Guide to Technical Writing
Material revised and adapted for use as Supplementary material for
ENGL 1261 – TEWP
1. INTRODUCTION Technical writing requires a strong foundation in general writing, including knowledge of common grammar and punctuation conventions. The process is iterative and involves multiple reviews and revisions prior to publication. The Chicago Manual of Style is used in this guide because it is the College of Engineering standard. Be aware that other style manuals are often required as a writing standard.
This writing guide provides a format for writing and revising text and details on how to develop content that meets professional standards. Prior to submitting work, complete several iterations of editing and improving the text. Proofread again after several days, or at least hours, after the last examination. Then request an external reviewer to provide detailed constructive criticism. Consider and incorporate relevant feedback, then proofread the final document before submitting.
The Biosystems Engineering program provides many opportunities to learn from feedback on written assignments. By writing and revising, the ability to communicate effectively with both clarity and brevity will improve. Writing well is hard work but critical to academic and professional success.
2. TECHNICAL WRITING Technical writing is direct, informative, clear, and concise language written specifically for an identified audience. The content must be accurate and complete with no exaggerations. To deliver the intended message, the text must be objective and persuasive without being argumentative. Developing technical documents that meet these requirements and standard guidelines is time consuming. This section provides an overview of those standards and a process for create interesting, informative text.
Before composing the text, identify the audience, determine the message, collect adequate information, brainstorm, and then develop a detailed outline. Details of each process are provided below.
1. Identify the audience by answering the following questions:
Who is the intended audience (one or multiple)? What subject knowledge, vocabulary, and biases will the intended audience have? How will the report be used? What information must be conveyed and how much detail will be expected?
2. Determine the purpose of the report by evaluating the intended message. A clear message will help focus on what to include and what to discard.
3. Collect adequate relevant information with sufficient depth for the intended audience before starting to write.
4. Brainstorm by listing relevant ideas. Then group related thoughts together. Organize the key points and supporting details in a logical order. Ensure that each section relates to and supports the message, eliminating irrelevant ideas.
5. Develop an outline of heading and subheadings that convey key points; for example, use Analytic Results of Energy Production in place of Results. Then assign a length to each topic.
Next, develop figures and tables. Then begin writing, remembering to maintain consistency and use appropriate language. Create interesting text by developing coherent paragraphs that incorporate transitional words and sentence variety. Use correct grammar and punctuation.
A Technical Report Checklist is provided in Appendix A to assist with finalizing a document, and additional Style Guide Resources are provided in Appendix B.
2.1. PRODUCE FIGURES AND TABLES Figures and tables enhance the report and explain the intended message. Distinguish between figures (schematic drawings, photographs, charts, graphs, etc.) and tables (tabular compilations of data or computational results). Follow these guidelines to assist the reader with understanding key points.
1. Make figures large enough to be easily read, generally at least one-third of a page in size. When feasible, maintain a consistent figure size throughout a report.
2. Select distinguishable line types and symbols, shades with patterns, and contrasting colors rather than color alone to maintain legibility in both color and black and white. Also use contrasting lettering (for example, white letters on darker images) to identify landmarks on photographs. This enables printing or copying in black and white, which is more common due to the expense of color.
3. Include a key if there are two or more lines, and use distinguishable symbol shapes and line types. Label both axes and include dimensions.
4. Use a photograph when an illustration is not adequate. When taking photographs, step back and think about the purpose of the photograph, take time to look at the composition and remove objects that pose a distraction. Make sure there is a strong contrast between objects. Take multiple photographs including close-up views to ensure that the object is large enough to be effective as an illustration. Use a flash or portrait setting to illuminate the target image, even in the daytime.
5. Provide a short descriptive title that provides content clarity so the figure or table will stand alone if removed from the report (e.g., Figure 1. Schematic of the water treatment process).
6. When a landmark, road name, or other information is referenced in the text, this information must be provided on the figure (e.g., Shaw Hall, Snow Road).
7. Horizontally center, within the report margins, figures and tables and the corresponding titles. Place figure titles below the figure and table titles above the table. Use portrait orientation whenever feasible. If landscape orientation is used, orient the base of the figure or table towards the right-hand side of the page and center within the report margins.
8. Refer to every figure and table in the text and number in the order referenced. Place the figure or table immediately following the text or paragraph that includes the reference. If this is not practical, place the figure or table on the next page. When the report has section numbers or appendices, include the section or appendix number within the figure and table number (e.g., Figure 4.3 is the third figure in Section 4, Table 5.1 is the first table in Section 5, and Figure A-1 is the first figure in Appendix A).
9. The title is part of the figure or table and requires a unique format. Use a bold font, sized 2 points smaller than the text, and format it as a “caption” style in Word.
10. Two-dimensional graphs and charts convey information more clearly than in three dimensions. Therefore, critically evaluate whether a three dimensional presentation of the information is necessary to convey the message.
11. Round values as needed for comprehension using Microsoft formatting options (Appendix C), and use the correct number of significant figures (Appendix D).
12. Use tables if there will be more than three to four entries.
For assistance with techniques for effective presentation of figures and tables, investigate the following resources available in the Biosystems Engineering Career Center:
Nicol, Adelheid A. M. and Penny M. Pexman. 2003. Displaying Your Findings: A Practical Guide for Creating Figures, Posters, and Presentations. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Davis, Martha. 2002. Scientific Papers and Presentations. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
2.2. MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY Clearly convey technical information by formatting the document consistently. Correctly and uniformly spell, capitalize, abbreviate, hyphenate, bold, and italicize text. Use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Precede a number with a value less than one with a zero (e.g., 0.5), and use the correct number of significant figures (Appendix D).
To simplify the task of formatting uniformly, use Microsoft Word tools (highlighted in Appendix C) and follow these guidelines.
1. Use Times Roman typeface for easier reading. Apply Helvetica typeface, such as Arial, for viewing at a distance, although Arial’s capital “i” is not different from the lower case “l” as in low.
2. Maintain a 2-point font size difference between subheading and main headings and use 11 or 12- point for the text. (This writing guide uses bold 18-point for the main headings, bold 16 and 14- point for the subheadings, and 11-point for the text.)
