SOME GUIDELINES ON TECHNICAL WRITING
James R. Wilson
Department of Industrial Engineering
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7906
(January 21, 2004)
As an aid to students who seek to improve the readability of their reports, theses, dissertations, conference papers, and archival journal articles, this note summarizes some useful guidelines on technical writing, including key references on each topic that is discussed. The latest version of this document is also available via
on the web. Questions and comments on these guidelines are welcome.
I. Organizing the paper (what to do before beginning to write)
A. Analyze the situation-that is, the problem, the solution, and the target audience.
1. Formulate the objectives of the paper.
2. Specify the scope of the paper's coverage of the subject and the results to be discussed.
3. Identify the target audience
and determine the background knowledge that you can assume for this particular
group of readers.
4. Formulate the most logical sequence for presenting the information specified in item 2 to the readers identified in item 3. For a discussion of effective aids in organizing your paper (specifically, brainstorming, clustering, concept maps, issue trees, and outlining), see pages 53-59 of Matthews, Bowen, and Matthews (2000) In structuring your presentation, keep the following points in mind.
a. Theses and dissertations should document completely the work that you have done. The target audience consists of interested graduate students, faculty, and other research workers who can be assumed to have advanced graduate-level training in the subject under discussion. For general guidance on writing theses and dissertations, see Turabian (1996).
b. Proceedings papers and archival journal articles should be focused on the results of your research that are of general interest. The abstract and introduction should be accessible to readers with an undergraduate-level background in the subject. For methodological or theoretical articles, substantially more advanced background may be assumed in the sections following the introduction. Case studies and application articles should be accessible to a broad range of practitioners, and such articles should emphasize lessons of transferable value. For general guidance on writing archival journal articles, see Carter (1987) or Day (1994).
B. Make a detailed outline, and use it as the basis for the formal presentation of your work. See chapter 1 of Menzel, Jones, and Boyd (1961) or pages 57-59 of Matthews, Bowen, and Matthews (2000) for an excellent discussion of the construction and use of a detailed outline.
1. The introductory paragraph(s)
a. State the precise subject of the paper immediately.
b. State the problem to be solved.
c. Summarize briefly the main
results and conclusions.
d. Tell the reader how the paper is organized.
2. The main body of the paper
a. Include enough detail in the main body of the paper so that the reader can understand what you did and how you did it.
b. Include a brief section
covering notation, background information, and key assumptions if it is awkward
to incorporate these items into the introductory paragraph(s).
c. Include sections on theoretical
and experimental methods as required. In documenting an application or case
study, you should discuss the development of any relevant analytical or
numerical (computer-based) model(s)-including input data acquisition together
with design, validation, and actual use of the final model(s). For a methodological
or theoretical paper that requires substantial mathematical development, see
Higham (1998), Swanson (1999), Krantz (1998), section 2 of A Manual for
Authors of Mathematical Papers (American Mathematical Society 1984), or
pages 19-48 of Steenrod et al. (1973).
d. Plan the results section to achieve the most effective mix of text, figures, and tables in the presentation of the findings. The definitive reference on the design of tables and figures is Tufte (1983).
3. The concluding paragraph(s)
a. Explain how the theoretical and experimental results relate to the original problem. State why these results are important.
b. State the final conclusions explicitly in plain language.
II. Writing the paper
A. Prepare an abstract that is concise, complete in itself, and intelligible to a general reader in the relevant field. The abstract should not exceed 200 words, and it should not contain any references or mathematical symbols.
1. Summarize the objectives of the paper.
2. Summarize the results and
3. State the basic principles
underlying any new theoretical or experimental methods that are developed in
4. For complete instructions on the preparation of scientific abstracts, see Guidelines for Abstracts (National Information Standards Organization 1997), pages 91-93 of Carter (1987), page 5 of the AIP Style Manual (American Institute of Physics 1990), or chapter 6 of Day (1994).
B. Write the rest of the paper as though you were talking to a group of interested colleagues about your work.
1. Strive for accuracy and clarity above all else.
2. In constructing each sentence, place old and new information in the respective positions where readers generally expect to find these types of information. For an excellent discussion of the principles of scientific writing based on reader expectations, see Gopen and Swan (1990), Williams (1990), and Williams (1994).
a. Place in the topic position (that is, at the beginning of the sentence) the old information linking backward to the previous discussion.
b. Place in the stress position
(that is, at the end of the sentence) the new information you want to
c. Place the subject of the
sentence in the topic position, and follow the subject with the verb as soon as
d. Express the action of each sentence in its verb.
3. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
a. Begin each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes the topic to be discussed or with a sentence that helps the transition from the previous paragraph.
b. Provide a context for the
discussion before asking the reader to consider new information.
c. Avoid paragraphs of extreme
length-that is, one-sentence paragraphs and those exceeding 200 words.
d. Place the important conclusions in the stress position at the end of the paragraph.
4. Allocate space to a topic in proportion to its relative importance.
5. For methodological and
theoretical papers, emphasize the concepts of general applicability that
underlie the solution procedure rather than the technical details that are
specific to the problem. Supply only the technical details and data that are
essential to the development.
6. In documenting applications,
emphasize the new insights into the problem that you gained from the study.
