Sentence Structure of

Technical Writing

Nicole Kelley Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies @ MIT 2.671, Fall 2006

Lecture materials derived from The Craft of Scientific Writing © Michael Alley and “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan

“The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind.”

--George Gopen and Judith Swan

The Science of Scientific Writing

Good Tech Writers Practice

• Planning

• Clarity

• Brevity

• Simplicity

• Word Choice

• Active Voice

• Committing to Writing as a Process

Planning/ Rethinking




Planning: Before You Begin

Identify your audience and their expectations

Know your purpose Know your material

Understand the writing task at hand

Organize your thoughts and materials

Budget adequate time to write, review, revise and edit


Clarity: Avoid Jargon

• Jargon: a vocabulary particular to a place of work (abbreviations, slang)

• Audience familiarity with the topic determines appropriate use of jargon

Ex. 1: For the first year, the links with SDPC and the HAC were not connected, and all required OCS input data were artificially loaded. Thus CATCH22 and MERWIN were not available.

Ex. 2: Because some of the links in the computer system were not connected the first year, we could not run all the software codes.


Clarity: Define the Unfamiliar

• If you must abbreviate, define the term in its first occurrence, and put abbreviations in parentheses

Ex: Edgartown Great Pond (EGP) is a vital body of water. Unfortunately, due to an unpredictable influx of saltwater, the delicate ecosystem is in danger of destabilizing.

• Italicize first occurrence of unfamiliar terms and define them right away

Ex: Retina is a light-sensitive tissue, found at the back of the eye, that converts light impulses to nerve impulses.


Brevity: Use Words Efficiently

• Never use two words when one word will do.

Ex. 1: The relationship between the nature of salt water to fresh water in the Edgartown Great Pond that fluctuates often is extremely important to everyone including scientists, residents, and environmentalists on Martha’s Vineyard.

Ex. 2: The fluctuating salinity of EGP concerns many environmentalists, scientists, and residents.


Brevity: Less Is More

• Pare your language down to the essential message you want to get across to your readers:

Ex: Earthquakes can occur at predictable intervals along a given fault segment. Depending on the length and slip in each mainshock, the exact interval can vary by a factor of two. The southern segment of the San Andreas fault has an interval of 145 years, plus or minus a few decades.


Brevity: Most Important First

• Place key information in the main clause

Ex. 1: Despite winning the game, the Patriots made several errors in the first half.

Ex. 2: Despite making several errors in the first half, the Patriots won the game.

Ex. 3: The Patriots won the game, despite making several errors in the first half.


Brevity: Remove Redundancy

• Combine overlapping sentences when possible

Ex. 1: Water quality in Hawk River declined in March. This decline occurred because of the heavy rainfall that month. All the extra water overloaded Tomlin county’s water treatment plant.

Ex. 2: Water quality in Hawk River declined in March because heavy rainfalls overloaded Tomlin County water treatment plant.