Writing Technical Descriptions

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  • 0:01 Descriptions at Work
  • 1:37 Writing Short Descriptions
  • 3:05 Writing Long Descriptions
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Descriptions are valuable for identifying the physical features of a product. This video explains the elements of good descriptions and shows you how to write them.

Descriptions at Work

It's green and approximately eight feet tall. It has a cone shape with small branches sticking out. It's often decorated with lights and colored balls. Have you figured out what it is yet? If you guessed a Christmas tree, then you understand the value of a description.

Descriptions are explanations of the physical qualities of an item. This might include the size, color, weight, height, shape, or texture of the item. Descriptions are not definitions. Definitions explain the purpose of an item or how it functions, while descriptions detail how the item looks, feels, or what it's made of. For example, if you were writing a product description for a new cell phone, which sentence would be best:

A cell phone is a portable electronic device used to communicate with others.

Or, The new Call-All cell phone is four inches long, three inches wide, and half an inch thick with a flat screen on the front and an on/off button on the side.

The first sentence explains the function or purpose of the cell phone, but it doesn't provide a description of how the phone looks. The second sentence provides the size and physical features of the phone, which is what a description should do, so the second sentence is the best choice.

Technical writing uses descriptions to recreate workplace accidents, design new devices, and instruct customers on the features of a product. A description might be a short sentence or paragraph within a document, or may encompass an entire section of a document, depending on the purpose of your writing.

Writing Short Descriptions

When writing short descriptions, it's best to start by identifying the object that will be described. This may seem obvious, but you want to make sure that your reader knows the term you plan to use when referring to a particular item, especially if you are creating a new product.

Next, provide any background information that the audience may need to know to understand your description. This bit of information is only necessary if your audience is unfamiliar with the item being described. You may need to explain what the item does or how it is used. Don't bog down the reader with too much information here. Simply provide enough information to help the reader understand what it is you are describing.

Finally, explain the physical characteristics of the item. For more detailed descriptions, you can divide the item into parts and describe each section. For example:

The Celarm has two parts - a traditional cell phone and a light alarm. The cell phone is black and approximately eight ounces in weight. It provides the battery power needed to run the alarm. The alarm is two inches in diameter and flashes a red light when its stress-sensing technology notices a change in voice inflection, heart rate, or body heat.

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