Technical Writing Essentials

Technical Writing Essentials

Introduction to Professional Communications in the Technical Fields

Suzan Last

University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia

Technical Writing Essentials

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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Cover image: Sailboat, photographer Suzan Last



From Suzan Last

This work, first and foremost, has been a student-driven endeavour. Over the years, numerous students have requested an open, online resource, and have presented compelling research supporting the benefits of such a work. So it is thanks to them that this work first came into being.

It would not have made it this far without the generous support, collaboration, and peer review of many colleagues in the Humanities, Engineering, and Science faculties at the University of Victoria. Thanks is also due to the funding provided by an Open Education Resource grant from the University of Victoria’s Office of Research Services and Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation Division.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help and guidance of Inba Kehoe and her colleagues at the Copyright and Scholarly Communications Office at the University of Victoria, whose sharp editorial eyes and diligent quality control helped ensure that this book will be a valuable resource for students.


From Robin L. Potter

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to adapt Suzan Last’s Technical Writing Essentials. Not only was I working with an excellent, informed, and relevant technical communication text, but I knew I was working on a text that would be appreciated by our students and faculty alike.

While the text was quite complete and stood well as it was, assessing the needs of our college-level students led me to make some amendments and add chapters that would offer additional guidance.

While editing the text, I came across a lovely gem of a supplement: University of Victoria’s, Engineering Work Term Report Guide: A Guide to Content, Style and Format Requirements for University of Victoria Engineering Students Writing Co-op Work Term Reports, which had been updated by Last in 2017. Following Suzan’s confirmation that this was an open resource, I adapted this guide for our technical communication students; it is now referenced and linked in this text as A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports: Content, Style, Format.

I would like to acknowledge Tom Bartsiokas, coordinator of business and technical communication at Seneca College, for offering to me the opportunity to adapt this text. In addition, Tom has provided important editorial feedback as well as logistical support for the distribution of this text to faculty and students at the college. This adaptation was sponsored by Seneca’s Open Text Adaptation Grant Program. Resources and support were also provided by the Teaching & Learning Centre at Seneca. A special note of appreciation goes to Jennifer Peters, at the Teaching & Learning Centre, for her expert technical assistance. Finally, special thanks goes to our faculty who suggested that we adapt this text and for their continuing feedback and contributions to our bank of ancillary materials. I look forward to using this text in my classes and seeing it adopted by our faculty and students.

Cover photo of ceiling detail of St. Pancras Station in London, UK courtesy of Robin L. Potter


Robin L. Potter, Professor
School of English and Liberal Studies
Seneca College




In our increasingly technological and internationalized workplaces, communication skills are among the most sought-after competencies employers require of job candidates. Every job posting you see will almost certainly ask for candidates with excellent communications skills and the ability to work effectively in teams. The ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written, verbal, visual, and interpersonal contexts is vital for success and advancement in the workplace. This ability is equally important in technical workplaces, where information must be conveyed using accuracy, precision, and concrete detail. Lending these qualities in your interactions with project teams will facilitate workflow.

No matter how brilliant or innovative an idea may be, if it is not communicated clearly and promoted effectively to the right audience, it will not become a reality. For an innovative idea to move from concept to project to completion requires many stages in a design process (see Figure 1), almost all of which require clear communication and effective teamwork.

The four phases of a project and associated communications tasks. Image description available.
Figure 1 Phases of a project and some accompanying communications tasks. Source: Iconfinder. Free for commercial use.  [Image Description]

If the design and implementation teams cannot work and communicate effectively with each other, their final product will fail to meet its potential.

Technical Writing Essentials introduces the key elements of professional style, document design, collaboration, oral presentation, and research skills needed to design productive workplace documents and presentations for a variety of purposes and audiences.

Reference Lightbulb image. [Online]. Available: Free for commercial use.

Image Description

Figure 1 image description:

Once there is an idea, a project goes through a design process made up of four stages.

  1. Pre-project planning.
    • Problem Definition – identifying needs, goals, objectives, and constraints.
    • Define context and do research.
    • Identify potential projects.
    • Public engagement projects; Stakeholder consultation.
  2. Project Development.
    • Propose a project (budget, timeline, etc.).
    • Create or respond to a request for proposals, evaluate proposals.
    • Develop or design solution concepts.
    • Project management plan.
    • Feasibility Studies, Recommendation Reports.
  3. Project Implementation.
    • Write contracts and apply for permits for construction and building sites.
    • Progress reports, status updates.
    • Documentation of project.
    • Continued research and design improvements.
  4. Project completion.
    • Final reports and documentation.
    • Close contracts.
    • Ongoing Support: User Guides, Troubleshooting, FAQs.

