frustrated Finding the right "voice" for technical writing

Technical and professional writers need to aim for a middle ground that balances readability with formality.

If we want others to understand what we write, we need to write at the same "level" as our audience. That applies to both technical and professional writing. Your message will be lost if your audience does not understand it.

I sometimes refer to this as the "high academic" versus "low academic" problem. I adopted that terminology when I earned my MS degree about ten years ago; as part of that graduate program, I read a lot of PhD theses and other academic articles in journals and other collections. But the MS in Scientific and Technical Communication program is a professional program, so I also read technical writing samples in my field.

High academic and low academic

The comparison of "high" and "low" academic writing style is actually a spectrum. The "high academic" style is typified by long, very dense sentences filled with very specific, formal language. Such academic writing avoids contractions, although it often includes abbreviations and acronyms used in the field.

In academic writing, such as a PhD thesis, this formality may be necessary to convey specific meaning using precise definitions of terms. This "high academic" style is certainly expected in most academic writing. The readers of such academic articles would expect an article published in a peer-reviewed academic journal to use this style.

On the other end of the spectrum, "low academic" is not formal at all. This style of writing might be what you read in an email or a text message, and is exemplified by short or terse messages. This "low academic" style assumes a familiarity between the reader and writer; the meaning is clear if you are "in" on it.

Find a balance

However, neither style is usually appropriate for technical writing. Consider your audience. If the technical writing sample is a guide to use a machine or tool, the writing should be more familiar than the formal "high academic" style, but longer than the "low academic" style so the guide can go into sufficient depth.

The same balance exists in most technical and professional writing. Technical writing could also include technical definitions or "how-to" articles that teach the reader about new concepts or skills. Professional writing includes proposals, business definitions, and reports. Technical and professional writing that is too high is often too difficult for the intended audience to read easily, while writing that is too low can lack necessary detail.

Too highToo low
In this proposal, we iterate several possible procedures and techniques from which the adoption will realize significant resource utilization leverage, and defer consequential investment in ongoing fiscal planning, and rationalize business processes pertaining to infrastructure requirements.Here’s how to save some $$ and get the most out of the VCX-100.
Examples of too high and too low communication styles

Instead, technical and professional writers need to aim for a middle ground on the spectrum, a "medium academic." This writing style usually includes contractions, although not too many. It might avoid certain abbreviations or acronyms - but may include them if the phrase they replace occurs frequently throughout the document. Also, language tends to be less formal and more familiar.

Reach your audience

To reach that "medium academic" in technical and professional writing, we need to consider the audience. I recommend writers start by asking these five W questions:

Who is the audience? I might write in a certain style if communicating with a colleague or peer than with a client.

What do they need to know? This helps me understand what topics they will need from my writing.

Where do they need to take this? A document or memo I write for a client might be shared within the organization.

When do they need it? This helps me focus on how much detail I should go into. With more time, I can cover a topic in more depth.

Why do they want to know? Make sure to answer the reader's questions.