The Quick and Easy Guide to
What Is a Technical Description?
A technical description is text that describes an object or process in
terms of its function, organization, parts and details. It is the fundamental
"building block" of technical documentation. A technical description can
be used alone (e.g., a specification) or as part of a larger document (e.g.,
a proposal). Often technical documents contain several technical descriptions.
Typically, a technical description follows a pattern. First, the writer
names the object or process and describes its function. Second, the writer
gives an overview of the object or process, including its size, parts (with
organization of those parts) and other relevent descriptors. Finally, the
writer details each significant component, providing explanations, locations
and physical descriptions of each component.
A technical description may be short, only a few lines long, or it may
be many pages long, giving details on size, shape, color, material, etc.
for multiple components. The writer must determine which elements of a
description to emphasize. Visuals are usually included to help the reader
understand both the object/process as a whole and its significant elements.
Definitions, analogies, and familiar terms or jargon may be used to help
If these examples seem too technical or long, consider the paragraphs above
a technical description. (Guess what?)
What Is the Difference Between
a Description and a Summary?
Often writers (and readers) confuse descriptions with summaries. Descriptions
focus on structures and characteristics of things (products, organizations,
processes), usually in the present tense. Summaries focus on what has or
will be done to those things. In other words, if you write about how any
equipment request is processed within an organization, you are writing
a description. But if you write about how a particular equipment request,
or batch of requests, has progressed through the system, then you are writing
Are Technical Descriptions the Same
as Technical Definitions?
Descriptions and definitions may seem similar, but they actually function
very differently. Descriptions are used to specify and characterize. Definitions
are used to classify and catagorize. While descriptions detail a particular
object or process, definitions are used to group an object or process (or
term) with other like objects or processes (or terms) based on shared qualities.
However, definitions are often used in technical descriptions. (For further
discussion of technical definitions, see the Quick
and Easy Guide to Definitions.)
What Are the "Tricks" to Writing
Good Technical Descriptions?
Good, basic writing skills and techniques will take you a long way in any
technical writing. But there are some key concerns when writing a technical
Write to the Audience. Your choice of language (technical level,
use of jargon and acronyms, etc.) is important to your description being
readable and accepted. A high level of technical expertise in the reader
means you must include more detail, including references and "back matter",
and you must use industry accepted jargon and acronyms. A lower level of
expertise means you must balance required technical information with definitions
(e.g., a glossary) and illustrations. In either case, you must estimate
how much information the reader wants and needs.
Don't Overload the Description with Details. The reader wants details
on the product or process; that's why they are reading your description.
But you should eliminate any extraneous language or unnecessary details.
Again, audience analysis will be necessary to determine what is required
and what may be edited out.
Make It Readable. Technical descriptions are usually objective (meaning
dry), and the reader is looking for particular information. By using good
technical writing techniques, you will be helping the reader to use your
document. Keep organization simple, with good use of textual pointers and
"chunking" information into logical and easily seen paragraphs. Keep terminology
and style consistent. Avoid overusing lists. Include graphics when appropriate.
Proofread and Edit. If you can test your description on a sample
audience, do it. If not, try to read through your drafts as if you were
the targeted reader. Then, edit and rewrite for effectiveness.
The technical description is at the core of all technical documentation.
Once you are able to write effective descriptions, your proposals, instructions,
specifications and marketing materials will also become more effective.
Technical descriptions also demand and develop strong technical writing