[Return to Figure 1]



When you hear the term “technical communication,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of scientific reports, specifications, instructions, software documentation, or technical manuals. You might also think of the audience, requirements, the digital tools used to create the documentation along with the platforms for making the documentation available, and the research that goes into creating that documentation. And you would be correct. Technical communication is an umbrella term that usually is understood to encompass all these–as well as technical writing. Technical writing is a genre of non-fiction writing that encompasses not only technical materials such as manuals, instructions, specifications, and software documentation, but it also includes writing produced in day-to-day business operations such as correspondence, proposals, internal communications, media releases, and many kinds of reports. It includes the communication of specialized technical information, whether relating to computers and scientific instruments, or the intricacies of meditation. And because oral and visual presentations are such an important part of professional life, technical communication also encompasses these as well. This first part of the text introduces you to the basic concepts related to technical communication overall.

Chapter 1 Learning Objectives

This chapter will help you to understand what technical writing is, why its important, and what it looks like:

1.1  Apply a “problem-solving” approach to communications tasks, starting by learning how to fully define the problem before looking for solutions.

1.2 Recognize the main conventions and characteristics of technical writing, and how they differ from other forms, such as academic and journalistic writing.

1.3 Understand the importance of defining the “rhetorical situation” in which you are communicating.

1.4 Apply what you have learned so far by examining “case studies” that demonstrate the costs of poor communication.

1.5 Appreciate the complexity and iterative nature of a writing process in determining what writing process works best for you.

Why are Technical Communication Skills Important?

You may be wondering why a technical communication course is included in your program. Information in the technical fields must be conveyed with precision and clarity. Failing that, inaccuracies can creep into the content of messages resulting in costly and, sometimes, catastrophic errors. Technical communication courses offer opportunities for you to learn the skills and techniques for communicating effectively and efficiently.

In a recent presentation, Sean McConkey of the University of Victoria revealed the following statistics regarding the importance of communication skills in the professional world of engineering (2017):

The Reality: Technical Writing and Communication

He added that engineers who are more advanced in their careers spend only 5-10% of their time engaged in problem-solving of some kind and 90-95% of their time engaging in related communications tasks:  researching, writing and reading reports, proposals, emails, letters, memos; giving or attending presentations; discussing and meeting with colleagues, teammates, managers, clients, and so forth. In a recent survey of over 1000 professionals from various professions, over 70% of engineers and almost 50% of programmers rated the quality of their writing as either “very important” or “extremely important” to the performance of their jobs (Swartz, et al., 2018). Clearly, as Barry Hyman (2002) asserts in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, “the stereotype that engineering is for inarticulate nerds is way off base.”

Technical communication is “transactional” – it entails a purposeful transaction between sender and receiver that provides specific information for practical and specific purposes (informing, instructing, persuading) and is usually geared towards the needs of a specific audience. Technical communicators produce a wide variety of documents and other products, such as

A 2016 Seneca College survey of professionals working in civil, mechanical, and building systems engineering revealed that among these forms of documentation and communication the following were identified as the top five in-demand in technical workplaces  (Potter, 2017):

TABLE 1 Top Five Documentation Types
Top Five Documents Top Five Report Types
  1. Email
  2. Email reports
  3. Formal reports
  4. Letters, memos
  5. Infographics
  1. Investigation
  2. Informative, proposal,  recommendation
  3. Technical brief, feasibility, problem-solving generally
  4. Inspection
  5. Progress, periodic, completion

Technical communication is a highly “designed” form of communication that requires practitioners to have a heightened awareness of the conventions (rules and expectations) and rhetorical situations (audience, purpose, context) in which they are communicating.

This textbook aims to provide you with that heightened awareness – that is, to introduce you to the basic conventions of technical communications, and to train you to take a reader-centred or audience-centred approach to communications tasks, to find the tools and methods that will work best to communicate your ideas to your target audience, and to achieve the desired results.

What Does Technical Writing Look Like?