7. Use standard technical terms correctly.
a. For standard usage of industrial engineering terms, see Industrial Engineering Terminology (Engineering and Management Press 2000). For example, the time that a workpiece spends in a manufacturing cell may be called "cycle time" or "flow time" but not "throughput time."
b. For standard usage of
mathematical terms, see James and James (1992). For example, a nonsquare matrix
cannot be called "orthogonal" even if any two distinct columns of
that matrix are orthogonal vectors.
c. For standard usage of
statistical terms, see Marriott (1990) and Upton and Cook (2002). For example,
the probability density function of a continuous random variable may be called
a "density" but not a "probability distribution function"
or a "probability function."
d. For standard usage of computer terms, see Freedman (2001), Microsoft Computer Dictionary (2002), and Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (1998).
8. Avoid illogical or potentially offensive sexist language. See Miller and Swift (1988) for a commonsense approach to this issue.
9. Avoid strictly the following-
a. religious, ethnic, or political references;
b. personal attacks;
c. excessive claims about the
value or general applicability of your work; and
d. pointed criticism of the work of other people.
Such language has no place in scholarly discourse under any circumstances.
C. For each table, compose a caption that briefly summarizes the content of the table. Comment explicitly in the text on the significance of the numbers in the table; do not force the reader to guess at your conclusions. See chapter 13 of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press 2003) or chapter 13 of Day (1994) for a comprehensive discussion of how to handle tables.
D. For each figure, compose a
caption (or legend) that explains every detail in the figure-every curve,
point, and symbol. See the AIP Style Manual (American Institute of
Physics 1990) or chapter 14 of Day (1994) for excellent examples.
E. Revise and rewrite until the truth and clarity of every sentence are unquestionable.
1. For questions about the rules of English grammar and usage, see Bernstein (1965), Fowler (1996), Hale (1999), Fowler and Aaron (1998), O'Conner (1996), Strunk and White (2000), and Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (1976).
2. For those who use English as a
second language, particularly helpful references are Booth (1993), Fowler and
Aaron (1998), and Huckin and Olsen (1991).
3. For guidelines on how to edit your own writing effectively, see Cook (1985).
F. Prepare a complete and accurate set of references that gives adequate credit to the prior work upon which your paper is based.
1. For papers in the mathematical and physical sciences, in some biological sciences, and in most areas of engineering, the author-date system of documentation is strongly recommended. Chapters 16 and 17 of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press 2003) provide comprehensive, up-to-date information on this citation system.
2. For papers in psychology and
related fields, use the version of the author-date system detailed in
§§ 3.94-3.103 and chapter 4 of the Publication Manual of the
American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association
3. Comprehensive bibliographic formats for citing various types of electronic information can be found in the document
on the World Wide Web. Another key reference on citing electronic documents is The Columbia Guide to Online Style (Walker and Taylor 1998), which is regularly updated at
on the web. See also pages 208-214 of Dodd (1997). For papers in psychology and related fields, see
on the web.
4. Completeness, accuracy, and consistency of your references are more important than strict adherence to a particular citation system. Using the information provided in your list of references, the interested reader should be able to locate each document that you cite in your paper.
G. To ensure that a thesis or dissertation conforms to the university's requirements for format and organization, consult the Thesis and Dissertation Guide (North Carolina State University 1994). This pamphlet can be purchased from the NCSU Bookstore, and it is also available via
on the web. Information on preparation and submission of electronic theses and dissertations is available via
on the web.
III. Achieving a natural and effective style
A. Strunk and White (2000) succinctly express the gist of the matter of writing style:
Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, "Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." ... Style is the writer.
Zinsser (1998) is another definitive reference on good writing.
B. Contrast the following descriptions of an experiment in optics:
1. I procured a triangular glass prism, to try therewith the celebrated phenomena of colors. And for that purpose, having darkened my laboratory, and made a small hole in my window shade, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun's light, I placed my prism at the entrance, that the light might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing diversion to view the vivid and intense colors produced thereby.
2. For the purpose of investigating the celebrated phenomena of chromatic refrangibility, a triangular glass prism was procured. After darkening the laboratory and making a small aperture in an otherwise opaque window covering in order to ensure that the optimum quantity of visible electromagnetic radiation (VER) would be admitted from solar sources, the prism was placed in front of the aperture for the purpose of reflecting the VER to the wall on the opposite side of the room. It was found initially that due to the vivid and intense colors which were produced by this experimental apparatus, the overall effect was aesthetically satisfactory when viewed by the eye.
The most striking difference between
these two accounts of the experiment is the impersonal tone of the second
version. According to version 2, literally nobody performed the experiment.
Attempting to avoid the first person, the author of version 2 adopted the third
person; this in turn forced the author to use passive verbs. As Menzel, Jones,
and Boyd (1961) point out, "Passive verbs increase the probability of
mistakes in grammar; they start long trains of prepositional phrases; they
foster circumlocution; and they encourage vagueness." Notice the dangling
constructions in the second sentence of version 2. Isaac Newton (1672) wrote
version 1. Even though it was written over 325 years ago,
C. To achieve a natural and effective writing style, you should adhere to the following principles that are elaborated in chapter 5 of Menzel, Jones, and Boyd (1961):
1. Write simply.
2. Use the active voice.
3. Use plain English words rather
than nonstandard technical jargon or foreign phrases.
4. Use standard technical terms
5. Avoid long sentences and
extremely long (or short) paragraphs.
6. Avoid slavish adherence to any
set of rules for technical writing, including the rules enumerated here.
7. Remember that the main objective is to communicate your ideas clearly to your audience.
These guidelines are based on a similar paper that was originally written by James O. Henriksen, Stephen D. Roberts, and James R. Wilson for the Proceedings of the 1986 Winter Simulation Conference and that has been updated for each Winter Simulation Conference since 1992.
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