Science and Technical Writing

Originally posted to SuiteU, part of Suite101. SuiteU is being removed from the site. I wanted to save the ecourses so this resource would not disappear.

Science & Tech Writing

By Melissa A. Nelson


The practice of Scientific and Technical communications has been around for years; however the fields are both considered new fields. While there have been writers writing about the latest scientific discoveries since Aristotle, and technology since before the printing press was invented, the fields were not given these names until just the last few decades. Due to the fact that the fields often intertwine, knowledge of what is expected to practice in both can be invaluable to anyone wishing to practice in either field.

The goal of a scientific or technical writer is to create communications that enable the reader to take some form of action, or to make important critical decisions based on the information the communication is relaying to them. Another goal, simply put, is to take something difficult to understand and make it easy to understand. Scientific and technical writers do not just communicate the information others give them; often times they help to create the information that they communicate.

A person who practices in either of these fields has a diverse arena in which they can practice their craft. It is important to remember that it is a craft, while you are not writing fiction-you are writing, and you have the opportunity for your style and talent to shine through whatever document you are producing. Whether you are producing pamphlets for a pharmaceutical company or documentation for software-while it has to follow certain standards-there is nothing saying it has to be boring. A writer writes and both the scientific and technical fields are a great place to do it.

The goal of this course is to help a prospective student decide if either scientific or technical writing is a career that they would like to pursue. This will be accomplished through the use of the text “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communication: Writing in Professional Context”, which is edited by Jean A. Lutz and C. Gilbert Storms.

The course will show the many arenas open to a scientific or technical writer by showing the various fields; what the role of a scientific or technical writer is in each of these fields; how one prepares to enter each of these fields; what additional education is necessary, and the prospects for a future in each of them. There will also be profiles of communicators in each of these fields to give a student a “hands-on” idea of what is really involved.

Through lessons and reading the student should leave the course with a strong feel for what is involved, and whether or not it is something they would really like to pursue. It is my hope that this course provides enough information to help them make an informed decision.


Lesson 1: Introduction and Business Communications

This first lesson will introduce you to what type of work you can expect to do as a scientific or technical communicator. You will need to read the introduction of Lutz & Storms’ “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communication. While reading this introduction pay specific attention to the “About the Profession” section.

Three Principles and the Roots of Scientific and Technical Communication

Lutz and Storms state on page vii of the introduction that what a technical or scientific writer does in general is “create communications that enable users to take action, make decisions, or learn new information.” As you continue through the course, keep this quote in mind; use it to decide the manner in which you feel you, as a scientific or technical communicator, would be able to achieve this goal.

This first lesson will be a short one, as you will just read the introduction in Lutz and Storms’ “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communications” pages vii- xvi. I will direct you through some questions and thoughts on what the authors are saying as you read it. It is up to you whether you would like to submit answers to these questions. They are meant to help you determine what about Scientific and Technical Communications most appeals to you.

Lutz and Storms discuss three priniciples that all technical and scientific communications have in common. These principles are important in helping one decide if they would like to be in these particular writing fields. These principles are found on page ix.

(1) The first principle they discuss is the diversity of these fields. You will discover through this course there are a variety of places that you may work as a scientific or technical communicator. As the course continues think about the various places you would like to work.

(2) The second principle, which is a very important one, is that scientific and technical communicators do not simply convey communication from other people; they often go out and research this information themselves. It is important to note that often this research will be the biggest part of your job. You will spend time with various people such as engineers, scientists, programmers, in research, not just writing what they tell you. Generally, you are part of a team, not just a lone writer. It is important to think about how well you work within a team, is this something you like? Or would you rather do your writing alone? (Which at times can also be done, especially with freelancing.)

(3) The third principle expounds upon the second one a bit, in that it states that technical and scientific writers work as part of a community. In deciding if this is a field for you, investigate the various communities that we will examine in this course. Could you see yourself in these fields? Throughout this course you will see that there are more traditional communities to work in; however, if you are not comfortable in this community, will your writing reflect it? Look at the writing you have done in your life; ask yourself how well you write about something that you are not familiar with? Many people can write about anything, are you one of these people? If so, the World is your oyster, if not choose your direction carefully. Hopefully, this course will help you in that choice.

Lutz and Storms go on to discuss the roots of Technical and Scientific Communications on page x in the section “Diversity and Growth in the Profession”.

In America these professions have their roots in the 17th century. Scientists at this time began writing treatises and detailed notes on what they were studying and their newest discoveries. These writings are the beginnings of technical and scientific writing in this country. Their audiences were doctors, clergy, and academics.

The American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society in England advanced the profession. They made writing a nearly required standard in order for ones discovery to be taken seriously. Standards for writing on discoveries and research were set by these Societies that are still in effect today.

The profession of the style of technical writing that is used today began during World War II. During this time the military had writers who wrote manuals explaining how to use all the new equipment that was developed during that war. During this time many of the technical writers were the engineers that brought the equipment about in the first place.

After reading this section think about what some of your definitions of early scientific and technical communications might be.


Lesson 1: Introduction and Business Communications

Creative Roles and Communities

In Lutz and Storms’ Introduction they discuss the creative role of a scientific or technical communicator and the communities in which they may be involved. They do this on pages xi-xiv.

