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Technical Writing: Descriptions and Definitions

  • Technical Writing
    • Definitions
    • Descriptions
      • Specifications
      • Patent applications
      • Field Notes
      • Observation

  • Definitions and Descriptions
    • Closely related
    • Can appear in any part of a document
    • May stand alone
    • Descriptions supported by definitions
      • Emphasize physical details

    • Definitions:
      • How often?
      • Where?
      • Format?
      • How much information is enough?

      • Choose format and location
        • Based on readers’ needs

    • Definition Guidelines
      • 1. Keep it simple and unobtrusive
        • Informal, formal, expanded
      • 2. Informal definitions for simple terms
        • Word, synonym or brief phrase, often parenthetical

      • 3. Formal definitions for complex terms
        • Full sentence that includes:
          • (1) The term being defined: financial statement
          • (2) Its class: a historical report about a business
          • (3) Distinguishing features: prepared by accountants to provide information for making economic decisions, particularly by owners and creditors

        • Three important points:
          • (1) Terms used must not be confusing
            • May need to define those terms
          • (2) Long definitions may be distracting
          • (3) Class (or group) must be narrow so you don’t have to list too many distinguishing features

      • 4. ABC Format for expanded definitions
        • Abstract, Body, Conclusion
          • Abstract: Brief overview
            • Include a formal definition
            • Describe ways you will expand that definition
          • Body: Supporting information
            • Formatted with headings and lists
          • Conclusion: Brief reminder of relevance to whole document

        • Expanding a definition
          • Background or history of term
            • E.g.: boson = Any subatomic particle, such as a proton, that obeys Bose-Einstein statistics
    • “First, a little bit of background info:

      “Physicists believe that the entire universe is made up of only a handful of different particles. So everything from lightning bolts to your fingertips are made up of at least one of those particles (usually a couple of them). This is called the Standard Model. Scientists are proud to say that they’ve discovered all of these particles except for one.

      “Yep, you’ve guessed it. Except for the Higgs boson.”

      • Explanation of how the term is applied in the context of your document

      • List of parts

      • Graphics

      • Comparison / contrast of familiar or related terms

        “At this point, you may be thinking: ‘How did they know the Higgs boson existed if they hadn’t found it yet?’

        “Well, to explain this, let’s use a really basic example....


        “Imagine our solar system.... Before our planet Neptune was discovered, scientists still knew it existed. All they had to do was watch the neighboring planet Uranus and see how it moved. They noticed that its orbit was a little strange at some points. Based on this, they knew some other planet was there affecting Uranus.

        “Similarly, physicists watch particles and see how the mass (this is almost like 'weight') works. They realized that there has to be some other particle helping out with this, so they predicted that the Higgs boson exists.”

        • Explanation of underlying basic principles

        “Scientists know that all of the matter just doesn’t stay put. There is something that happens when the stuff around it gets ‘excited’ and they believe this to be the Higgs boson.”

        from Explain It Like I'm Five, http://tutorsu.com/ELI5/

        • Example

        • 5. Choose the right location
          • Short: In main text
          • Long: Footnotes, endnotes, appendices
          • Consider importance
            • 1. Same sentence
            • 2. Separate sentence, immediately following term
            • 3. In a footnote
            • 4. In a glossary at beginning or end of document
            • 5. In an appendix

    • Technical Description
      • Detailed account of objects, places or processes
      • Process description: a statement that tells you how something works
      • Appears in almost every technical document

    • Basic features of a description
      • A variation of the short report designed to convey how a chnage takes place through a series of stages.
        • Specific and precise title
        • Introduction
        • Description of features, functions or stages of a process
          • Third person
          • Not instructions

    • Descriptions Guidelines
      • 1. Consider readers’ needs
        • Purpose of the description
          • Formulate an objective for your audience
        • Determine facts, details

      • 2. Accurate & objective
        • Pay attention to details
        • Objective
          • Opinions based on your professional background
          • Opinions can be justified within the description
          • Opinions can be supported by the details

      • 3. Organization plan
        • Usually parts of documents
          • Must be able to stand alone
          • May be excerpted
        • Move from general to specific
          • Description of the parts
          • Description of the functions (how things work)
          • Description of the sequence
            • Describe each stage in order

      • 4. Use graphics and analogies
      • 5. Put description to the visualizing test
        • Get someone unfamiliar with the material to draw a rough sketch of the object or events while listening to your description.

    • Assignment 2: Describe a technical process
      • Choose a process used by professionals in your major.
      • Complete the audience analysis, focusing on their knowledge level and attitude toward your process
      • Based on the audience analysis, write a 400-word description of the process in plain English.
        • Include at least one definition.
      • Bring to class on Friday, Sept. 21 for visualization test.
      • You will expand the description later to either an explanation or instructions.