3. Reserve underlining for hyperlinks.
4. Provide 1-inch top, bottom, and side margins and adequate and consistent white space to separate information and make the document visually appealing.
5. Supply uniform spacing before and after headings and paragraphs. Left justify all paragraphs and use 1.5 line spacing except for itemized lists, which can be single spaced. Use two spaces between sentences.
6. Start a main heading on a new page, unless two main topics fit on one page or a section is less than half a page. Provide appropriate page breaks, making sure that content flows from one page to the next. Keep the introductory information on the same page as the list.
7. Keep numbers and salutations on the same text line with dimensions and names; examples include dimensioned numeric value (5 feet), numbered titles (Figure 12), and a salutation with name (Mr. Smith). (In Microsoft Word hold down SHIFT-CTRL while adding a space or hyphen to keep the text together)
8. When it is necessary to break a URL (uniform resource locator) or e-mail address, place a break (not a hyphen) between elements, after a slash, equal sign, colon, or the symbol @, but before any other punctuation or symbols. When an address includes a hyphen, avoid breaking at the hyphen to avoid confusion. (In Microsoft Word add a break using SHIFT-ENTER to keep the URL as one continuous element.)
2.3. USE APPROPRIATE LANGUAGE Technical reports use formal English, direct language, and simple terms. Make sure to select the correct term; review the list of commonly misused words in Appendix E. Employ correct scientific terms and conventions for engineers. Replace words that are a problem for the foreign reader, such as the verb “do” and words with multiple meanings (feel, do, as, like).
2.3.1. Formal English Formal English is explicit even for the foreign reader who uses English as a second language. This requires elimination of contractions (I’m, don’t) and personal pronouns, which include: first person (e.g., I, we, our, us): second person (you, your, yours); and third person (he, her, it, theirs). Technical text is also void of colloquialisms, jargon, clichés, and sexist language − each of which is defined in detail below.
Colloquialisms (local or regional expressions) are characteristic of ordinary spoken or written communication that imitates informal speech, which may not carry the expected meaning. Examples include “gonna” for “going to” and “passed on” for “died.”
Jargon, or slang, is terminology that is used by a particular group of people in a specialized field; it may not be understandable by any other group or individual. If jargon is used, define or explain the meaning. For example, a “hydrostat transmission” is jargon for a “variable pump hydraulic transmission with infinite speed variability.” Examples of slang include “hang on” for “wait” and “run” for “computer simulation.”
Clichés, when first created, were vivid descriptions of something that was current in the minds of the people. As time passed, the descriptions lost their original meaning, and no longer represent descriptive text (e.g., avoid like the plague; a can of worms; in the long run; and by the same token). Technical writing must also be void of recent and current clichés.
Sexist language is inappropriately gender specific. To prevent bias, eliminate gender specific words to describe a category of people who could be either male or female. Do not use adaptations, such as he/she, because they hinder the text flow. As alternatives, use plurals, change words, or simply say he and she, his or her, him and her.
2.3.2. Direct Language In technical writing, every word must have a place in the sentence and a meaning. Use direct statements and an active voice, avoiding past tense as much as possible, except in the executive summary, where past tense is always used. Use future tense to project into the future
Avoid saying the same thing twice and repeating the same word in a sentence. When a sentence contains the same word twice, try rewriting the sentence. Reword negative language to the positive.
Provide certainty by eliminating auxiliaries such as would, should, could, may, and might. Avoid ambiguous words and phrases by selecting a clearer alternative. Replace wordy text (despite the fact that) with a concise alternative (because). Additional examples of concise alternatives are provided in Appendix F.
2.3.3. Simple Terms Impress the audience with analysis, not vocabulary. Replace complex words with simple language if it conveys the same meaning. This prevents the audience from interpreting the text, allowing the author to maintain control by forcing the reader to understand the intended meaning. Replacing the word “utilize” with “use” or “altercation” with “dispute” simplifies the text.
2.3.4. Action Verbs
2.4. CREATE TEXT FLOW Select an appropriate style and tone, and then simply write down ideas and facts without concern for quality or format under each heading and subheading. Then edit, wait, and edit again, eliminating irrelevant information, emotion, unsupported opinions, and judgments.
Organize the ideas into smooth flowing text by developing coherent paragraphs, using transitional words, and incorporating sentence variety. Be selective in the use of acronyms and initialisms. Use numbers or bullets to convey lists of information.
2.4.1. Coherent Paragraphs Create paragraphs with a single topic or focus, and include supporting details. Each paragraph usually contains around five sentences (although this is not a rule). To improve comprehension, place the key topic at the beginning of a sentence and new information at the end.
All of the ideas contained within a paragraph must relate to one central thought. Arrange factual sentences in a logical order from general to specific. If there are ideas that relate to other foci, construct additional paragraphs.
In order to build the individual paragraphs into a complete paper, take ideas from the beginning paragraph and expand each into subsequent paragraphs. Link paragraphs together by stating what will appear in the next paragraph.
2.4.2. Transitional Words Use transitional words to connect one idea to the next, one sentence to another, one paragraph to another. Forms of transitional words include: indicators for time order (earlier, later); position in time (rarely); sequence (next); occurrences that happen again (to explain); conclusions (in conclusion); the end of an idea (finally); compare/contrast (also/but); causality (because, as a result, therefore); spatial concerns (neighboring); and other connectors (or, nor, but, subsequently, then, besides, furthermore, similarly, likewise, moreover, in which, nevertheless).
Develop precise and interesting text. Replace verb-preposition combinations with high quality action verbs (go with → accompany, find out → discover, start out → begin).
2.4.3. Sentence Variety Develop clear concise text by writing shorter sentences that are appropriate for the intended audience, avoiding very short sentences. Use a long sentence only when it consists of more than one clause and both the meaning and logical relationships between the clauses are clear. Avoid using phrases with more than three nouns in a row by dividing the phrase into a shorter noun phrase with a relative clause or prepositional phrase, or use hyphens to connect closely related words in the noun string. Compare the first example, which has six nouns in a row, with the rewritten sentence that follows:
The nanotechnology enhanced iron foam column contactor removes phosphorus …
The column contactor uses nanotechnology-enhanced iron foam to remove phosphorus …
For clear text that is understandable for non-native English-speaking readers, use simplified verb phrases and tenses. The sentence:
Fabricated steel components should not be welded by beginning students.
