Essential Writing Types 101: Technical & Scientific Writing

Foreword:


Writing entertains, informs, persuades, explains, clarifies, and gives the author an avenue for creative and intelligent expression. Writers always have a purpose or goal, which dictates the style a writer must use when approaching composition. Essential Writing Types 101 aims to educate readers on six types one will encounter throughout their academic and professional writing careers. Each chapter will outline textual examples associated with the style and describe the characteristics that make these writing styles distinct. Due to the diversity of rhetorical contexts and audiences, understanding each writing style and the relationship between the purpose and its communicative function will facilitate more effective writers and communicators.


The following is divided into six main chapters:

  1. Essential Writing Types 101: Descriptive Writing

  2. Essential Writing Types 101: Narrative Writing

  3. Essential Writing Types 101: Expository Writing

  4. Essential Writing Types 101: Persuasive Writing

  5. Essential Writing Types 101: Expressive & Poetic Writing

  6. Essential Writing Types 101: Technical & Scientific Writing

Essential Writing Types 101: Technical & Scientific Writing

Thus far, Essential Writing Types 101 has described writing often used for texts about critical analysis in academia, business and marketing, and novels. Those in the scientific and technical fields must also spend a considerable amount of time writing because they must meticulously communicate the purpose of the study, methodology, and conclusions of their research. Additionally, they must convince others of their research's value to acquire funding research and have their papers published in established journals. The highly complex content in the scientific and technological fields makes the communication of it more difficult to write because the density must be conveyed in terms that can be understood by non-expert readers. Therefore, communicating the process and results of a scientific procedure to an audience should be precise. The final part of the Essential Writing Types 101 series will differentiate between scientific and technical writing, provide examples, and discuss the linguistic and compositional characteristics of this niche area.

Figure 1: Illustrations for the Polytechnic Museum. Dorokhina, K. 2018.

First, it is noteworthy to mention that although technology and science are often intertwined, they are also distinct. Science can sometimes use the tangible tools developed by technology to make discoveries. Science and technology fields influence and contribute to one another, but to what extent also depends on the particular branch of science and technology under exam. Harvey Brooks (1994), the former founder and first director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, provides the following examples of the complex nature of how science and technology relate:

For mechanical technology, for example, the contribution of science to technology is relatively weak, and it is often possible to make rather important inventions without a deep knowledge of the underlying science. By contrast, electrical, chemical, and nuclear technology are deeply dependent on science, and most inventions are made only by people with considerable training in science (p. 479).

In this case, the inventions utilizing chemical and nuclear technology that Brook mentions would be the development of weaponry. In some branches of science, discoveries may not have material applications, but instead may just be used to explain the natural world. Those who work in technology are creating tools that can be more easily commercialized.

Figure 2: Unknown. sketchify. n.d.

As a result, technical and scientific writing attributes follow similar guidelines, though they often diverge in format. In scientific writing, researchers must be able to compose their writing in a way that guides the reader through the procedure of their research. After all, the heavy amount of numerical information can be overwhelming, so it is critical to keep in mind that the structure should also reflect the ‘science’ of an audience and how readers gain information. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan (1990), a professor of rhetoric at Duke University and a professor of scientific writing at Princeton University respectively, stress the ‘science’ of how readers gather information through reading. To draw an example, Swan and Gopen provide two different written structures of the same data of a scientist’s measurement of the temperature of a liquid over time. The first example is displayed in a linear composition, whereas the second is in a tabular table:

t(time)=15’, T(temperature)=32º, t=0’, T=25º; t=6’, T=29º; t=3’, T=27º; t=12’, T=32º; t=9’;

T=31º

Time (min)

Temperature (Cᐤ)

0

25

3

27

6

29

9

31

12

32

15

32

(p. 550). The table structure makes it much easier for the reader to make sense of the results and recognize the pattern the researcher found in their study. Gopen and Swan (1990) state that this way of writing provides useful context for the reader:

The contextual material appears on the left in a pattern that produces an expectation of regularity; the interesting results appear on the right in a less obvious pattern, the discovery of which is the point of the table. Since we read from left to right, we prefer the context on the left, where it can more effectively familiarize the reader. [...] Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it's placed where most readers expect to find it (p. 550).
Figure 3: Lesson Plan. MUTI. 2022.

The science of how a reader attains comprehension through writing is also why even if one were to switch ‘time’ and ‘temperature’ in the table, it would also be difficult for the reader to comprehend. In the case of this study, the temperature is the dependent variable to the time, so knowing how to display and arrange data is essential in scientific writing.


