Help readers navigate long-form technical writing

Some engineering reports for clients are a few pages long, while others extend to 50 pages or longer. With long-form technical writing, most readers don’t have time to read the whole thing from beginning to end. And even if they do, it won’t be in one sitting. How do you help your reader find what he is looking for?

Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration: John Tenniel. Shutterstock image.

Consider your reader

Who is your reader? Is she a technical expert or a business person? Does she have an advanced degree or an MBA? How familiar is she with the topic of your report?

How is the reader going to use your report? Is he an attorney who will use your findings to defend his client? An engineer who will use your plans and specifications to manufacture the product you designed? A surgeon who will insert your medical device into her patients?

These questions can help you determine what to say, how to say it, and how to organize the information. They can also guide you in deciding what goes into the main body of the report and what belongs in an appendix. The more you look at it from the reader’s point of view, the more useful your report will be.

Most long-form technical writing has a mixed readership—that is, different people who have different needs. For example, the executive may need just enough information to decide whether to implement the project and how much money to allocate to it. On the other hand, the engineer will need specific technical information about how to manufacture the product and what materials to use. The technician may need more focused directions on how to test the product. None of them has time to read the whole report. How do you accommodate all of them?

Signposts for your reader

Keep in mind that most people read long-form technical writing like a dictionary, not a novel. That is, they’ll look up the information they want and start there. It’s your job as the writer to make sure they can find the information easily.

Appropriate section headers provide “signposts” to help your reader navigate the report. Number the main sections (1.0, 2.0, 3.0…) and subsections (1.1, 1.2, 1.3…). Think of them as addresses for each topic so you can direct your reader to relevant information in other sections. Vague descriptors such as “above” or “previously” are of no help to the reader. It’s not necessary to give the title of that section when you refer to it; the number is sufficient. Keep sections short so the reader doesn’t have to scroll very far to find what he’s looking for.

Include information most readers will want in the main body of the report and put specialized details in an appendix. Make sure to call out every appendix somewhere in the report.

Structural paragraphs and topic sentences

Long-form technical writing is a lot easier to follow if there’s a structural paragraph at the beginning of every main section (1.0, 2.0, 3.0…). The structural paragraph serves to introduce that section. It sets the context by summarizing the main points of preceding sections that the reader will need to understand what comes next. It may discuss the organization of the section or (for section 1.0) the whole report, and it can refer the reader to other sections for more details on specific topics. By serving as a transition from the preceding material, it helps connect the sections of the report.

Each paragraph needs a topic sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about. In technical writing, the topic sentence should be the first or second sentence of the paragraph. Don’t make the reader go all the way to the end to find out what the paragraph was about.

When writing, keep each paragraph focused on its topic. And keep the paragraphs short for better readability. Short sentences also aid in readability, as will tight editing.

The purpose of technical writing is to convey scientific information objectively, clearly and accurately. In long reports, the right organization and structure will help your reader find that information easily.