Could be written as
Beginning students should not weld fabricated steel components. (Simplified)
Locate previously introduced information in the topic (subject) position of the next sentence to assist with comprehension.
Bob called the dog. The dog stopped immediately.
When using prepositional phrases, make sure it is obvious what each preposition is modifying.
The news report stimulated conversation, but this did not resolve the problem. (Does this refer to the news report or the conversation?)
Avoid ending a sentence in a preposition by selecting a more descriptive action verb.
The burglar finally gave up. The burglar finally surrendered.
To create smooth flowing text and interesting reading, vary the length and beginning of the sentences, arrangement of information, and kinds of sentences. Eliminate repeated words in a single sentence. Use the following diverse sentence structures to provide variety.
Simple sentence: Includes subject-verb-object, in that order.
The laboratory report summarized the results.
Compound sentence: A subordinate clause appears before the main clause.
If you find the answer, it will relieve everyone in the class.
Complex sentence: Consists of an independent clause followed by an independent clause
The final reports were due yesterday, and no one knew who had the original.
Compound/complex sentence: An independent clause is preceded or followed by a subordinate clause and then a second independent clause.
If you find the answer, it will relieve everyone in the class; admiration from all is a nice reward.
2.4.4. Acronyms and Initialisms Both acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations formed using the first letter of a series of words. Acronyms are pronounced as a word, whereas initialisms are pronounced as a series of letters (IBM).
Sometimes an acronym or initialism is more commonly used than the words themselves. For example, random access memory is known by its acronym, RAM and the International Business Machines Corporation as IBM. Some acronyms, like “scuba” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), have become so accepted that their original derivations have been lost and the acronyms have been added as new words to the English language.
Using uncommon acronyms and initialisms makes reading harder for all but a few specialists; therefore, be selective and limit their use. When using either, write the full name or phrase followed by the acronym or initialism in parentheses for the first appearance. However, do not follow this procedure if the acronym is not used again.
An acronym or initialism followed by a simple s is the plural form. Whereas an acronym with an ’s shows the possesive form.
2.5. USE CORRECT GRAMMAR
2.5.1. Parallel Structure Parallel structure means using the same form for words that have the same level of importance in a sentence or for a list of items that are joined by a coordinating conjunction, such as “and” or “or.”
The scientist collected, dried, and weighed the samples.
When preparing bulleted or numbered lists use the same word type (i.e., all nouns, all verbs) and maintain parallel structure. If the listed items complete the introduction grammatically, place a period at the end of every line. Capitalize the first word in a bulleted or numbered list.
In preparation for the FE Exam, the students will review the following: Circuits Economics Statics
2.5.2. Subjects and Verbs It is important for text to flow smoothly. Subject and verb quality and agreement are essential and allow the reader to move through the text. To ensure the reader understands the intended meaning, abide by the following subject and verb rules and use the correct verb tense:
1. Subjects and verbs must agree in person and number—singular with singular, plural with plural.
2. A verb must agree with its subject, not with the words that come between the two.
The Club President, along with the officers, is going to the conference.
3. Subjects joined by “and” usually take a plural verb.
Platinum, gold, and lead are available in the laboratory.
4. When subjects are joined by “or” or “nor”, the verb agrees with the subject closest to it.
Cherries or two apple varieties have been used in the study.
5. When using subordinate clauses with a pronoun as subject, the verb agrees with the antecedent to which the pronoun refers.
Robert earned excellent grades, because he worked very hard.
6. A verb agrees with the subject, even though in many cases the subject will follow the verb.
Educating the committee is difficult.
7. When using a linking verb (is, are, was, were, forms of be) the subject is the noun that precedes the verb, not the nouns that follow the verb.
The dogs are running down the street.
8. Select quality verbs that demonstrate an action. A list of action verbs is provided in Appendix G.
take any → accept talk about → discuss went up →rose, increased
leave out → exclude go with → select written up → composed
2.5.3. Active and Passive Voice Take responsibility by writing in active voice; use passive voice only when it is appropriate for emphasis or when you lack information. Active voice distinctly identifies the subject and the action taken by the subject. The passive voice indicates that the subject receives, rather than performs, the action.
The sound’s reverberation struck the walls.
Passive voice changes the position of the previous subject into an indirect object and focuses the sentence on what receives the action, the walls:
The walls were struck by the sound’s reverberation.
When the active voice is appropriate, use it to create concise, energetic text. Only use the passive voice when it is appropriate to say that an action is done to the subject.
The final project was finished by the team. (passive)
The team finished the final project. (active)
2.5.4. Cases of Pronouns 1. Nominative Pronouns: Used as a subject in the sentence (I, we, you, he, she, it, who, and they):
Mary and I will attend. The guard who let us in checked our identification.
2. Objective Pronouns: Used as objects of verbs or prepositions (me, us, you, him, whom, and them):
He questioned Susan and me about the copyright. Whom did you ask?
3. Possessive Pronouns: Used to show possession or ownership (my, mine, our, your, his, her, theirs, its, whose, etc.):
The Swartz Company may lose its best customer.
For additional examples and explanation, visit the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) at:
2.5.5. Pronoun and Antecedent Agreement 1. A pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number. Examine the various constructions of
compound antecedents and the proper protocol in the examples below.
The owner is concerned about sales, but they will rebound.
The President or his advisers should devote part of their time to this issue.
2. A parenthetical expression that appears between an antecedent and a pronoun does not influence the form of the pronoun used.
The accountant, rather than any of the other officers, will be asked for his or her opinion of this purchase.
3. If the antecedent is a collective noun that refers to a group as a single unit, a singular pronoun is needed. Company names are generally considered to be collective nouns.
Stein & Smith has sold its Chicago properties.