In addition to research articles, scientific writing also mandates writing for research grants and manuscripts. Researchers employ persuasive tactics to appeal to funders for financial support to conduct meaningful research, appeal to journals to publish their articles, and convince others in the field how the results of their research are important (and credible). The amount of credit in research and writing of the findings builds the careers of these researchers, so those in science need to be trained well in writing for their professional careers. Robert H. Glew, Anil K. Challa, and Venkat Gopalan (2014), researchers and instructors in science at the University of New Mexico and Ohio State University, conducted two surveys of graduate and postdoctoral researchers at Ohio State University and a professional networking site National Postdoctoral Association. The surveys reported that 93% of graduate students and 98% of postdoctoral agreed upon the following perspective: "Knowing how to write a scientific manuscript is just as important as knowing how to design and execute a research project” (p. 1397). A manuscript is a document that is submitted for publishing. In science, the manuscript should have subheaded sections for each part. Giancarlo Maria Liumbruno et al. (2013), researchers in medicine, give the following advice for how to approach writing a scientific manuscript:

The writing should start with making figures and tables, and then proceed with summary statements (the conclusions summarising the major contributions of the manuscript to the scientific community), identification of the audience, materials and methods, results, discussion, references, introduction, title, and conclusion. The aim of this algorithm is to give the structural backbone to the manuscript and is designed to overcome writer’s block (p. 221).
Figure 4: Technical Writing. S. Mostov, A. 2019.

Here, it could be argued that scientific writing must implement storytelling techniques (beginning, middle, end, moral), but the language of the content should be straightforward and unambiguous.


In slight contrast, the linguistic layout of technical writing is even shorter than scientific writing. Although the technical language of a text may include scientific content, technical writing has an even wider audience because technical documents are the most commonly distributed to the public. The most common technical texts are instructions and manuals. Within the “manual” category, there are two types: public and professional. Manuals meant for the general public would be instructions accompanying a product that someone purchases, such as a washing machine. Conversely, manuals written for the “narrower group” would be a service manual for a technician who would fix that product or a procedures manual for employees (Eunson, 2008, p. 19). The first type is general, excluding technical jargon, whereas the second type does the complete opposite due to the level of an audience’s knowledge on the topic.


Moreover, as stated previously, when distinguishing between technology and science, technology executes tangible outcomes, as it is meant to be physically used either by specialists or laypersons. Therefore, language in technical writing must not only be short and direct, but it also necessitates the employment of active voice since instructing how to use a piece of technology is an action. Baden Eunson, a scientist and business consultant in communication studies, supplies the following writing samples to exemplify the differences between passive writing, used in articles and essays, and active voice, mainly used in technical writing documents:

Writing sample A

Writing sample B

The thermal environment was manipulated to determine sample volatility. Temperatures above 110°C produced substantial surface excitation.

​We tried different levels of heat to see how stable or unstable the chemical was. Heat above 110°C made the sample boil.

​Passive sentences: 50%

Flesch Reading Ease: 0

Flesch–Kincaid Grade: 19.9

​Passive sentences: 0%

Flesch Reading Ease: 64.9

Flesch–Kincaid Grade: 6.9

(2008, p. 5).

Figure 5: Stunning Experiment. Hurca!TM. 2021.

The scores in each writing example in the figure are judged based on the Flesch Reading Ease scale and the Flesch–Kincaid Grade. The lower the score of the former, the more demanding the text. The higher the score for the latter, the more demanding the text is written (Eunson, 2008, p. 5). Writing samples A and B are both written using two sentences, but the biggest difference is to note the actual lengths of the lines (A is much longer than B). Upon closer inspection, writing sample B uses active language such as “tried” rather than the longer passive version “was manipulated to”. Additionally, sample B uses simpler language, such as “stable or unstable” as opposed to the word “volatility”. Eunson (2008) explains these notable language techniques and rules in technical writing:

Even when writing for professional peers, consider using standard plain English techniques to improve the readability of your text. Such techniques include using more verbs instead of nominalisations, using shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs, as well as using graphic communication where appropriate (p. 6).

Technical documents are meant to be engaged with by a diverse range of audience members, and using language with low readability leads to a lack of accessibility. A lack of accessibility frustrates readers and may prompt them to abandon potentially important information, especially if they must use that manual to complete a task.


Despite the difficulty of the content and its susceptibility to readability, learning how to write technically and scientifically does not have to be a rigid, formal undertaking. Coleen Weiss-Magasic (2012), a secondary education science instructor, advocates for the use of creative writing in student assignments to ensure they gain competent science literacy. She uses science fiction to inspire creative writing and critical thinking in science by giving the following suggestion: “Prompt your students to think like science fiction writers and use their lab observations or current events as springboards for creative writing” (p. 43). Cultivating creative thinking in the classroom for aspiring scientists can encourage future scientific and technical experts to become better writers.

Figure 6: hands. Dziura, O. 2019.

Moreover, technical and scientific communication can also be expressed creatively, such as eye-catching infographics, flyers, or pamphlets to inform and educate the public. Technology especially fosters and values innovation. Depending on which type of technology field it is, it largely mandates creativity in design. Creative exercises can be used to have students practice by reducing the wordiness of an existing text as much as they can without losing the original meaning. Kristen Dayle Welch (2010), an assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Longwood University, shares a creative exercise for students practicing constructing how-to manuals: “Other times, I ask them to describe the process of washing their hair. Then, they can be asked to change the direction of each step into a haiku. The brevity of a haiku is perfect for driving home the work involved in reducing language to the imperative mood” (p. 40). Once students engage in this practice early on, it becomes much easier to apply this skill to other various texts that they will come across throughout their professional careers.


