Technical Writing and its ‘Hierarchy of Needs’

Technical writing is hard to do well and it’s also a bit different from other types of writing. While good technical writing has no strict definition I do think there is a kind of ‘hierarchy of needs’ that defines it. I’m not sure this is complete or perfect but I find categorizing to be useful.

L1 – Writing Clearly

The author writes in a way that accurately represents the information they want to convey. Sentences have a clear purpose. The structure of the text flows from point to point.

L2 – Explaining Well (Logos in rhetorical theory)

The author breaks their argument down into logical blocks that build on one another to make complex ideas easier to understand. When done well, this almost always involves (a) short, inline examples to ground abstract ideas and (b) a concise and logical flow through the argument which does not repeat other than for grammatical effect or flip-flop between points.

L3 – Style

The author uses different turns of phrase, switches in person, different grammatical structures, humor, etc. to make their writing more interesting to read. Good style keeps the reader engaged. You know it when you see it as the ideas flow more easily into your mind. Really good style even evokes an emotion of its own. By contrast, an author can write clearly and explain well, but in a way that feels monotonous or even boring.

L4 – Evoking Emotion (Pathos in rhetorical theory)

I think this is the most advanced and also the most powerful particularly where it inspires the reader to take action based on your words through an emotional argument. To take an example, Martin Kleppmann’s turning the database inside out inspired a whole generation of software engineers to rethink how they build systems. Tim or Kris’ humor works in a different but equally effective way. Other appeals include establishing a connection with the reader, grounding in a subculture that the author and reader belong to, establishing credibility (ethos), highlighting where they are missing out on (FOMO), influencing through knowing and opinionated command of the content. There are many more.

The use of pathos (sadly) doesn’t always imply logos, often there are logical fallacies used even in technical writing. Writing is so much more powerful if both are used together.

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Posted on February 2nd, 2022 in Blog, Uncategorized


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