4. For clarity, make pronoun usage clear and understandable by avoiding vague references.
I worked hard on the experiment, and it was difficult. Does the writer want us to consider the experiment as difficult, the work that was done as difficult, or that it was difficult to work hard?
2.5.6. Compound Words A compound word conveys a unit that is not as clearly conveyed by separate words.
1. Use a hyphen to connect elements of compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine and in adjective compounds with a numerical first element. The hyphen not only unites but also separates the component words.
7-hour day, 3-inch ruler, eighty-five.
2. Use a hyphen after the “e” to designate “electronic”:
e-mail, e-commerce, e-article
3. Omit the hyphen when words appear in regular order and the omission of the hyphen causes no confusion in sound or meaning.
palm oil, eye opener, living costs
4. Use a hyphen for clarification when four nouns appear in a row.
A sand-filtered purification system. The end-of-year report.
1. Capitalize the name of a particular person, place, or thing, as well as an adjective that refers to a specific name.
Canada/Canadian, Tibetan Alpacas
2. Capitalize descriptive names that are substituted frequently for the real proper names.
the Windy City, Honest Abe
3. Capitalize brand names and trademarked names.
Palmolive soap, Maxwell House coffee
4. Generally capitalize a noun that is followed by a number or letter used to identify a unit or division.
Lot 14, Tract 833, Volume III, Chapter 8, Policy No. 12345, Catalog No. 214.
5. Capitalize the names of courses of study only if they are derived from proper nouns.
English, shorthand, history, German, Business Mathematics 121
6. Unless a comma intervenes, capitalize titles that precede names; generally, do not capitalize those that follow names.
I have never met Congressman Nelson.
I have never met our congressman, Tim Nelson.
Professor Swartz did the research.
7. A name that indicates a family relationship is usually capitalized unless a noun or a pronoun in the possessive case precedes it.
Uncle Ralph, Mother
My aunt Millie, my mother
8. The names for the points of the compass and their derivatives are capitalized when used to name regions, but not when used to indicate directions.
This sweater was made in the East. Turn west on M-20.
9. Capitalize the name of a season or the word “nature” only if it is spoken of as if it were human.
Old Man Winter left a foot of snow; our spring suits are on sale.
10. All words except articles (a, an, the), conjunctions, and short prepositions are capitalized in names or titles that consist of more than one word. Do not capitalize “the” if it precedes the name of an organization but is not actually a part of that organization’s name.
Official Draft of the NBA; the Eastman Kodak Company
11. Do not capitalize classes (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior), degrees (doctorate, doctor’s, master’s, bachelor’s, baccalaureate), or seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence or in a headline.
12. Readability studies have shown that text is more easily read when in lower case as opposed to all caps. When too many words are capitalized, they lose their importance. Emphasis is achieved more effectively by using various font styles and sizes.
2.5.8. Numbers as Words 1. Generally spell out isolated numbers from one to ten.
The discussion lasted for ten minutes.
2. Unless emphasizing them, spell out indefinite numbers that may be expressed in one or two words.
Approximately thirty appliances were damaged.
3. Spell out a number that introduces a sentence. If the number is long, recast the sentence to avoid awkwardness.
Twenty people attended the lecture.
4. Spell out common fractions that are used alone. However, use figures in writing a mixed number.
He refused to accept his one-fourth share.
The hike was 10 ½ miles long.
5. When two numbers come together, express one in figures and the other in words. As a rule, spell the first number unless the second number is a significantly shorter word; i.e.,
Sixty $5 bills or 500 four-page booklets.
6. When rounding numbers, spell out million or billion to make reading easier.
This tax legislation will increase revenue by $7 million.
2.5.9. Numbers – Text or Digits 1. Generally use numerals to express all exact numbers above ten.
The corporate file has been missing for 31 days.
2. Use the written form of a number for values 10 and below except to express market quotations, dimensions, temperature, decimals, street numbers, pages and divisions of a book, time, weights and measures, and identification numbers.
The experiment had three independent variables staged at 5, 10, and 15 degrees Kelvin.
3. If several numbers in a sentence perform similar functions, express them uniformly. If one is written as a figure, write all as figures.
The inventory shows 21 ranges, 9 refrigerators, 37 washers, and 10 dryers.
The 32 tables sold in five days. (The numbers do not perform similar functions.)
2.5.10. That and Which Generally “that” defines and restricts; “which” provides additional information.
“That” is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular thing. The information following “that” is critical to the reader’s understanding.
The article that was printed in the newspaper yesterday is inaccurate.
“Which” is used nonrestrictively to add some descriptive but incidental information and is preceded by a comma, a dash, or a parenthesis.
The ballerina was dancing around the room wearing a baseball cap, which is not something you would expect.
“Which” is used restrictively only when it is preceded by a pronoun.
Realize that you will be asked for your opinions about topics in which you do not feel completely comfortable.
For example, note the usage of “that” twice, and the lack of commas, in the following text causes confusion.
There are other factors that contribute to the uncertainty that were not considered in the…
The first “that” introduces a restrictive clause that essentially describes the noun, “factors,” and the meaning of the sentence. The reader needs to know “that” other factors “contribute to the uncertainty.” In the case of the second “that,” the idea of the factors not being considered is also critical to the understanding of the sentence. The following sentence clarifies the meaning.
There are other factors that will impact funding, which have garnered little interest in the audience.
The rewritten passage uses one “which” and one “that.” The “which” introduces a nonrestrictive clause, which simply provides additional information to the reader. The “that” clause contains information that is vital to the context.
Punctuation is used to clarify the sentence structure and prevent misreading. A comma is used to prevent reading “general errors” in the following sentence.
In general, errors fall into two categories …
In the following example, simple words run together and cause confusion.
In this experiment error could have been introduced…
Adding a comma prevents confusion.
In this experiment, error could have been introduced…
Eliminate punctuation that clutters the text or detracts from the content. If lack of punctuation hurts the meaning, then add punctuation.