Often people look at the genres of scientific and technical writing as the least creative forms of writing. This does not have to be true! While there are standards to follow, there is still room to let your creativity and your style show through your work. Remember throughout this course that writing is a craft. It does not matter how technical your writing may get and how strict the standards are that you have to adhere to; it is still your writing. It is your craft!

Lutz and Storms state on page xi that “early definitions of technical communication tended to portray it as an extension of pure or applied science, characterized not only by particular forms and subject matter but also by a certain style.” This style was an objective one. While it is still important to be objective, it is not always feasible to simply report what someone is saying without adding a little interpretation into it. This may be necessary to simply make it readable.

An example of this is some work I did for my brother-in-law who writes computer programs for mining companies. His programs are so technical, and his telling of what is to be done with them so technical, that unless you have a computer science degree, understanding it could be a problem. I do not have a computer science degree. I use his direction and take his words and write them for an audience of miners, and not computer scientists. While what I am doing is objective, it also requires changing what he is writing to suit a different audience than computer programmers. So while I remain objective, I am also throwing a little of my own style in the mix as well.

This is where your creativity as a technical writer comes into play. I suggest reading this section in the text and writing out some ways in which your own creativity can shine through – no matter what you write.

Communities: On page xii Lutz states that he has theorized “that technical and scientific communications takes place at the intersection of writers with several important groups to which they belong.” With this in mind there are at least four different communities that a scientific or technical writer may find themselves in at the same time.

(1) The discipline you are writing in, i.e., business, engineering, software development, etc.

(2) The organization who is employing you.

(3) The people whose communication you are writing, i.e. the engineer whose report you are writing, and

(4) The audience. Lutz and Storms take a look at each of these four communities on pages xiii and xiv. A good exercise would be to read these pages and think of who might belong in each of these audiences for something you would like to write, and how they would influence your writing.


Lesson 1: Introduction and Business Communications

Communications Types

Writing in the business arena is critical. Often times a well-written document can make or break an assignment. It can be the difference between getting an account and not getting it. A customer often makes a decision about an entire company’s competence, based on the competence of one letter. This is even more important in the world of electronic communications. A well-written email, even a short one, can say a lot about a company. This is why no matter what field you are thinking of going into; this may be the most important section of the course.

A technical writer in a corporation may wear many different hats. They may be expected to produce internal and external memos, as well as corporate publications. They may produce financial papers and human resource documents. They may be in charge of marketing. This could entail a variety of things from copywriting and editing to writing promotions and assisting in external and internal publications.

A technical writer may also produce the technical publications for a corporation. They may produce the manuals for a company’s software and other products. A technical writer may also be a corporation’s trainer and produce the documents needed to help instruct new employees on how to do their jobs; as well as produce training demonstrations. In most companies a technical writer would only provide some of the above services; however in a small company they may be called on to do most, if not all of them.

As an entry level technical writer you will most likely only be called upon to create written or perhaps web-based communications; or perhaps simply edit the work of others. As times goes on you may find yourself creating pamphlets, newsletters, websites, external reports, internal reports, software documentation etc. Eventually, you may find yourself in charge of a whole myriad of publications. It is important to understand the role of each of the various publications. This will help you determine if this is something you might be interested in, or if you have an aptitude for it.

Internal communications are those between people in a corporation, while external communications are those that they put out to the general population etc.

Internal communications have two functions: one can be to inform employees about changes in the corporation’s business and another can be to serve as a reminder of that company’s purpose. It may also serve a human resources function – to let the employees know of changes to their benefits, etc. Many entry level writers begin by doing internal communications. They will write company newsletters, training materials, report on meetings, and report on happenings outside the corporation that affect the corporation’s employees. They may even do Human Resources projects such as reporting on marriages, births, retirement etc. They may also report on business changes such as buy outs or new purchases. External communications are those aimed at people outside the company. These people may be anywhere in the world. A writer will often have to determine what to give his audience by where they are located. What a company reports to a local audience may be quite different than what they report to an international one.

External communications are incredibly important from a public relations point of view. These communications are often the calling card for a corporation; even the littlest detail may effect how the public views the company. A writer has to constantly take into account what image their company wants to put out into the public when they write an external communication.

With these two differences in mind. Think of a company that you know intimately and write both an internal memo and an internal technical report. It will help you to read the definitions on pages five and six.

There are three important types of communications a scientific or technical communicator will use, they are written, oral, and visual. It is important to understand the differences and how they compliment each other. There are courses that can help to prepare you to communicate better in each of these styles.

Written communication is obviously that which is recorded either on paper or more than likely a computer drive somewhere. It is important to be able to produce great written communications. There are many types of courses that can assist in preparing you to get more proficient and confident in your written communications. These courses are listed on pages eighteen and nineteen of the Lutz and Storms’ text and include courses in technical writing, business writing, public relations writing, report writing and rhetoric, among others. These courses may be specialized or introductory. Often times entire degrees are formed around particular types of written communications. For example, my degree from Michigan Technological University is a Bachelor of Arts in Scientific and Technical Communications, and their Masters program is in Rhetoric and Technical Communications.

Oral Communications are the spoken forms of communication. These are most likely to include interpersonal and public speaking. This is a form of communication that often goes hand in hand…or hand and mouth…with written communications. In many jobs as a technical writer you will be expected to give presentations on your communications. Courses to assist you with these skills are listed on page nineteen and include, public speaking, interpersonal communication (I recommend this course to anyone no matter what your major may be), intercultural communications, persuasion, forensics and debate.