Technical communications can take many forms, depending on the purpose and intended audience. However, the style of technical writing is distinctive.  Consider the following example of technical writing, which is an excerpt adapted from a book called Scientific Sailboat Racing by Ted Wells (1950). From the excerpt in the box below, what can you tell about the intended audience?

The most common question asked by skippers wanting to get to the windward mark faster than they have been doing is “How can I make my boat point higher?”  Getting to the windward mark first depends primarily on the skill and experience of the skipper; however, having a well-rigged boat will make a significant difference.  Look for the following, in order of importance:

  1. Sails: Have good quality sails, and use the appropriate sails for the wind conditions expected.  No one can win races with poor sails, so use the best you can afford.  Keep in mind that the leeches of all sails flutter a little, the jib will backwind the luff of the main on any full or medium sail, and in very light wind, even a perfectly cut sail will probably develop a wrinkle along the front of the battens.  If the sails are obviously no good, replace them.
  2. Mast and Centerboard: Ensure that the mast is far enough forward and the centerboard is far enough back so that there is little or no weather helm.  Make sure the stiffness of the mast suits the sails.
  3. Jib Fairleads: Ensure jib fairleads are properly located for the type of jib being used and the strength of wind expected.
  4. Cleats: Have cleats for both jib and mainsheet; place cleats so that crew can easily make small adjustments for varying wind velocities and hang on to the jib sheet without having it pop out of the cleat.
  5. Traveler: Have a mainsheet traveler that allows the main to be pulled down without pulling the boom in too far; it should allow the sail to be pulled down tightly enough so that the leech does not fall off without pulling the boom in any further than it should be.
  6. Tiller: Have a flexible tiller extension that allows you to sit well forward, but can be adjusted so that it does not get in the way when coming about.
  7. Boat Weight: Keep the boat as close to minimum weight as possible.  Clearly, a lighter boat is easier to handle, but this is not as critical as other factors.  If choosing between a lighter crew member with less skill and experience, and a heavier crew member who has greater skill, the latter is usually preferable.

Once the boat is properly set up, a skilled and experienced skipper can point significantly higher than expected by understanding and using wind deflection from other boats.  Immediately to leeward of any boat and extending for a distance of about three-mast lengths, there is a wind shadow where the wind velocity is greatly decreased.  To leeward of the bow of the boat, there is a very small region where the direction of the wind is deflected opposite to the normal deflection and where the velocity is accelerated slightly (see Figure 34).  Except in the direct wind shadow, the deflection of the wind is more important than the decrease in wind velocity, as the decrease in velocity is very slight except in the immediate shadow of the sails of the windward boat.

Wind conditions surrounding a boat

Because of this wind deflection, a boat on the opposite tack cutting behind another boat will be able to point appreciably higher than it normally would.  Many skippers on port tacks who thought they could clear starboard tackers have been fooled by not realizing this fact.  The deflection of their wind in trying to cross in front of the starboard tacker will enable the starboard tacker to point higher without luffing than he normally would be able to do, and the port tacker who thought he could squeeze by suddenly finds that he cannot (See Figure 35).

EXERCISE 1.1 Draft some technical writing related to your interests

Reflect on the description and example of technical writing above in relation to your experience as an employee, as a student, or as a practitioner of a hobby. What kinds of documents have you written that could fall under the genre of Technical Writing?

Write a paragraph or two on a topic about which you have specialized knowledge, and can use specialized terminology to explain the idea or instruct the reader. For example, you might write about effective techniques for executing certain skateboard maneuvers or how to execute a yoga position such as a “downward facing dog.” Consider your audience when choosing how to write this. Will the audience have to be familiar with the terminology used, as in the above sailing example? See if you can “baffle me with your techno-jargon” and then re-write for a general audience, using plain language.


Hyman, B. (2002). Ch. 2: Problem formulation. In Fundamentals of engineering design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, p. 42.

McConkey, S. (2017, March 17).  Writing a work term report. ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture. University of Victoria.

Potter, R. L. (2017). TEC400 Technical communication course update. Presented at the METPAC meeting of March 21, 2017. Seneca College, Toronto.

Swartz, J., Pigg, S., Larsen, J., Helo Gonzalez, J., De Haas, R., & Wagner, E.  (2018). Communication in the workplace: What can NC State students expect? Professional Writing Program. North Carolina State University.