Furthermore, there is often a misconception that writing and communication are low priorities for researchers, scientists, and engineers. Contrarily, experts in the field argue this misconception is not the case. The textbook “Technical Writing Essentials”, a technical writing guidebook for students by English and communication experts Suzan Last et al. (2019), provides a summation of a presentation by the Engineering co-op coordinator at the University of Victoria. The presentation concluded that advanced engineers spend 5-10% of their time “problem solving” and 90-95% of their time engaging in communication such as emails, research, reports, proposals, attending presentations, and networking with other experts in the field (Why are Technical Communication Skills Important? Section, para. 1). The communication experts add the following statement:

Technical communication is 'transactional' – it entails a purposeful transaction between sender and receiver that provides specific information for practical and specific purposes [...] Thus, it is a highly ‘designed’ form of communication that requires practitioners to have a heightened awareness of the conventions (rules and expectations) and rhetorical situations (audience, purpose, context) (Why are Technical Communication Skills Important? Section, para. 4).
Figure 7: Unknown. sketchify. n.d.

Clearly, communication (and writing) is what binds society together, as everyone makes the attempt to circulate knowledge and impart practical instruction.


In conclusion, technical and scientific writing heeds the same theme found among the other writing types: audience, ideas, and clarity. The content in this writing type is heavy with both data and technical vernacular, increasing the difficulty of writing succinctly. Great writers, regardless of their career niche and writing style, are also great observers. It is essential for writers not to only have a constant awareness of how their writing will be perceived but also to have an awareness of their own writing process to organize their ideas (or research) and guide the reader through it effectively. Sheela P. Turbek et al. (2016), in collaboration with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, write the following advice in their guide to scientific writing for Undergraduates in Biological Sciences:

To bolster the flow [of scientific papers], constantly remind yourself of the overarching story; always connect new questions with resolutions and tie new concepts to previously presented ideas (p. 423).

Evidently, the suggestion presented by Turbek et al. can be easily applied to all writers. Recognizing an audience, adapting to the administration of their content, and maintaining an awareness of the purpose or story are essential components of successful written communication. Writing is a complex endeavor for most, but with practice, dedication, and consistency, better writing will translate into a more informed audience. Above all else, the knowledge and insight gained by the reader make the world a more informed place.




Bibliographical Sources

Brooks, Harvey. “The Relationship Between Science and Technology.” Research Policy, vol. 23. (1994): 477-486. Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/sciencetechnology.pdf


Eunson, B. (2008). Communicating in the 21st Century (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ, United States: Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.johnwiley.com.au/highered/eunson2e/content018/web_chapters/eunson2e_web6.pdf


Gopen, G. D., & Swan, J. A. (1990). The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist, 78(6), 550–558. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29774235


Glew, R. H., Challa, A. K., & Gopalan, V. (2014). Training in scientific manuscript writing. Current Science, 107(9), 1386–1392. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24107202


Last, S., Neveu, C., Smith, M., & Gaudet, L. (2019). Technical Writing Essentials. Introduction to Professional Communications in the Technical Fields. University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/ Retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/part/techcomm/


Liumbruno, G. M., Velati, C., Pasqualetti, P., & Franchini, M. (2013). How to write a scientific manuscript for publication. Blood transfusion = Trasfusione del sangue, 11(2), 217–226. https://doi.org/10.2450/2012.0247-12 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3626472/


Turbek, S. P., Chock, T. M., Donahue, K., Havrilla, C. A., Oliverio, A. M., Polutchko, S. K., . . . Vimercati, L. (2016). Scientific Writing Made Easy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Undergraduate Writing in the Biological Sciences. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 97(4), 417–426. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1258 Retrieved from https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/bes2.1258


Weiss-Magasic, C. (2012). Writing and Science Literacy: Creative and technical writing activities that demonstrate students’ understanding of science. The Science Teacher, 79(1), 41–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43556755


Welch, K. D. (2010). Poetry, Visual Design, and the How-To Manual: Creativity in the Teaching of Technical Writing. The English Journal, 99(4), 37–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27807164




Visual Sources

Figure 1: Dorokhina, K. (2018). Illustrations for the Polytechnic Museum [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.behance.net/gallery/60555365/Illustrations-for-the-Polytechnic-Museum?tracking_source=search_projects%7Cscience+writing


Figure 2: sketchify. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://annafitz-ux.medium.com/day-in-the-life-of-a-technical-writer-2d0cd70d5161


Figure 3: MUTI. (2022). Lesson Plan [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/17504857-Lesson-Plan/attachments/12643449?mode=media


Figure 4: S. Mostov, A. (2019). Technical Writing [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/6013932-Technical-Writing/attachments/11193062?mode=media


Figure 5: Hurca!TM. (2021). Stunning Experiment [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/15122052-Stunning-Experiment


Figure 6: Dziura, O. (2019). hands [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/7135180-hands/attachments/138894?mode=media


Figure 7: sketchify. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://annafitz-ux.medium.com/what-is-technical-writing-1fa47e49d7cc




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Leah Dietle

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