute your main thought.

To become able to write well read and revise your own writing, expose it to others, react to their impression of what you've put down in print.

In order to become a better writer, spend time reading.

Frequently read national newspapers, quality magazines, and good fiction and nonfiction. Make it a habit to spend fifteen minutes a day doing some quality-reading. Choose things that are well-written; look at things like:

Markham, Beryl, West With the Night. For instance, read the following paragraph that appears there on pp. 48-49.

"There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo."

Another item in that source is on pp. 46:

"It was not really a thought, of course, nor even one of those blinding flashes of realization that come so providentially to the harried heroes of fiction. It was no more than a hunch. But where is there a pilot foolhardy enough to ignore his hunches? I am not one. I could never tell where inspiration begins and impulse leaves off. I suppose the answer is in the outcome. If your hunch proves a good one, you were inspired; if it proves bad, you are guilty of yielding to thoughtless impulse."

Regularly write.

Write when there is no pressure on you. Create at most a page, and at least a paragraph, about how you reacted to reading something. [For example, answer the next few points about one of Markham's paragraphs:

What did you see? How did you feel? Do you think the statements about silence are generally true? Do you think any sentence in Markham's paragraph is runon? (If so, why; if not, why not?)

Make written items concrete.

Practice in public. Prepare a talk. Answer the following questions. What have you read this week that you want to: react to in writing; share with others; or, use to expand your reading?

Write an item each week (e.g., weekly progress report, statement of work, specifications, requirements). Compile them with the comments of your peers. Create draft revisions.

Gain editing ability. Produce better drafts yourself by reading Exercises and Notes About Editing.