Visual Communications are being integrated more and more into business every day. These courses are more than likely the ones to use computers and Internet applications. The list is on page 20 and includes courses in desktop publishing, graphic design, photography, filmmaking and video production. In getting my degree at M.T.U my two favorite courses were photography and video production. I also enjoyed my courses in Internet Communications, where I was able to get hands on experience in graphics and computer-aided animation.

As an assignment I suggest you read through the three lists and determine which courses would benefit you the most in each area and write a paragraph about why.

Questions to Consider:

(1) What are the various forms of communication and which do you prefer and which one is your least favorite to participate in?

(2) After reading through the chapter how do you feel you could prepare yourself to be a better communicator in a business setting?

(3) What do you feel is the most important role of a scientific or technical communicator is?

(4) Do you feel it is possible to be creative and yet remain true to the technical end of what you are communicating, and what ways to do you see to handle this tough balancing act?

Bibliography: Lutz, Jean A. & Storms, C.Gilbert “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communications: Writing in Professional Contexts” Introduction pages vii-xvi. Ablex Publishing, Stamford, Connecticut (1997) Pages 1-36 “Writing in Business and Manufacturing” By William J. Buchholz, Bentley College, Waltham Massachusetts.


Lesson 2: Career Paths

This lesson will introduce you to the various types of technical communications involved in various professional sectors. It will enable you to get a better prospective of where a technical writer may be employed.

Technicians and Managers

The time to shape your future career path is early in your career. In order to do this it is important to look at your strengths and weaknesses and proceed from there. A good exercise is to look at the chart on page fourteen, where the various possible positions one can hold as a technical or scientific writer in the business are listed, and pick the ones that interest you and write down how your strengths and weaknesses apply to each position.

The book talks about technicians and managers as being the typical beyond entry-level positions one might aspire to. It details the role a typical technician in a business environment might find themselves in. A typical technician may produce both external and internal communications. They may assist in promotional projects, document corporate news, write training manuals; as well as produce brochures and policy statements. There is room for creativity in each of these projects. While your supervisor will most likely have a format they wish the work to be done in, more than likely they will allow some creativity with the final product.

The Internet has grown so fast that nearly all corporations have a website, and a technical communicator may be responsible for it’s content. This is often the place where a technical communicator can really let their creativity shine through with icons, graphics, and logos that will make their corporations site unlike any other one. If you are interested in this field learn as much about Internet applications as possible, as it may the place where you really shine.

Manager: To be a manager you need to be more than simply great at your job, you need to have the ability to manage other people who are great at their jobs. It is important to have enough initiative and drive that it flows over to those who are working on your team.

A manager also has to be great at multi-tasking. They will usually have projects of their own they are working on, as well as supervising the projects others are working on. A manager also has to do a little psychological work in dealing with the communicators that he is managing. If you do not like their work, it is important to learn how to tell them in the most constructive manner possible. Think about how you feel when someone criticizes your work, and always keep that in the back of your mind when dealing with your subordinates.

A manager will generally have to deal with finances, tasks, and material as well as their team and their assignments. It is important to have great time management skills, as not only will you be making sure your projects get done on time, you will have to find time to supervise others and take care of the business end of things.

As a small exercise read through pages fifteen and sixteen and decide whether you are better suited as a technician or manager, write down your strengths and weaknesses in each category.

Lesson 2: Career Paths

Working with Engineers

A big area where many technical writers find work is in the engineering field. Writing is very important in this line of work and there is a big belief that engineers cannot write, (a belief I think that some of them perpetuate themselves). What an engineer sees often times needs to be communicated to a large audience. If the engineer does not feel comfortable writing; then a technical writer will usually communicate it for him or her.

In the engineering world a technical writer is often called an analyst. This is because they are expected to analyze information and then document it. They are often called either an information analyst or a documentation analyst. Often times they may be called a documentation engineer or information engineer. This is usually dependent on the amount of education the communicator has; often times they hold an engineering degree themselves. Other titles that a technical communicator may find work under in the engineering field are found on page 37 of Lutz and Storms’ book.

The employment outlook for technical communicators in the engineering field is pretty good right at the moment. It is expected to grow as the engineering field has had fairly steady growth even in a rocky economy. However, one trend that does seem promising in this area is that of technical communicators being employed as freelancers, consultants, and contract employees. Technical communicators come from a variety of backgrounds and find work in the engineering field. However, the most successful ones have a background in technology and an aptitude for technology. Many come from Universities with strong engineering and information technology programs. They also tend to have strong backgrounds in English and graphic design, learning CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs are also very beneficial to a technical communicator who is interested in working in an engineering firm. A background in math, computer science, and the physical sciences, such as chemistry, can also be very beneficial.

There are three things that anyone who wishes to communicate well in the engineering field needs to be fairly adept at. These are:

(1) They must have a strong ability to communicate even the most technical of material. Often time, this is information that you, yourself, may not have a firm grasp on.

(2) They have to be able to work well with engineers. Engineers are at times known for knowing what they want, but not communicating it well; that is where the technical communicator has to step in.

(3) They also have to be familiar and comfortable using a computer. This is because so much of what they will be communicating will be given to them on a computer.

The reading assignment for this lesson is Chapter 2 “Writing for Engineering Fields” by Marian G. Barchilon at Arizona State University (East) Mesa, Arizona. Pages 37-47. Read over this lesson and think about what characteristics you have that would allow you to work well with an engineer.


