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Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists

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Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists


  • Sorry, this book is no longer in print.
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  • Copyright 2005
  • Dimensions: 7" x 9-1/4"
  • Pages: 352
  • Edition: 1st
  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-13-149863-0
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-13-149863-1

The fastest way for professionals to master technical writing!

You’re a technical professional, perhaps a programmer, engineer, or scientist. You are not a professional writer, but writing is part of your job (specs, manuals, proposals, lab reports, technical presentations, Web content, data sheets, and so on).

Welcome. This book is for you. It’s all you need to clearly communicate technical ideas to any audience—technical or nontechnical—and motivate them to act.

Barry J. Rosenberg organizes every facet of effective technical writing into more than 175 short, concise, fast-paced tutorials. You’ll find loads of examples (what to do and what not to do) plus start-to-finish instructions for writing exactly the kinds of documents you need to create.

Need specific solutions? This book’s bite-size, visual, high-efficiency format delivers them instantly. Dig in, get started, and get results!

  • Make all your documents and presentations clearer, more concise, and more compelling
  • Understand your audience, and target your content appropriately
  • Learn how to write for an international audience
  • Use active voice to communicate with confidence and authority
  • Produce effective lists, tables, and graphics
  • Create useful examples
  • Write effective manuals and release notes
  • Implement solid technical Web sites
  • Develop winning research, business, and book proposals
  • Create and present compelling PowerPoint presentations
  • Write e-mails that don’t ignite flame wars
  • Learn how to integrate documentation development into best engineering practices

Downloadable examples are available on the Web.



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Table of Contents



1. The Quest.

    Technical Writing Theorems

    Technical Writing Can Be Creative

    Tell 'Em

    The Value of Technical Communication to You

    Comparing Technical Writing to Engineering and Science

2. Audience.

    General Education Level

    Experience and Expertise

    Breadth of Audience

    Native Language

    Native Culture

    Audience Motivation

    Medium and the Message

    Becoming the Audience

    Summary of Audience

3. Documentation Plans.

    Document Specifications (Doc Specs)

    Doc Specs: Sample

    Documentation Project Plans

    Documentation Project Plan: Sample

    Summary of Documentation Specifications


4. Words.




    Adjectives and Adverbs

    Pronouns: He, She, and They

    Pronouns: You

    Pronouns: It and They

    Fluffy Phrases

    Commonly Confused Words

    Summary of Words

5. Sentences.

    Active Voice and Passive Voice

    Active Voice Is Better

    When Is Passive Voice Okay?

