Technical Essay Format

There are many courses for which a student may have to complete a technical essay.  However, most students will have to write technical essays for mainly science-oriented courses, such as physics, mathematics, computer science, or similar.  A technical essay is a very distinct kind of assignment that requires students to not only understand how a particular "thing" works/operates/functions, but also be able to clearly and subjectively relay that knowledge to the reader.

A technical essay combines hard facts with a point-of-view.  Traditionally, essays are short, informal academic documents that allow students to express their opinions or points-of-view on a topic.  However, technical writing is a formal class of writing that's very straightforward.  When a student completes a technical document, he/she will avoid using adjectives and subjective viewpoints.  Technical documents may include manuals and instructions, for example.  Therefore, to combine technical writing with essay writing can be a challenge for many learners—and it's something that many learners have to practice in order to perfect.  

When completing a technical essay, students should begin by learning as much as possible about the topic.  For example, if a student needs to complete a technical essay on how to clear a gooseneck pipe under a bathroom sink, he/she must understand each step in great detail.  Students shouldn't simply regurgitate the steps that they need to take in order to perform an action successfully; they also should explain why.  

Many technical essays are effective because they not only explain how to do something, but they help readers to understand the significance of their actions.  Therefore, if a student is completing a technical essay about clearing a gooseneck pipe, he/she may want to also provide information about how pipes can get clogged, which materials work best to unclog them, how an entire piping system works with gases, and more.  

While it may be difficult for many learners to understand how to write technical essays, they should do their best to understand what elements make a technical essay different from other types of academic works.  While many other college works simply provide an opinion or point-of-view on a topic, a technical essay will provide instructions—or an in-depth explanation—of a topic, as well as the context of the topic.  Therefore, technical essays provide supporting material that relates to guidelines or instructions.

How to Write a Technical Report

Writing a technical report, which is also referred to as a "scientific report," involves completing a concise and clear report to convey technical information to the reader.  Remember, the primary purpose of a technical report is to share information.  Therefore, it should be as clear and easy to understand as possible.  At the same time, you should strive to make the report entertaining and stimulating so the reader isn't bored while reading it.  If you're unable to be both entertaining and informative, however, you should make being informative your top priority.

In order to guarantee that your technical report is informative you'll need to do a great deal of planning before you begin work.  In order to complete the pre-writing stage, you must first determine what the report will be about.  You will then arrange the key facts in a logical order that makes it easy for the reader to scan through the report if necessary.  At the same time, you should try to include the most important facts at the beginning of the technical report.  This way, the main ideas can be conveyed with just a few minutes of reading.

In addition to determining what you'll be writing about, you need to decide who your target audience will be.  The amount of explanation you'll need to include in your technical report will be dependent upon your intended audience.  If you're writing for other experts in the field, for example, you might not need to explain many things in your work because your readers will already understand much of the information you're sharing.  

Finally, you need to determine how long your technical reports need to be.  If you're writing the technical report for a class, this may have already been decided for you.  If not, you'll need to determine the length on your own.  Generally, it's actually more difficult to complete a shorter report than a long one.  This is because you'll need to be far more organized with a shorter technical report than with a longer one.

Once you're ready to write the report, your first section will be the introduction while the last section is the conclusion.  The conclusion should serve to answer the questions that you posed in your introduction.  Each of the sections, including the introduction and the conclusion, should be numbered.

Throughout the body of your technical report, you should refer often to the work that has been completed by other individuals in the field.  In addition, you shouldn't use informal language.  Rather, your technical report should be formal in nature and use impersonal language.  All of the factual materials and measurements included within the document should also be kept separate from interpretations and opinions included.

All of the sources used in the creation of the technical report must be properly cited.  After the report is completed, be sure to read through the report again in order to check for grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and errors in logic and flow.

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  • Just like a program, all "variables" (terminology and notation) in the paper should be defined before being used, and should be defined only once. (Exception: Sometimes after a long hiatus it's useful to remind the reader of a definition.) Global definitions should be grouped into the Preliminaries section; other definitions should be given just before their first use.
  • Do not use "etc." unless the remaining items are completely obvious.
    • Acceptable: We shall number the phases 1, 3, 5, 7, etc.
    • Unacceptable: We measure performance factors such as volatility, scalability, etc.

    (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once in this document. Find the violations.)

  • Never say "for various reasons". (Example: We decided not to consider the alternative, for various reasons.) Tell the reader the reasons!
  • Avoid nonreferential use of "this", "that", "these", "it", and so on (Ullman pet peeve). Requiring explicit identification of what "this" refers to enforces clarity of writing. Here is a typical example of nonreferential "this": Our experiments test several different environments and the algorithm does well in some but not all of them. This is important because ...

    (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once in this document. Find the violations.)

  • Italics are for definitions or quotes, not for emphasis (Gries pet peeve). Your writing should be constructed such that context alone provides sufficient emphasis.

    (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once in this document. Find the violations.)

  • People frequently use "which" versus "that" incorrectly. "That" is defining; "which" is nondefining. Examples of correct use:
    • The algorithms that are easy to implement all run in linear time.
    • The algorithms, which are easy to implement, all run in linear time.
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