Lesson 2: Career Paths

Writing for the Environment

The fields many technical and scientific communicators are choosing are those involved with the environmental sciences. Lutz and Storms on page 61 of the text define environmental sciences as the “the discipline concerned with understanding and solving the problems caused by the interaction of natural and cultural resources”. On page 62 of Lutz and Storms, it states these can be grouped into two main categories “environmental protection and natural resources management.” Within these fields a technical or scientific writer can find employment as a technical writer or editor, a proposal writer, a community relations communicator, a grant writer, and a regulatory compliance specialist among others. A more complete list is available on page 61 of Lutz and Storms’ text.

The responsibility of the technical or scientific communicator in these fields, is to communicate what the public and others involved in the environmental sciences need to know. This information is often complicated. The main goal of the communicator is to translate it into laymen’s terms. Accuracy becomes a chief goal whenever translating information into simple terms; therefore, a communicator often times needs to check and double-check their information.

One of the biggest industries in this field is the government. Scientific and technical communicators are employed with many different federal agencies including Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and various other governmental departments. In these departments you will be responsible for all sort of forms of communication from drafting legislative proposals, to preparing informational pamphlets, to preparing environmental impact studies.

Industry and environmental organizations also hire technical and scientific communicators. In these fields a communicator may write documents requesting funding for environmental impact studies and various other grants from the government. It is helpful in these areas to have a background in grant writing. They may also do a lot of public relations work, either for the industry improving its environmental relations outlook, or for an environmental organization, promoting its cause!

The news media is another place that environmental science communicators may find employment. They may report on a variety of issues. They may be hired to explain an environmental problem, how an industry is affecting it, how the government is dealing with it, or how an environmental organization is reacting to it. There are many sides of an environmental issue to report on.

The reading for this section will be found in Chapter Four of Lutz and Storms’ text titled “Writing for the Environmental Sciences” by Melinda Thiessen Spencer, Independent Consultant, Olympia, Washington. This chapter runs from page 61 to page 91.


Lesson 2: Career Paths

Government and Not-For-Profit Agencies

On pages 211- 237 of Lutz and Storms’ text in the chapter titled “Writing for the Government and Non-profit Social Service Agencies”; Lisa Meeder Turnbull of the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, discusses what it is like to be a technical or science writer for non-profit and government agencies.

This is another one of the more non-traditional areas that a technical or science writer may find work in. This is an area where there are a large variety of positions available. By this I do not necessarily mean there are a lot of openings. What I do mean is that there are a variety of types of openings in which you may cater your training. For example, if you would like to work for a medical charity (March of Dimes or Muscular Dystrophy Association) then you would cater your training in the area of a medical writer. If you would like to write for the Cancer Society, you could cater it towards being a science writer if you are interested in their research division, or if you are interested in writing about how they are using their money to treat patients who already have cancer, you would cater your training towards medical writing.

One thing you might do for an agency is to help write for fund raising campaigns. In this case you might cater your training in the area of either business technical communications; or in the area of marketing technical communications. Depending on the target group, this could be a marketing project where you would write technical reports, business marketing, or even medical marketing. You may have to cater your training to any, or all of the above.

In government agencies you may do as much or more editing than you do writing. Therefore, you may have to cater your training more toward the editing end of things. You may be taking confidential documents and editing them so that they can be released to the public and your training would have to be catered toward that.

The employment outlook for both of these is fair, but the pay differs substantially with government agencies paying more than not for profit agencies. The one thing that not-for-profit agencies have to offer is a flexible schedule. This is something that can easily be done full time (if they can afford you), part-time or as a consultant (possibly freelance).

As you can tell, I mostly talked about the training for these fields. As an assignment for this section skim over the section by Turnbell and see if this is something that would interest you, if so write a small paragraph on how you would cater your training to whatever interests you.


Lesson 2: Career Paths

Freelancing AKA Consulting

Another area I would like to look at is freelancing, which is also called “consulting.” I put quotation marks around consulting due to the fact that so many things are called consulting now days, that you have to be careful using that term. Lutz and Storms also close out their text with an essay on freelancing titled “Freelancing or Consulting” on pages 265- 286. It is written by David N. Dobrin, who is a freelance technical writer from Cambridge Massachusetts.

Dobrin does not tell you what a freelance technical or science communicator does, that has been covered by now, and it depends entirely on what fields they take assignments in. Instead, Dobrin gives suggestions on how to set yourself up as a freelance technical or science writer. This is a good way to go in my opinion; therefore I will go over what he says and strongly suggest that if this interests you to read pages 265- 286. What I am going to do is concentrate on setting yourself up and how to find work. Dobrin also has sections on getting contracts and learning what you can and can’t do. I recommend reading these sections if nothing else.

To set yourself up as a freelance technical or science writer there are five basic things to do; these are:

(1) ADVERTISE. This can be in papers, make a website, check technical outsourcing websites, as well as websites that allow you to bid on work, list your website in your bids. If they are public bids, others will see your URL.

(2) CALL AROUND and attempt to make contact with OTHER FREELANCERS who may know of work but are too busy to do it themselves. They may also know of starting jobs that they may have done when they were starting out, but would not think of doing now.


(4) CALL COMPANIES THAT HIRE WRITERS. These companies may have temporary assignments or contract writing assignments that they need someone to come in and fill for them.