2.6.1. Comma Commas are the smallest break in sentence structure and indicate a slight pause. They clarify the meaning of a sentence and are used:
1. To separate items in a series. The Chicago Manual of Style requires a comma after each item in a series, including before the conjunction, including both “and” and “or.”
The experiment was conducted quietly, quickly, and satisfactorily.
Please contact Dr. Jones at his office, laboratory, or home.
However, other style guides require a comma before the “and” but not the “or.” When preparing documents, check with the publisher, professor, or company for the required form and be consistent.
2. In a series of clauses.
Included within this report are theory and methods of analysis, equipment and experimental setup, procedure guidelines, results, a discussion of results, and conclusions.
3. Before a coordinate conjunction (and, or, but, nor, for, so) that joins two main (independent equal elements) clauses in a compound sentence, do not use a comma if the second part of the sentence cannot stand alone.
The final session ended, and the students went home.
John saw the car coming towards the bike, so he started to scream.
The students counted the proceeds and are pleased with the results.
4. After an introductory verbal phrase that is used as a modifier. Look for introductory words such as after, although, as, at, because, before, by, for, if, in, to, unless, until, when, while, and with.
Looking to the future, he began to contribute to an individual retirement account.
5. To separate the items in a date or an address.
On May 15, 2005, we moved.
6. After an introductory adverb clause.
If we advertise our product, our sales will increase.
7. To set off nonrestrictive (not necessary) clauses and phrases.
The four articles, all of which were published in important journals, explained the details of her work.
8. To set off parenthetical elements: as a result, for example, however, if necessary, indeed, it seems, of course, therefore, nevertheless.
This, indeed, is what we expected from the experiment.
All of the test results, it seems, will have to be reanalyzed.
9. To set off parenthetical expressions:
The showcase, showing the true skills of the graduates, was impressive.
Susan, on the other hand, is reserved.
10. To emphasize words that are independent of a main clause or clearly nonrestrictive. Such items may be divided into several categories: Direct address, appositives, interjections, quotations, abbreviations that follow names to indicate such things as titles and degrees, contrasting expressions, and tag questions.
Dr. Jones, chair of the search committee, called the meeting to order.
11. To clarify the meaning of a sentence.
The book My Life, written by Mr. Smith, was a best seller. (Nonrestrictive)
The book written by Mr. Smith was a best seller. (Restrictive)
12. When they are needed to prevent misreading.
The parts shipment was, unfortunately, delayed in transit.
13. When they are needed to secure emphasis.
It may be a long, long time before we can reconvene.
14. For clarification.
As we sat down to eat, the cat watched with curiosity.
2.6.2. Colon Colons link related thoughts, but one of those thoughts must be able to stand alone as a sentence. The series of elements following the colon amplifies what precedes the colon.
The lab needed two more pieces of equipment to fulfill the contract: a vise and a drill press.
Colons may be used in place of a period to introduce a series of related sentences.
He had to make a choice: Should he tell the truth? Or should he protect his family?
When a colon precedes a complete sentence, capitalize the first word after the colon.
The faculty board made a final decision: Students’ submitted work must meet technical writing standards throughout their curriculum.
Colons are also used to introduce lists.
Professor Smith’s qualifications include:
a. Designing machinery systems b. Evaluating financial markets c. Working with students
When used in text with equations, colons are used after the words follow, follows, and following.
Equation (7) is transformed into the following:
x + y = 32.7
When used in a URL address, no space precedes or follows the colon.
2.6.3. Semicolon Place a semicolon halfway between the comma and the period in force and restrict the use of a semicolon to the following situations:
1. Before a transitional adverb (however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore).
The brochures have already been printed; however, they have not yet been distributed.
2. Between two closely connected but independent clauses of a compound sentence that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, or so).
Make sure to select the correct term; review the list of commonly misused words in Appendix E.
3. Before the coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, or so) in a compound sentence when the clauses have internal punctuation or are long or complex.
The research conclusions are exciting; it will revolutionize how cheese—the greatest of all Wisconsin’s exports—will be made in the future.
4. Before the coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence to provide separate emphasis.
It was the resistor; despite all of the modifications, it did not work.
5. To separate items in a series when the items themselves contain commas.
The four most important dates in the firm’s history are June 12, 1888; May 10, 1920; October 4, 1939; and December 1, 1982.
6. Before a coordinate conjunction that separates two main clauses, and if there are commas within the clauses:
His determination, his courage, and his sincerity could not be denied; but his methods were often questioned.
2.6.4. Apostrophes Apostrophes indicate a contraction or a possessive case.
In informal English, apostrophes are used to shorten a phrase, forming a contraction:
I am I’m
They are They’re
It is It’s (NOTE: its is the possessive form–without the apostrophe)
Contractions are not to be used in technical writing.
Use an apostrophe to indicate possession by observing the following rules:
1. Form the possessive case of a singular noun or number by adding an apostrophe and s (‘s):
Sue’s notebook. 2005’s hurricane season.
2. Form the possessive case of a singular noun that has two or more syllables and ends in an s or z sound by adding only an apostrophe:
The waitress’ manner. The crisis’ origin
3. Form the possessive of a regular plural noun (one ending in s) by adding only an apostrophe after the s:
The boys’ accounts
4. Form the possessive of an irregular plural noun (one not ending in s) by adding an apostrophe and s:
5. Form the possessive for names by adding an apostrophe and an s even when the person’s name ends in s or another sibilant. Two traditional exceptions include Jesus’ and Moses’.
Swartz’s home. Marx’s property. Hertz’s rent a car.
6. When two linked nouns possess the same thing, only the second noun is written in the possessive form. However, if the linked nouns possess different entities (described as one in the sentence), each is written in the possessive form.
Bert and Ernie’s dogs are here. (The dogs collectively belongs to both Bert and Ernie)
Bert’s and Ernie’s dogs are here. (The dogs belong to different entities.)
Do not use an apostrophe to indicate plurals, including the plurals of acronyms and abbreviations unless the result is confusing, for example U’s and Us.
There are three 6s in that number. There were four PhDs in last year’s class.
Apostrophes are required for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, because possession is indicated.
2.6.5. Quotation Marks Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotes.
Use a single quotation mark when a quote is inside another quote.