    Short = Sweet

    Causes of Long Sentences

    One Sentence = One Thought

    Parenthetical Clauses

    Summary of Sentences

6. Paragraphs and Sections.

    Sentence Transitions

    Paragraph Length

    Paragraph Transitions


    Summary of Paragraphs and Sections

7. Lists.

    Bulleted Lists

    Elements in Bulleted Lists

    The Length of Each Element

    Numbered Lists


    Introductions to Lists

    Parallel Lists

    Summary of Lists

8. Tables.

    Column Headers

    Units of Measure

    Arrangement of Columns and Rows

    Parallelism in Tables

    Amount of Text in Cells




    Summary of Tables

9. Graphics


    Time Series

    Extra Detail in Online Graphics

    Before and After

    Callouts versus Embedded Text

    Graphics That Orient Readers


    Color Blindness

    Block Diagrams

    Text That Supplements Figures

    Technical Photography

    Line Art Enhances Technical Photographs

    Big Picture First, Then Details

    Layout: Controlling Focus

    Layout: Keeping Eyes on the Page

    Layout: White Space

    Summary of Graphics

10. Professional Secrets.

    Explanations of Formula-Based Rules


    Examples by Metaphor

    Examples for Programming Documentation

    Question-and-Answer Format

    Question-and-Answer Format Example

    In Other Words



    Footnotes and Other Digressions

    Beyond the Obvious

    Precision Descriptions

    The Hardest Part of Writing

    Summary of Professional Secrets


11. Manuals.

    Manual Style: Cookbooks

    Cookbook Example: Installing the Carambola Server

    Manual Style: Tutorials

    Tutorial Example: Getting Started with HTML

    Manual Style: Guides

    Guide Example: Creating HTML Headers

    Manual Style: Reference Manuals

    Reference Example: The pr1me Utility

    Manual Style: Nonverbal Manuals

    Online Help: Overview

    Online Help: Best Practices

    Online Help Examples

    Release Notes

    Release Notes Example: Carambola Web Server Version 3.7


    Preface Example


    Glossary Example: Tropical Weather Terms

    Tables of Contents


    Indexes: Providing Concise Entries

    Indexes: Permuting Terms

    Indexes: Providing Entries for Concepts

    Summary of Manuals

12. Web Sites.


    Home Page: Specify Purpose and Audience

    Home Pages: Engage the Reader's Imagination

    Home Pages: Set the Tone

    Page Templates

    Navigators and Search Boxes

    Hyperlinks in Body Text

    Secondary Pages

    Text in Web Sites

    PDF versus HTML

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Summary of Web Sites

13. Proposals.

    The Proposal before the Proposal

    Adherence to the Proposal Template

    Proposal Element: Cover Letters

    Proposal Element: Biographies

    Proposal Element: Abstracts

    Proposal Element: Contingency Plans

    Proposals for Revolutionary Ideas

    Research Proposals

    Research Proposals: Significance Statements

    Research Proposals: Objectives and Hypotheses

    Research Proposals: Design and Methods

    Book Proposals

    Book Proposal: Example Marketing Section

    Business Plans

    Summary of Proposals

14. Internal Planning Documents.

    Business Proposals

    Business Proposal: Example

    High-Level Technical Specs

    High-Level Technical Spec Example

    Low-Level Technical Specs

    Low-Level Technical Spec Example

    Summary of Internal Planning Documents

15. Lab Reports.




    Experimental Procedure





    Summary of Lab Reports

16. PowerPoint Presentations.

    Organizing a Presentation: The Big Picture

    The Number of Slides

    The Opening Moments of a Presentation

    Introductory Slides: The Traditional Approach

    Introductory Slides: An Alternate Approach

    Body Slides: Pace and Variety

    Mechanics: Fonts and Backgrounds

    Body Slides: Effective Lists

    Audience: The Theory of Relativity


    The Complexity of a Graphic

    Question-and-Answer Sessions

    Different Kinds of Learners

    PowerPoint Speech: The Basics

    PowerPoint Speech: Lessons from the Pros

    PowerPoint Speech: Overcoming Fear

    Summary of PowerPoint Presentations

17. E-Mail.

    The Essence of the E-Mail Problem

    Before Hitting the Send Button...

    After the First Miscommunication...

    Summary of E-Mail


18. Editing and the Documentation Process.

    Editing: What Is It Really?

    Technical Editing a Peer's Work

    Technical Editing a Superior's Work

    Copyediting a Colleague's Document

    Copyediting Your Own Document

    Media for Technical Editing

    Bug-Tracking Systems

    A Process for Editing

    Beta Tests for Documentation

    Summary of Editing and the Documentation Process

19. Fonts and Typography.

    Serif and Sans-Serif Fonts

    Fixed-Width versus Variable-Width Fonts

    Serif and Sans-Serif in Hard Copy

    Serif and Sans-Serif in Soft Copy

    Font Height

    Italics and Boldface

    Consistency and Convention

    True-Type versus PostScript Fonts

    Summary of Fonts and Typography

20. Punctuation.


    Dashes and Hyphens




    Quotation Marks





Untitled Document The character of Fortuna—brilliant, sexy heiress to the Gambini empire, and two-time winner of both the Grand Prix de Monaco and the Fields Prize in mathematics—is strictly fictional. In fact, all the characters in this book—whether living or dead, implied or extrapolated, fictional or nonfictional—are fictional. The people, the companies, the situations, and everything presented as 100% factual are completely fictional. In fact, I don’t even really exist; "Barry Rosenberg" is just a composite author formed by the publishing company from several actual technical authors.1

To be completely honest, this book contains no character named Fortuna. All that stuff about everything being fictional is fictional. The information in this book is the truth and factual and asymptotically approaches satisfactual. I’m real, too. I’m a real technical writer, manager, and teacher, working in the software industry. I occasionally teach technical writing to engineering and science students at a surreal place called MIT.

Who Should Read This Book?

I've aimed this book at engineers and scientists who must write about stuff. Perhaps you are an esteemed 60-year-old scientist who has long realized how integral writing is to the job. Perhaps you are a 20-year-old science student who is taking a class in technical writing because "you have to." Perhaps your career is somewhere between those two points, and you find it painful to write the specs and reports that your job requires, and you are sick of your peers scribbling "I don’t understand" in the margin of everything you write, and you just wish that there were a way to make writing go a little easier.