Wells, T. (1950). Scientific sailboat racing. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., pp. 94-96.

1.1 KEY CONCEPT: Problem-Solving Approach to Communications Tasks

In the workplace, many of the communication tasks you perform are designed to solve a problem or improve a situation. Whether you are doing work for a client, for your employer, with your team, or for someone else, you will typically use some sort of design process to tackle and solve the problem. A clearly articulated design process provides you with a clear, step-by-step plan for finding the best solution for your situation.

Take a moment to search the Internet for the term “design process” and look at “images.” You will find many variations. Have a look at several of them and see if you can find a common pattern.

One commonality you will likely find in examining other people’s design process diagrams is this: the first step in designing any solution is to clearly define the problem. Figure 1.1.1 shows NASA’s basic design process. Think about the kind of communication that each step of this process might entail.

State the problem, generate ideas, select a solution, build the item, evaluate, present results, and repeat
Figure 1.1.1 NASA’s Design Process Diagram. Source: NASA (2018).

You cannot begin to work on solutions until you have a clear definition of the problem and the goals you want to achieve. This critical first stage of the design process requires that you effectively communicate with the “client” or whoever has the “problem” that needs solving. Poor communication at this stage can derail a project from the start.

For our purposes, we will use Barry Hyman’s Problem Formulation model (2002) to clearly define a problem. Hyman’s Problem Formulation model consists of four elements:

  1. Need Statement: recognizes and describes the need for a solution or improvement to an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It answers the questions, “what is wrong with the way things are currently? What is unsatisfactory about the situation? What negative effects does it cause?” You may need to do research and supply data to quantify the negative effects.
  2. Goal Statement: describes what the improved situation would look like once a solution has been implemented. The goal statement defines the scope of your search for a solution. At this point, do not describe your solution, only the goal that any proposed solution should achieve. The broader you make your goal, the more numerous and varied the solution can be; a narrowly focused goal limits the number and variety of possible solutions.
  3. Objectives: define measurable, specific outcomes that any feasible solution should optimize (aspects you can use to “grade” the effectiveness of the solution). Objectives provide you with ways to quantifiably measure how well any solution will solve the problem; ideally, they will allow you to compare multiple solutions and figure out which one is most effective (which one gets the highest score on meeting the objectives?).
  4. Constraints define the limits that any feasible solution must adhere to in order to be acceptable (pass/fail conditions, range limits, etc.). The keyword here is must — constraints are the “go/no go” conditions that determine whether a solution is acceptable or not.  These often include budget and time limits, as well as legal, safety and other regulatory requirements.

Communication as Solution

This model can apply to a communications task as well as more physical design tasks. Imagine your communications task as something that will solve a problem or improve a situation. Before you begin drafting this document or presentation, define the problem you want to solve with this document:

Keep in mind that the document you produce is evaluated in terms of how well it responds to the “problem” — that is, how well it meets the overall goal and demonstrates achievement of specific objectives while abiding by constraints.

EXERCISE 1.2 Define a problem

Think of a problem or an “unsatisfactory situation” that you have recently experienced.  It could be as simple as It’s 8 p.m., I haven’t had dinner yet, and I’m hungry. Use Hymen’s Problem Formulation schema to formally define the problem — without proposing any particular solutions. Your problem definition should ideally allow a multitude of possible solutions that adhere to the following:

  1. Need/Unsatisfactory situation?
  2. What is your goal?
  3. What are some measurable objectives you want to achieve?
  4. What are your constraints?

Map out your analysis to find the most logical next steps.


Hyman, B. (2002). Ch. 2: Problem formulation. In Fundamentals of engineering design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 40-54.

NASA. (2018, January 30 updated). NASA design process. NASA STEM Engagement. Used for educational and noncommercial purposes.


1.2 Conventions and Characteristics

Every genre of writing has unique characteristics and rules, called conventions, that help readers classify a document as belonging to a particular genre. This also applies to film and music. Think about the last movie you saw. What type of movie was it? What was it about that movie that gave you that impression? Did the characters wear Stetson hats, ride horses, and carry guns? Did they fly in space ships, encounter alien beings, and use futuristic technology? Those elements are typical conventions of Western and science fiction genres.