Place periods and commas inside quotation marks.
He said, “I will review and edit my documents carefully.”
“I will always ask my peers to review my papers before turning them in,” said the student.
Colons and semicolons are placed after the quotation marks.
You said, “I will turn in my work before leaving”; it was not in my mailbox.
A question mark goes outside the quotation marks when the entire sentence is a question and inside when the quoted phrase is a question.
When Joe asked the question, “Did you see the roach cross the room?” the roach appeared before our eyes.
Did the delivery person say, “I left the package in the basement”?
An exclamation point is placed inside the quotation mark only when it is part of the quoted material.
The student cried, “The power is on!”
2.6.6. Parentheses At the end of a sentence, the punctuation is placed inside the parentheses only when a complete sentence is enclosed within the parentheses.
The new fee schedule is effective September 1, 2005. (All students have been notified.)
All faculty will be placed on a nine month appointment (provided other requirements have been met).
2.6.7. Hyphens and Dashes Hyphen (-) separates characters (when spelling out a word) or separating groups of numbers (telephone).
“My name is p-r-i-n-c-e-s-s and my number is 555-5555,” she told the boy in the club.
En dashes ( – ) connect numbers and words, and signify up to and including.
The test temperature range is 20–32ºC.
Em dashes (—) emphasize the text to follow, introduce a list, or restate something.
The pottery lab has many bulk chemicals—aluminum oxide, bentonite, bone ash, borax, bromine, chlorine, dolomite, and nickel oxide.
2.7. IMPROVE THE TEXT To make the revision process more efficient, review the document in passes. Focus first on content by evaluating the following questions, editing as needed to eliminate unnecessary or conflicting information.
1. Is the purpose and message clearly defined?
2. Are the key points and supporting details easily identified and complete?
3. Are there concepts or background information missing that the reader needs?
4. If information is deleted, will the reader’s understanding be jeopardized?
5. Is the content accurate and complete with no exaggerations?
6. Does the data support the conclusions?
7. Are the conclusions and recommendations clear and logical?
8. Are there contradicting statements?
Using the Technical Writing Checklist (Appendix A) as guidance, evaluate the figures and tables and make needed refinements. Then review for consistency, appropriate language, and text flow. Improve the style by reviewing each paragraph for coherency and considering the selected words, the structure of each sentence, and the information presented. Evaluate how each sentence combines with those preceding and following it. Refine the text to improve the clarity and interest until satisfied.
After an extended time, proofread for grammar, punctuation, and spelling, including correctly spelled but incorrectly used words, such as bases/basis, capitol/capital.
4. ENGINEERING DESIGN REPORTS Technical reports incorporate information gathered in an experiment, simulation, or design into a useful document for others. When prepared for a client, the report is accompanied by a transmittal letter using a formal business letter format. The transmittal letter provides an opportunity to thank the client, convey information needed before the report is read, and outline needed actions.
Engineering design reports begin with identifying the core problem and project objectives. This requires completion of the following tasks.
1. Interview the client to identify needs and project constraints.
2. Conduct a literature review to determine if the proposed work is feasible and needed.
3. Investigate industry standards and acceptable quality assurance/quality control practices that may impact or be used during the design process.
4. Refine the problem statement and objectives. Include measurable criteria that will illustrate when each objective is met.
5. Develop a schematic of the current system (if applicable).
6. Identify additional research needs for project design.
7. Prepare a detailed project management plan (Microsoft Project) to organize and prioritize tasks, which will be used in the preparation of an outline for the technical report.
Organize a technical report into front matter, report text, and an appendix using the following guidelines.
4.1. FRONT MATTER Front matter includes the title page, executive summary, table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, nomenclature, acronyms and initialisms, and measurement abbreviations. A detailed description of each is provided below. Consecutively number the front matter with lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii…) in the bottom center of the page. The title page and executive summary are counted; however, they do not have page numbers.
4.1.1. Title Page Develop a brief and clear title, using no more than seven to eight words that provide specificity to the report. The title often identifies the purpose of the work and the intended audience. Do not use abbreviations, acronyms, or jargon in the title. Readers use the title to decide whether to read the executive summary. Keep in mind that the title is used by bibliographic systems for paper retrieval; an inappropriate title may miss the target audience.
Include on the title page the report title, course name, completion date, and author name(s). The title page is counted as page “i,” but it is not shown.
4.1.2. Executive Summary The executive summary conveys the key elements in concise language. Compose the executive summary in past tense after the work is complete. To enable the executive summary to “stand alone” when removed from the document, make no reference to the main text or the literature review. Include the following information.
1. Background, including the purpose of the work
2. Problem statement and objectives
3. What has been accomplished
4. Key results
5. Implications of cost
4.1.3. Acknowledgements Provide a statement of gratitude to the project sponsor and academic or technical advisors that contributed to the project success.
4.1.4. Table of Contents Identify report headings (left justified) and subheadings (indented equally) followed by leading periods with the page number justified with the right margin. Use sentence case for headings and subheadings. The pages preceding the Table of Contents are not listed. Use Microsoft Word “headings” and auto- functions to create and automatically update the Table of Contents. View the Table of Contents in this writing guide as an example.
4.1.5. List of Figures If the report includes more than three figures, list the figure captions and the corresponding page number. Use Microsoft Word functions to create and update the List of Figures. See example below.
List of Figures
Figure 1. Corey’s Curves for calculation of relative permeability ………………………………………………………. 7 Figure 2. Two-dimensional view of cherry tank and perimeter spider ………………………………………………. 14 Figure 3. Three-dimensional view of cherry tank and perimeter spider …………………………………………….. 15 Figure 4. Two-dimensional view of cherry tank and symmetric spider……………………………………………… 16
4.1.6. List of Tables If the report includes more than three tables, list the title captions and the corresponding page number. Use Microsoft Word functions to create and update the List of Tables. Use the same format as shown in the example for List of Figures.
4.1.7. Nomenclature List and define all symbols used in the report in alphabetical order, uppercase (A, C) then lowercase (d, m), followed by Arabic (ف ,ש ) and then Greek (Φ, Ω,).
