What Is Technical Writing?

Writing a class, training course, reference, or explanatory material? Learn about technical writing!

Are you writing a class, training course, reference, or explanatory material? Use these tips to put together a good definition of a concept, term, or word.

**Describe the word in broad terms, as a part of a category of larger items. For example, "the foot is a part of the body," or, "Love is an emotion."

**Describe what distinguishes that term, concept, or word from others in its category. "Feet are appendages, attached to the ends of legs of mammals, birds, and some reptiles and amphibians. They support the weight of such animals when ambulatory or stationary."

**Describe pertinent general characteristics of the item, even if does not apply to all situations. If a characteristic does not apply in all situations, be clear about when it does apply. For example, "The feet of many mammals may have hair."

**Use discretion. You may know something interesting about a term, but that something may not contribute to learners' understanding. "John Doe really likes feet," may contribute to your audience's understanding of what makes John Doe tick, but not of the foot concept itself.

**Describe subtypes of a word whenever possible. If you are defining the term "facial expression", you could list types of facial expressions, such as smiles, frowns, and grimaces.

**Where appropriate, and where format and style guidelines apply, offer pictures, illustrations, and diagrams.

**Offer an example of the term in one or more sentences, so that the readers can view it in context.

**Offer synonyms, that is, words or phrases that have a similar meaning. Where appropriate, state how the usage of the term and its synonyms may vary. Similarly, offer antonyms.

**Avoid using a form of the word or words you are defining in their definitions. This is called a recursive definition. Stating that "a waitress is a person who waits on you" isn't going to help people understand the word. Worse, recursive definitions may actually mislead an audience.

**When offered the choice of using a longer more obscure word or a simpler one in a definition, use the simpler one.

**Consider your audience. If your definition uses jargon, or terms that assume a specialized background or knowledge, know whether your audience is likely to know the jargon. If they do not, reduce its usage and offer definitions of the jargon terminology in your list of terms.

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