(5) LOOK IN TRADE JOURNALS or call UNIVERSITIES. They may know of assignments that need to be done.

It is also really important to decide what type of writing you would like to do. If you are going into medical writing, make contacts in the medical field, pharmaceutical writing, make contacts in the pharmaceutical field, if you want to write in the computer field…so on and so forth. Also, research the field you want to work in.

A great way to research a field is to do some work in it. Do not expect to go straight to freelancing. While this may happen occasionally, it is by no means the norm. Usually the ones who make a successful living at freelance writing have been out working in the industry for three to seven years, and even then it can be tough. If at all possible, take on some freelance assignments while working for a company; try to make a name for yourself before you go out completely on your own. The only assignment for this section is to say that when you are working, keep freelancing in mind and think about if it is something you would like to do at some time in the future.

Bibliography: Lutz, Jean A. & Storms, C.Gilbert “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communications: Writing in Professional Contexts” Ablex Publishing, Stamford, Connecticut (1997)


Lesson 3: Communicating in the Computer Industry

This lesson is designed to discuss the role of the technical writer in the computer industry. This is probably the most popular industry to find work in.

Communicating in the Computer Industry

One of the most popular industries for a technical writer to work in is the computer industry. In this industry a technical writer does a variety of things from creating manuals, to online help buttons, and online documentation. They may also create software documentation and write technical reports on the performance of the software. It is in this arena that a technical writer may be able to be at his most creative. The use of computer graphics and multimedia communications can let creativity run wild.

Technical editors are also very important in the computer industry. They check for the accuracy of the communications that are being put out. Other jobs that a technical communicator can find in the computer industry are as a usability analyst, a graphic artist, or in some companies they may become a combination of all three.

This is an important lesson as many people who go into technical writing do so with this particular industry in mind. The reading for this lesson is Chapter six of Lutz and Storms text, pages 111- 131. This section is titled “Writing for the Computer Industry” and is written by R. John Brockmann from the University of Delaware and by Christopher Velotta by NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio.


Lesson 3: Communicating in the Computer Industry

Users and Usability

As I mentioned in the introduction, technical writing in the computer industry encompasses a variety of writing. The genre is basically the same, but the things you are writing will often vary from job to job. It is not uncommon in this industry to find that within one position you may find yourself writing many different things; depending upon the size of the company with which you are employed.

Examples of what the typical technical writer in this industry writes include websites, pages and links for a corporations existing website, performance support systems, quality analysis reports, (where a programmer tests a program and you report what they find), manuals for software, instruction manuals for downloading software, instruction manuals for the hardware, help boxes, pop ups, literature on software or hardware, the list goes on and on. The materials that you write for the computer industry are aimed at a variety of audiences. They may be aimed at programmers, industry, interested buyers, manufacturers, companies, and simply the everyday user. What you write and the style with which you write it, is often determined by your targeted audience. For example, if you are writing a document for programmers it is acceptable to use technical language; however if you are writing for a user, or even an interested buyer or industry, you will write in more laymen’s terms.

I have done a small amount of writing for my brother-in-law who deals with mining companies; as well as worked full time for a year for a web-hosting and Internet software company, and the work I have done is to take the highly technical manuals and write them out into a purely layman form. In doing this, I keep in mind the person who has only used a computer for the most basic functions and try to explain it to them; WITHOUT talking down to them. This is where the trick comes in; and sometimes, it is actually nice to do this with a program you have never used. This is because you can run through it yourself and write it as if you are the intended audience.

Another area that you may find work in is the documentation of usability tests. In documenting these tests you will be recording findings with the goal of helping the programmers improve their work. They will read through your reports in an effort to improve accessibility and the overall effectiveness of the program. This job can either be highly technical or very straightforward; once again it depends upon your audience, if it is an external audience, or an internal one.

As an exercise for this section I suggest thinking about a program that you have on your computer and writing a report explaining how it works to either a programming audience or a user audience.


Lesson 3: Communicating in the Computer Industry

Eight Phases of Documenting

On pages 114 and 115 of the text Brockmann and Velotta list the eight phases of the “typical information product development process.” I feel that it is very important to understand these phases and will devote this section of the lesson to them.

The first phase is ANALYSIS. There are a few things that you have to analysis before you sit down to write out a document. A lot of these things pertain to any form of documentation; not just technical or scientific ones. You must analyze your audience and what they will be doing with the information. You also need to analyze what type of media they will be using; then test to make sure your documentation pertains to that media.

The second phase is DESIGN. This requires deciding what design works best for both the document and its intended audience.

The third phase is DEVELOPMENT. Develop what Brockmann and Velotta call a prototype, or what I usually think of as simply a rough draft or an outline.

The fourth phase is VALIDATION. Conduct tests, and have people look over your documentation; make sure that it is going to reach the correct audience and that it will achieve the goals that you are setting out for it. When you sit down to produce this document, keep track of any shortcomings so that you may correct them.

The fifth phase is PRODUCTION. Make changes and revisions based on your validation testing. Once you have made these changes produce a new copy that incorporates them into the document. These changes can be minor, or pretty extensive, depending on the document; as well what form of media you will be using.

The sixth phase is MANUFACTURING. Make certain that you generate the correct amount of copies of the document. There is nothing more embarrassing then not distributing copies of a document to everyone that needs them, it can also be embarrassing to distribute too many. I find the best suggestion is to do careful research on how many you need, and then do a couple more than that. This way you have extra, but not so many that you look like you are a little TOO proud of your document. It takes a little time to become comfortable with knowing how many copies of a document you really need to produce.