4.1.8. Acronyms and Initialisms List and define acronyms and initialisms used in the report.
4.1.9. Measurement Abbreviations Summarize measurement abbreviations used in the document, including the appendix, by listing the term, followed by a comma, and then the abbreviation. Examples include:
cubic centimeter, cm3 cubic feet per second, cfs diameter, diam foot (feet), ft
4.2. REPORT TEXT Include the Background, Problem Statement and Objectives, Alternative Selection, Project Design, Results, Economic Analysis of Alternatives, Conclusions and Recommendations, and References sections in the technical report text. The details of each section are explained below.
Number the report text pages with Arabic numerals in the bottom center of each page (1, 2, 3…). Restrict handwritten information, such as sample calculations, to the appendix. Provide context below each heading for subordinate subheadings.
4.2.1. Background Summarize known information specifically relevant to the project in a logically organized manner; use subheadings if necessary to organize the material. Include published research and significant and relevant results from other studies. Document the feasibility and needs of the project and provide data or information to support the objectives.
4.2.2. Problem Statement and Objectives Prepare a concise problem statement based on the literature review findings and the client’s identified needs. Then develop specific objectives from the problem statement. The objective contains a general statement that is followed by very specific measurable criteria and project constraints, which are client requested and site specific. All further work must be in support of the objective statements.
4.2.3. Alternative Selection Present a clear description of feasible alternatives that meet the objectives. Include background information for each alternative and their advantages and disadvantages. Consider using a table to summarize the comparisons. Include a level of detail that allows for the selection of alternatives with the most promise and the elimination of those that have no potential and do not require additional consideration. Clearly describe the selection criteria and identify data gaps. Identify data needed to make recommendations.
4.2.4. Project Design Describe the methodical approach required to fill the data gaps identified in the Alternative Selection section. The detail must be at a level that allows a similarly qualified design team to replicate the work without consulting the authors. Incorporate industry acceptable quality assurance/quality control practices into the design and fully describe data handling and presentation techniques. Experimentation must be in support of the project objectives. List critical assumptions used in developing the design.
4.2.5. Results Report the project design results in a condensed, logical manner, including tabulated or graphical form. The results must match the project design and be in support of the objectives. Include only data and graphs that meet quality-assurance/quality-control protocols and directly support the objectives and alternative selection. Place supporting data and calculations in the appendix.
Because some will read the Executive Summary and then go directly to the Results, a logical cohesive presentation with a clear explanation of the purpose of each component is necessary.
4.2.6. Economic Analysis of Alternatives Present a streamlined life-cycle economical analysis of equally effective preliminary alternatives. Further refine the selection using the results from the analysis. The economical analysis must account for the capital, operational, and maintenance costs for the design life, the depreciation of all equipment, and the time value of money. Present the results in easily understood terms such as simple payback period (breakeven analysis) or annual costs over the design life.
The alternative selection from a system’s approach may consider non-quantitative factors, including ethical and social impacts, safety issues, and sustainability.
To account for uncertainty, assess the variability of all costs and conduct a sensitivity analyses on those that are volatile and have the potential to influence the selected alternative.
4.2.7. Conclusions and Recommendations Present the alternative selected (if able to select), the final cost, and the primary reasons. Discuss data gaps and uncertainties.
Include as a recommendation additional experimentation needed to gain more certainty and the advantages and disadvantages of conducting these experiments. Include other observations relevant to the objectives.
4.2.8. References Documentation of important reference material is essential; however, to prevent plagiarism, use direct quotes rather than paraphrasing the author’s words when documenting the results or interpretations of a research article.
When compiling references, check with the publisher, professor, or company to determine the form to follow. If none is specified, use any appropriate form as long as it is consistent. Two commonly used citation styles include the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Guide or The Chicago Manual of Style.
Include material that is in support of the work but not pertinent to the understanding of the report in the appendix. This includes figures or tables referred to in the results section; material such as raw data, sample, intermediate, or lengthy calculations; long derivatives; and detailed information that might interest only certain readers.
Each step in the design must include a sample calculation. All steps and unit conversions must be shown. This includes calculations used in computer spreadsheets and programs.
Identify all appendix material within the body of the report. When using multiple appendices, place them in the order referenced in the report and label them with capital letters (A, B, …) followed by a descriptive name (e.g., Appendix A: Rheology Data). List each Appendix in the Table of Contents and number each appendix page with the corresponding capital letter followed by Arabic numerals in the bottom center of each page (A1, A2, A3…, B1, B2, B3…). This requires inserting “section breaks/next page” between appendices.
5. FORMS OF COMMUNICATION The professional world uses a variety of written forms of communication. Be ready to learn new techniques and listen to experienced managers. Adjust for particular needs and be flexible to adapt to changing situations and formats. This section provides guidance for preparing e-mail, resumes, letters, progress reports, presentations.
5.1. E-MAIL E-mail has become the most common form of written communication. It is important to scrutinize both e-mail received and returned. Mistakes signify either carelessness or a lack of knowledge. Be discreet; e-mail is a permanent record and is retrievable as court testimony. Follow these rules:
1. Write a complete subject line and include the needed action.
2. Be brief and include the most important information at the beginning of the message.
3. Use correct spelling, grammar, and parallel sentence structure. Proofread and make sure the text says what is intended. Always spell check e-mails before sending.
4. ALL CAPS implies yelling.
5. Make sure the tone of the message is not too abrupt or offensive, especially for those who have a tendency to be direct.
6. Include a signature line that provides alternative contact information (cell phone and mailing address).
7. When replying to a request, provide enough context to ensure that the response is clear.
8. To save the reader time, include information in the body of the message rather than as an attachment. If attachments are included, make sure the reader has the appropriate software to view the content.
9. When using e-mail to send a cover letter and resume to a potential employer, compose the e-mail, let it sit for an hour or so, have a friend read it, and then re-read it aloud before sending it. Make sure to keep a copy and note promised follow-up dates on your calendar.