Perhaps you are already a good writer and would like to take your writing to another level.

Let me re-emphasize: This book is for engineers and scientists, not professional writers. I've assumed that you don't much care about the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs—you only want to write better.

How Is This Book Organized?

I've organized this book into the following four sections:

Section 1 introduces the field and explains how to plan documentation.
Section 2 teaches you the nuts and bolts of technical and scientific writing.
Section 3 explains how to write particular kinds of engineering and scientific documents.
Section 4 covers editing and producing documentation.
The book concludes with a glossary of writing terms.

What's Unusual about This Book?

This book—like the other books in the Spring Into... Series—provides the following eccentricities:

Each topic is explained in a discrete one- or two-page unit called a chunk.
Each chunk builds on the previous chunks in that chapter.
Most chunks contain one or more examples. I believe that good examples provide the foundation for almost all useful technical documents.
Many chunks contain sidebars and "Quantum Leap" sections, which provide helpful, if sometimes digressive, ancillary material.
I assume that you are a very busy person for whom the time spent in the very act of buying this book was excruciatingly painful. To repay that incalculable opportunity cost, I've adopted the chunk style of presenting information so that you can learn as rapidly as possible.

Finally, I hope you'll find this book fun to read. If you've paid good money for a book—no matter what the topic—boring text is a slap in the face.

Writing a Book about Writing Books

I had this great cognitive psychology professor as an undergraduate. Three times every week, he lectured us on current research on memory. Without fail, in the middle of every lecture, he ran back to his office to fetch the notes he had forgotten. He followed in the same vein as my acne-scarred dermatologist, my cross-eyed ophthalmologist, and my sister's speech pathology professor, who had a regrettable stuttering problem.

All those people haunted me while I wrote this book. I kept wondering whether I was the writing professor who couldn't write well. After writing each sentence, I stepped back and asked, "Am I practicing what I’m preaching?" Friends, it got ugly. I'd write a sentence, then erase it, then rewrite it, and erase it, and on and on it would go. Writing suddenly became very difficult for me. My self-doubt reached biblical proportions.

Then it hit me—I had become the audience. I had re-experienced the pain of writing. This was a breakthrough because "becoming the audience" is one of the most important states a technical or scientific writer can achieve. Yes, pain is good.

May I write about something else now?

Where Can You Download Examples Used in This Book?

You can download a subset of the examples from this book by browsing to the following URL: www.awprofessional.com/title/0131498630

What Is Fake in the Examples?

I am honor bound to proclaim the following disclaimers about the examples:

  • All of the companies mentioned (Dexco Unlimited, Carambola Publishing, Pravda Mills, Googleplex, Calispindex, and so forth) in this book are figments of my imagination. If I accidentally picked the name of a real enterprise, then it was purely a coincidence.
  • The sample biographies used in this book are of fictitious people.
  • The sample proposals and lab reports exist solely to teach you how to write better proposals and lab reports; they are not based on real proposals or real experiments.

Who Helped Me Write This Book?

Mark Taub—the publisher of this book—wisely appointed the following three primary reviewers, all of whom were completely amazing:

  • Mary Lou Nohr—brilliant wit of technical editing—who turned out beautifully detailed and highly humorous responses to my drafts. Mary Lou’s comments were, themselves, of publishable quality.
  • Chris Sawyer-Laucanno—poet, biographer, expert in ancient languages, and technical writing professor at MIT—who offered insightful and crucial criticism.
  • Nicholas Cravetta—engineer and writer—whose tough love kept me on the straight and narrow.

Much of the material in this book originated from a technical writing course I taught for four semesters at MIT. I am indebted to Jim Paradis, Les Perelman, and Steve Strang for giving me the opportunity and the guidance to teach that course.

Julie Nahil did a wonderful job guiding this book through its final editorial phases.

Other material in this book comes from conversations with great technical writers, including Jim Garrison, Marietta Hitzemann, John Abbott, and Judy Tarutz. Special thanks to Kenyon College and to the technical writing department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for preparing me for the technical writing life. Thanks also to Roger Stern and Arthur Lewbel for random props, information, and jokes. Gigantic thanks to the brilliant engineers at 170 Systems, who served as the inspiration for much of this book.

Finally, enormous thanks to my wife Marilyn, who took care of far too many day-to-day details over the last year so that I could have the time to write this book.

1. Much the same way that a nineteenth-century publishing syndicate formed “Mark Twain.”


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