As a technical writer, your credibility is paramount. You know you must do whatever you need to to protect it. Hence the importance of ensuring your writing is appropriate to your readers, accurate, clear, and as easy as possible for your readers to follow your argument and come to the same conclusion.
Technical writing covers a wide range of activities: this article will particularly help report writers. Please bear in mind that this article is about writing traps, not the content.
Not surprisingly, the number one trap to avoid is plagiarism.
- Plagiarism, ‘the appropriation or imitation of another’s ideas and manner of expressing them, to be passed off as one’s own’, is never acceptable. It’s just not worth doing, and has consequences.
- Copyright infringement will tarnish your professional credibility and authority. Copyright, ‘the exclusive right, granted by law for a certain term of years, to make and dispose of copies of, and otherwise to control, a literary, musical, dramatic or artistic work’, protects creators from unauthorised copying of all or a substantial part of their work. Copyright laws differ between nations, so make sure you understand what the law in your country allows you to do. If you need to have permission from the author, do it – don’t just hope you’ll get away with it.
- Failure to acknowledge the sources of related material you’ve used will, at the very least, lessen the respect of your colleagues. And remember to check that your citations are correct, and written correctly – right down to the use of commas and full stops. Always refer to your style guide if you need to refresh your memory.
- Using generalisations can lead to readers questioning your authority. Phrases like ‘everyone knows’, ‘we all know’, ‘research suggests’ are best avoided as they can cause readers to wonder if you really do know what you’re saying.
- Lack of consideration of ease of reading can make the task of reading your technical information that much harder. Generally, your readers dislike (among other things) large chunks of text or overcrowding of the page; spelling, grammar or punctuation mistakes; lots of words when a graph, table or illustration could tell your story more easily; lack of headings or other techniques (table of contents, bolding of key words, bullet or numbered lists) to guide them through your document; use of jargon or technical terms that aren’t adequately explained; lack of consistency in paragraph spacing, caption style, use of shortened forms, font selections, etc.
Having written your report, it’s time to check that you’ve not fallen into any of these traps. Reread, and, if necessary, rewrite, add missing citations, alter the layout. Ask a colleague to review it. Ask someone who’s not been involved with the project if they have any difficulties reading and understanding your report. Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation; review consistency.
And if you can afford it, hire an editor to give it its final polish.
Then be confident that your professionalism and credibility have not been lessened by your writing.
Definitions of ‘plagiarism’ and ‘copyright’ from The Macquarie Concise Dictionary, third edition, The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1998.