How to Use Definitions in Technical Writing

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  • 0:00 Technical Words in…
  • 0:53 Quick Reference
  • 1:58 In Text
  • 3:08 Glossary
  • 3:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Technical writing often has a number of rather technical terms to go along with it, but that doesn't mean they have to slow down the pace of a document. In this lesson, we look at how to add definitions to technical writing.

Technical Words in Technical Writing

One of the great things about technical writing is that it doesn't have a lot of overdone, flowery language. Let's face it, you'll never have to look up what a jonquil is when you're dealing with technical writing. Well, you won't need to know what one is unless, of course, you are involved in flowers, as a jonquil is a type of daffodil. Anyway, that actually makes a great point - while the writing itself is clear and concise, terms that only insiders are able to make any sense of, otherwise known as jargon, do have a tendency to slip in. While this sort of thing is often fine for informal reports between members of the same department, any writing that requires someone who is not an insider to read it will result in decreased efficiency. As such, it is very important to define words in technical writing. In this lesson, we'll take a look at many of the ways to do it effectively.

Quick Reference

If you open many how-do guides, you'll often find a quick reference guide of sorts even before the title page. This quick reference sheet defines some of the more useful or basic concepts used throughout the document, allowing new users to constantly reference back to a single piece. This is also true in the case of abbreviations. In fact, many works of historiography, the technical writing of history, have pages of abbreviations at the beginning too, as to allow people to flip back to check unfamiliar abbreviations. However, it's not just historians or computer engineers who would need such quick access. From documents used at the United Nations to guidelines for a new school's discipline policy, many types of technical writing make abundant use of a quick reference sheet early in the text. Quick reference sheets are useful for documents of any size, but it is important to make sure that the emphasis is still on the document, not the quick reference sheet. A 1-page memo should not have a 2-page quick reference sheet, for instance.

In Text

But what about the text itself? After all, the best technical writing should read pretty cleanly. However, that clarity completely disappears when readers face a number of unfamiliar words. As such, it is also common practice to insert in-text definitions. This could be as simple as setting the definition off from the main flow of the text with an appositive, a quick aside typically contained within commas. For paragraphs with only a few technical terms separated into different sentences, appositives will often suffice in providing definitions. Also, it may be important to bold, underline, or italicize the relevant word to further set it apart.

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