The seventh phase is DELIVERY. You need to determine the best manner with which to deliver your document. There will be times when the best way to do this is simply through email or regular company mail, there may be other times when sending out bulk mailings will be best; as well as times when a formal or informal presentation will suit the purposes best. This will depend a lot upon your audience; do you need to instruct them on how to use the software you are documenting, etc.?

The eighth phase is CUSTOMER SATISFACTION ASSURANCE. This entails making sure that the customer not only approves of the documentation, but that it makes sense to them and they are able to use it efficiently and correctly. It can also be a good idea to ask for feedback. Learning from their feedback can work wonders in assisting you in producing a better document the next time.

A fun and helpful exercise for this section may be to form a small piece of documentation using these eight phases.


Lesson 3: Communicating in the Computer Industry


The place you may work as a technical communicator in the computer industry will depend upon a variety of considerations.

While the impact of the computer industry has been amazing the last decade, it like everything else, has experienced economic highs and lows. In some regions this field is still in a high, while in other regions it is in a low. Therefore, your skills and the region in which you reside will play a factor in how fast you will find a position. The one area where a technical writer is more immune to economic highs and lows is in the maintenance of existing computers within a corporation. For example, the documentation of steps necessary to fix a computer could be a secure job.

The availability of training will also play a role in how easily you land a position as a technical communicator in the computer industry. This is getting to be an easier proposition as many corporations have access to online training facilities. It is also possible to gain access to training for various computer programs through temporary agencies. Many large staffing firms, such as Robert Half International, Kelly (as in Kelly Girls) etc, have training programs to assist their administrative candidates (the people that they send out on temporary assignments) in learning new computer programs. Even smaller companies have much more access to training programs through the Internet than they ever had before.

A technical writer’s opportunity for advancement is something that is variable from company to company. In the computer industry the chance for advancement seems to be a bit stronger than in many other areas. There are often entire offices of technical communicators and in such cases the chance to be promoted to manager is often available. Remember though, these promotions mean more responsibility, and often times less writing. That is a trade-off that you must decide if you are ready to make when looking for a promotion. There are a variety of compensation packages that a technical communicator might expect to receive. Naturally, it is hoped that SALARY will be included in all such packages, but they may also contain other things such as pension programs, health benefits, bonuses, stock options, and profit sharing as well as other incentives to make life on the job a little more rewarding.

For this section after reading over pages 118-122 in Lutz and Storms text you may want to think about where you would like to work, and how much training and compensation you would like. Think about whether you would be more comfortable in a small office or a larger one.

Lesson 3: Communicating in the Computer Industry


The text discusses the preparation necessary to become a technical communicator in the computer industry on pages 123 and 124. It discusses the proliferation of Scientific and Technical Communications programs in Universities and Colleges. I have my Bachelor of Arts in this field; so naturally, I encourage people that are serious about this field to look into such a program.

These programs are varied. As I have mentioned previously, at Michigan Technological University, where I am a proud alumni, we had a Bachelor of Arts in Scientific and Technical Communications and a Masters in Rhetoric and Technical Communications. There has also been talk of making this a doctoral program. While other Universities have a Technical Communications concentration as part of their English program, or a Scientific Communications concentration or certificate as part of a Biological or Environmental Sciences program.

If you are thinking of going into technical communications, with the goal of going into the computer industry; I would strongly recommend looking for a college or university that will let you combine an I.T. (information technology) or a C.S. (Computer Sciences) program with a Technical Writing program. This is a new area and not a lot of schools have it specifically, but an informed and helpful guidance counselor could easily help you work out such a curriculum.

As an assignment for this section I would love it if you checked with your local university or college and see what they offer for technical or scientific communications.

Food for Thought:

(1) What type of company would you like to work for in the computer industry? Programming, Internet hosting, or another area?

(2) Read through the Professional Profiles and think about which profile would best suit you.

Bibliography: Lutz, Jean A. & Storms, C. Gilbert (ed). “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communications: Writing in the Professional Contexts.” Pages 111- 131 Chapter 5 “Writing for the Computer Industry.” R. John Brockman, University of Delaware and Christopher Velotta N.C.R. Corporation Dayton, Ohio. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Stamford, Connecticut (1997)


Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

This lesson will introduce you to scientific and medical writing, as well as where you will be able to find employment in these fields.

Science Writing

There are a variety of positions a science writer is able to hold. They may work for a newspaper writing articles on the newest scientific discoveries. They may also work for a lab writing reports on the work they are performing. They can also be information officers for universities, work for health institutes and institutions, and often times can find employment in government agencies.

This is an expanding area for writers who wish to keep learning as they write. Often times a writer may find this more interesting than many of the fields where they would find employment as a tech writer, and many universities offer programs that train one for writing in both the technical and scientific fields.

A writer often feels that they have more creative control as a science writer than a technical writer, since they are often times responsible for the research and not just writing what someone else wants to communicate about their business or software. A science writer also often times has to play the dual role of writer and media contact for scientists and institutes.

The reading for this lesson will be from Lutz and Storms’ text pages 133-150. This section is titled “Science Writing” and is written by Ricki Lewis who is a Freelance writer in Scotia, New York.


Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

The Challenge of Working with Scientists

There are a number of areas where a scientific writer may work; to illustrate these on page 134 of Lutz and Storms text, Ricki Lewis lists a variety of different situations in which a scientific writer may find themself. I am going to go over a couple of these situations myself and then I would like you to read them carefully and determine how you would handle them.

You may need to read over the entire chapter before you can answer them, or you may want to answer them and then read the chapter and see if you change your mind; either way it should be a helpful exercise. You may want to go over them all, or simply the ones that I do not cover.

Lewis’ first situation, or “challenge” as it is referred to in the book, is you are working with the National Institutes of Health and they plan to cut their funds “drastically” to one branch; Lewis asks how you will describe these cuts to your readers. This is tough, I would try to do it honestly with interviewing as many people involved, but would I be completely unbiased? To be honest, that might depend totally up on the situation. Hard one to answer.

Another challenge Lewis poses is how to describe a new breed of mini-pigs that an animal supply company is breeding to use in cardiovascular research. Lewis wants to know how you go about writing a report on how to house these animals. If I were doing this project I would write a report somewhat similar to one I would write if I were employed by an engineering firm.

I would interview the contractors who would be building the housing, as well as veterinary experts who would have information on what methods may best suited for the new pigs. From my standpoint I would do everything to make sure that the pigs were as comfortable as possible; as well as do my best to not let any feelings I may have pro or con about animal research show through in my report.

Lewis poses another challenge by asking what the reader would do in the following situation. How would you write a balanced report when interviewing both sides in a case where a former student is accusing a well known and well respected scientist of reporting the results of experiments that were never conducted? This is a tough case, you need to find a way to report both sides WITHOUT taking either one, UNLESS you take the stance that you are going to an investigative piece in order to find out if the research was indeed conducted.

That is the stance I personally would take; rather than just report what both sides say I would try to get permission to do an investigation into whether the research was actually conducted. If the investigation proved productive you would then also have the answer to who is telling the truth, the scientist, or the former student?

In Lutz and Storms’ text Lewis states on page 136 that “the ability to draw scientists out is perhaps the most critical skill for a good science writer.” Scientists are aware that publishing is often a necessary element of their work, but that does not mean that they like it, or that they will necessarily work well with those that are trying to help them publish it. Because of this, a science writer needs to learn how to approach them in order to make his job easier.

One way to make a scientist open up to you is to earn his trust; to do this research what he is working on. You should take the time to learn as much about it as possible; or as Lewis writes in quoting Conrad Storad of Arizona State University on page 136 “Read, read, and the read some more.” Read everything you can get your hands on regarding the scientist’s work, or at the very least the topic he is researching. Knowing that you understand and care about his project will allow him to trust you, and your motives, and hopefully open up to you.

It is also important to ask questions on anything you do not understand. While you should always have a formal list of questions prepared for ANY interview. You will be surprised at how often it is the informal questions about something you just do not understand that garners you the most information. I remember writing a paper for grad school on the history of nursing homes and how they are ran. I had a few questions that I thought were brilliant and oh so insightful. However, I left the interview having not even have asked them all. It turned out that the informal give and take of information, and the questions that arose out of that were more informative than the questions I brought with me. When my subject had to leave to get back to her work, I was a bit nervous as she apologized and said she hoped that I had been given enough information, 25 pages later, I realized I had been given more information than I ever hoped for with my brilliant questions. I say this to demonstrate that an educated interest in your subject will lead you to a host of questions and insights you had never expected.

As an assignment for this section I suggest thinking of a scientist you would like to interview and what you could read to prepare for interviewing them? What challenges would dealing with a scientist pose to your writing?


Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

Medical Writing

This can be a tough field to break into if the writer has training only in writing. However, for a writer with a medical background this field can not only be extremely lucrative; it can be extremely exciting and rewarding. This field also employs a great many editors as well as writers. This makes it important to be aware of the difference between a medical writer and a medical editor.

A writer will write about the newest breakthroughs and treatments, while an editor is more likely to edit what someone else is writing. Therefore, a medical editor is less likely to need a background in health care than a medical writer.

There are a variety of positions where a medical writer/editor may find employment. They can work on the publication of scientific manuscripts, and articles. They may find employment producing a newsletter for a hospital or health insurance company. They may write or edit grant proposals, scientific reports and abstracts.

Medical writers are often expected to conduct much of the research for what they are writing about; making this an exciting career for someone with a medical background who likes to research and write. Cornett lists many exciting places to perform medical writing in some detail in Lutz and Storms’ text on pages 154- 162. In much the same way that the audience will determine much of the scope of your writing, where you are employed will also determine much of what you write, and the manner in which you write it.

The following places are the more traditional places that offer employment for the medical writer, but check the Internet boards such as or (a traditionally Canadian board), and you will find a number of surprising untraditional places that offer employment to medical writers.

Teaching hospitals are perhaps one of the more traditional places that hire medical writers. They are very important in this setting and the writing is usually geared toward the medical student. This gives a medical writer an opportunity to write in more than one style; i.e., writing for a laymen, a student, or a new doctor. Medical schools and universities also offer this same type of opportunity to a medical writer.

Medical research facilities and places that service medical laboratories will often hire a medical writer. This is usually a more technical form of medical writing. In this form of medical writing your internal audience is generally going to be researchers. However, in this case you may also have the opportunity to write for customers; which will add a different scope to your writing.