10. E-mail content is subject to disclosure and is often forwarded beyond the intended recipient. Never e-mail content that is not appropriate for a resume. Most corporate systems retain a backup of all e-mail traffic. This backup is retained after e-mail has been deleted from your system.
E-mail is a tool, but it carries with it some strong responsibilities and possibly damaging consequences. Never use it when a face-to-face dialog is needed. Do not use it when a formal document is required; it does not carry the status of a formal report.
The ultimate goal is to fit the content on one page with one-inch top, bottom, and side margins using a font no smaller than 10.5 pt. Do not use automated templates; instead, create a personal format. For assistance with professionally formatting Microsoft documents, review Appendix C. Become familiar with using the horizontal ruler to set margins, indents, and tabs, and learn how to use Microsoft Word “styles” to format section headings, which provides readily adjustable document spacing vertically on the page.
5.3. LETTERS Create an attractive and professional personal letterhead. Include your name, mailing address, phone number and e-mail address. Varying the font size and adding a horizontal line are techniques that will set the letterhead apart from the remainder of the page. For a uniform look, consider replicating your letterhead as the heading on your resume.
5.3.1. Business Letter Letters must be clearly written, to the point, and positive. When used to transmit a work product, use the letter as an opportunity to thank the client and or recipient as this may be the only contact. Clearly specify actions needed by the recipient along with required due dates. Remember, a letter sent to a
Gather personal information for use in preparing a resume. Include education, work experience, honors, skills, activities, and professional affiliations. When describing work experience, list specific accomplishments that demonstrate skills that are important to employers.
5.3.2. Resume Cover Letter The cover letter that accompanies a resume and transcript functions as an introduction to a prospective employer. It is an opportunity to summarize clearly technical and communications skills, experiences, and accomplishments that would benefit the employer. If they do not like what they read, you may never get the chance to talk to them in person.
The cover letter should use personalized letterhead that includes your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. When preparing the letter reflect your overall goals and include:
Date of the letter
Contact person’s name, company name, mailing address and telephone number followed by a blank line and then a salutation, for example, Dear Ms. Smith.
The first paragraph contains the reason for the letter, the source of information about the employer, and what you prefer to do in the future. Consider including your willingness or desire to work internationally or within a particular region of the country.
In the next paragraph, summarize the main points of your resume that will interest the employer. Remember that the employer has a copy of your resume, so be brief, and include new information that is not in your resume (e.g., current coursework, research, or completion of activities).
potential client, prospective employer, or funding agency may or may not be answered simply because of its quality.
Spend adequate time to perfect the letter quality. Have others read your letter and provide editorial comments. Make sure that your letter presents a positive impression!
5.3.3. Thank-You Letter after an Interview Remember to obtain names, addresses, and phone numbers during your interview so that you can follow-up in writing.
After interviewing for a position, send a thank-you letter within 24 hours to the individuals who interviewed you. This courtesy may put you ahead of the competition. Make it businesslike and concise.
Include your name, mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address in the letterhead. Balance the content on the page. Include the date, followed by one or more blank lines, then the interviewer’s name, company name, and mailing address.
In the first paragraph, thank the interviewer for the interview and clearly signify your interest in working for the company if the job is “right” for you. If the job is not for you, thank the interviewer and briefly indicate that the job does not fit your interests. Be careful making this decision, because you cannot professionally change your mind.
In the second paragraph, mention again your qualifications and include any positive qualities that you may have forgotten to mention at the interview.
Close the letter with a final thank you and express your interest in hearing from the interviewer and the company. Provide the interviewer with your phone number and e-mail address. If you prefer to have
The closing paragraph provides a thank you to the employer in consideration and review of your resume and cover letter. Offer your cell phone number so you can be reached, and inform the employer that you will call the company to confirm receipt of the letter or to check on interview schedules.
Remember to make each thank-you letter a separate entity. Do not use form letters. Personalize the letter, so that the reader will get a positive feeling from the text. If you get a rejection, follow the above procedure. The positive value of your response may open up new doors to employment.
In cover letters, thank-you letters, and resumes, it is best to use the same kind and color of paper.
Send a similar thank-you letter to your employer after finalizing your plans for an internship, co-operative position, or full-time employment.
more control of the communication, notify the interviewer/company of a specific time when you will follow your letter with a phone call.
Include your name, mailing address, phone number and e-mail address in the letterhead. Include the date, followed by one or more blank lines, then the recommended contact person’s name, company name, and mailing address. Limit the content to one page and center it vertically.
Use “Dear” followed by Mr. or Ms. and then the recommended contact person’s name as the salutation. If uncertain about the person’s gender, use RE: followed by the subject of the correspondence instead of addressing the letter to a specific person, for example: “RE: Advertised Design Engineer Position in your Detroit Office.”
In the opening paragraph, refer to the initial contact and express your appreciation for this contact. Mention what was discussed and what interested you. Be specific, giving examples that are professional and will make you distinctive. Use employer terminology and customize the letter to fit the job description. Use action verbs, write clearly and concisely, and use the pronoun “I” selectively. Be honest and positive. Include your degree and graduation date or the date you are available for employment.
In the second paragraph, summarize your skills and strengths, especially those that piqued the interest of the company contact person. Give details of your conversation that are relevant to the company’s needs. Remember that your resume is attached, so limit this paragraph to additional skills and accomplishments or those experiences that are unique to this position or the company. Descriptions of actions and experiences that demonstrate your skills are more effective than generalizations. For example, “Last semester I traveled to Costa Rica to study Food Safety. While I was there, I assisted an engineering professors with the installation of water treatment systems at schools and healthcare facilities in rural areas that did not have electricity.”
Make the closing paragraph active by taking the initiative to contact the company. Indicate a date that you will follow-up. Remember, you have two contact names to follow-up with, your initial contact and the recipient of this letter.
Close the letter using “Sincerely,” followed by four blank lines, and then your name. Sign the letter just above your printed name.
Type “c:’ followed by your initial contact person’s name. This signifies that this person has been sent a copy of this letter, so remember to do so.
Type the word “Enclosure” if you have enclosed your resume or other documents.
5.3.4. Follow-up Letter after an Initial Contact
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