This more laymen form of medical writing can also land you employment in medical public relations firms, medical marketing and pharmaceutical firms, and health insurance companies; as well as government health agencies. All of these people will form an audience that will need your writing to have a scope directed just at them. If you go back to the example of AIDS research, they will be interested in all aspects of it, but depending on where they sit, their primary interest will differ. For example, a health insurance company will most likely be more interested in the cost of treatment while a pharmaceutical company will be more interested in what medicine is involved, and a marketing company in how to market the medicine, etc.

The reading for this lesson will be from Lutz and Storms’ text on pages 151-185. The chapter is titled “Writing in Medical and Health Care Environments” and is by Patricia L. Cornett of MedWrite Associates in Birmingham, Michigan. An assignment for this section is to read through pages 154- 162 and pick one of the places you might find employment and write a paragraph or two about some new development in the treatment of a disease, this can be fictional if you wish, and determine how to write it based on the audience for which this position will have you writing.


Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

Pharmaceutical Writing

The pharmaceutical industry hires technical and scientific communicators whose main job it is to write documents to be included with various submissions to regulatory authorities all over the World. In Lutz and Storms’ text on pages 188-209 Sandra J. Lobbestael of AZTECH Communications of Dexter, Michigan writes an essay titled “Pharmaceutical Writing”. In this essay, she explains the differences between pharmaceutical writing and other types of medical or science writing. I suggest if this type of writing sounds at all appealing to you to read the entire chapter.

Lobbestael explains that a pharmaceutical writer is an important part of the drug development process. The pharmaceutical industry is regulated by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration); their mandate is consumer protection. The FDA publishes their findings in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and amends them with regular updates in the Federal Register. Someone has to write these documents and that is where a pharmaceutical writer comes into play.

A pharmaceutical writer also helps to prepare clinical study reports. They prepare brochures intended to help those who are investigating the new drugs called “Investigators Brochures”. They prepare Good Manufacturing Practice guidelines, Good Laboratory Practice guidelines, Good Clinical Practice guidelines, as well as brochures on Standard Operation Procedures. There is an entire alphabet of acronym brochures that a pharmaceutical writer may produce.

Much like with medical writing there are few specific degrees for a pharmaceutical writer, but it would be a good idea to take classes in biology, pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry and medical terminology.

As an assignment for this section, think about if you would like to become a pharmaceutical writer, and how you might go about putting together a curriculum to train to be one; make sure to remember you may need training in an appropriate manner to write the documents mentioned in this section.


Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

Personality Traits of Medical and Pharmaceutical Writers

While academic qualifications are important in landing a job as a medical writer; keeping a job as a medical or pharmaceutical writer may boil down to a few very important traits. One of the most important is good communications skills.

As well as being a good communicator, you will have to be a patient and tactful communicator. You will often find yourself telling things to people that are more educated than you are, i.e., a doctor, and they may not agree with what you are communicating. For instance, a doctor may have been practicing a particular procedure for a long time; and you come along and write an article informing him that his procedure is out of date and should be replaced with a new one. The doctor may forget that you are simply communicating the new procedure; not telling him to try it. You may have to be patient and tactful as he tells you why he doesn’t believe what you wrote. Hence, you may add thick-skinned to the list of personality traits.

As well as thick-skinned you need to be confident in what you are writing, but still have the ability to sit back and let others take the credit. You most likely will never be a superstar as a medical writer; so if you are someone that likes getting credit this may not be a position for you. You have to have the ability to work independently and meet hurried deadlines. You also have to be patient enough to adjust to the busy schedule of a doctor or researcher you may need to interview.

Finally, you need to be able to take orders as well as give orders. It is not uncommon for a doctor or researcher to give you orders on what they think should go into the article; only to have these orders reversed by your editor. If you think you can handle all the frustration mentioned above, chances are you will be a great medical writer. For this section your assignment is simply to think about whether or not you can handle such frustration, and if the rewards I have mentioned earlier in the lesson are worth the frustrations.

Questions to Consider:

(1) How can you go about getting experience as a medical writer?

(2) How can you go about getting education that could lead you to a career as a medical writer?


Lutz, Jean A & Storms, C. Gilbert (ed). The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communications: Writing in the Professional Contexts. Ablex Publishing Corporation, Stamford, Connecticut (1997) Pages 151- 185 “Writing in Medical and Health Care Environments” by Patricia L. Cornett, MedWrite Associates, Birmingham, Michigan

Lesson 4: Scientific and Medical Writing

Thanks and Bibliography

Before adding the bibliography for this lesson. I just want to say thank you again for taking the course. I hope that it was of some help to you, and would appreciate any feedback, as well as any news of your future writing plans. Good luck and thank you again!!!


Bibliography: Lutz, Jean A. & Storms, C. Gilbert (ed) “The Practice of Technical and Scientific Communication: Writing in the Professional Contexts” Ablex Publishing Corporation, Stamford Connecticut (1997) “Pharmaceutical Writing” pages 187- 210. Sandra J. Lobbestael AZTECH Communications Dexter, Michigan; pages 211- 239 “Writing for Government and Nonprofit Social Service Agencies” Lisa Meeder Turnbull, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut; pages 239- 265 “Technical and Scientific Communicators in Advertising” Karen Levine, Adam Filippo and Associates, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; pages 265-287 “Freelancing or Consulting” David N. Dobrin, Freelance Technical Writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Leave a Comment