Non-fiction is a category that can be broken into various genres. The main genres that are relevant to us are journalism (newspaper writing), academic writing (written by scholars and published in peer-reviewed academic journals or books), and technical writing. Before we get into the specific conventions that characterize technical writing, take a moment to think back to your academic writing course and list some conventions typical of journalism (popular press) and academic writing in Table 1.1.1.

TABLE 1.1.1 Identify the conventions for journalistic and academic writing
Criteria Journalistic Academic
Writing Style
Other Features

Like journalism and scholarly writing, technical writing also has distinct features that readers expect to see in documents that fall within this genre. These include (a) use of headings to organize information into coherent sections, (b) use of lists to present information concisely, (c) use of figures and tables to present data and information visually, and (d) use of visual design to enhance readability (all of these topics are covered in Chapter 3: Document Design). These conventions are connected to the main purposes of technical writing, which include communicating the following:


• technical or specialized information, like descriptions of equipment, processes, devices, systems
• clear instructions on how to do something in a sequential manner
• observations related to incidents, inspections, and investigations
• information that advances the goals of the company or organization

Technical documentation is intended to communicate information to the people who need it in a way that is clear and easy to read, at the right time to help make decisions and to support productivity. Designing technical communication is like designing any other product for an intended user:  the ultimate goal is to make it “user friendly.”

Keywords here are accessible, usable, clear, goal-oriented, effective, and reader-centred.  The characteristics of technical writing support these goals and concepts.

If we filled in Table 1.1.1 with typical characteristics of technical writing, it might look something like Table 1.1.2:

TABLE 1.1.2 Conventions of technical writing
Criteria Technical Writing
Purpose To communicate technical and specialized information in a clear, accessible, usable manner to people who need to use it to make decisions, perform processes, or support company goals.
Audience Varied, but can include fellow employees such as subordinates, colleagues, managers, and executives, as well as clients and other stakeholders, the general public, and even readers within the legal system.
Writing Style Concise, clear, plain, and direct language; may include specialized terminology; typically uses short sentences and paragraphs; uses the active voice; makes purpose immediately clear.
Tone Business/professional in tone, which falls between formal and informal; may use first person or second person if appropriate; courteous and constructive.
Structure Highly structured; short paragraphs; clear transitions and structural cues (headings and sub-headings) that highlight document organization.
Format/Formatting Can be in electronic, visual, or printed formats; may be long (reports) or short (emails, letters, memos); often created with the use of style guides to plan formatting features; uses headings, lists, figures and tables.
Other Features Typically objective and neutral; ideas are evidence and data-driven; descriptors are precise and quantitative whenever possible.

1.3 Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

Suzan Last, Candice Neveu, and Robin L. Potter

It is common knowledge in the workplace that no one really wants to read what you write, and even if they want to or have to read it, they will likely not read all of it. So how do you get your reader to understand your purpose quickly and efficiently? Start by doing a detailed Task and Audience Analysis — make sure you understand the “rhetorical situation.”

In a rhetorical situation, you have to consider the Writer, Purpose, Audience, Message, and Context & Culture
Figure 1.3.1 The Rhetorical Situation.

The “rhetorical situation” is a term used to describe the components of any situation in which you may want to communicate, whether in written or oral form. To define a “rhetorical situation,” ask yourself this question:  “Who is talking to whom about what, where, how, and why?” There are five main components:

PURPOSE refers to why you are writing. Determining your purpose requires that you engage in Task Analysis — that is, determine what you hope to accomplish by writing this document. Ask yourself what you hope the reader(s) will do/think/decide/ or how they will behave as a result of reading the text. There are three general purposes for communication in the workplace: 1) to inform, 2) to instruct, and 3) to persuade.

Within those general purposes, you will find a myriad of specific purposes. For example, your purpose may be to propose an innovative solution to a specific problem. In this case, you want the reader to agree to explore the idea further, or approve funding for further research and development, which would fall under the general purpose of writing to persuade.

WRITER refers to you, the writer/creator/designer of the communication. It is important to examine your own motivation for writing and any biases, past experiences, and knowledge you bring to the writing situation. These elements will influence how you craft the message, whether positively or negatively. This examination should also include your role within the organization, as well as your position relative to your target audience.

AUDIENCE refers to your readers/listeners/viewers/users. Audience Analysis is possibly the most critical part of understanding the rhetorical situation. Consider Figure 1.3.2 below. Is your audience internal (within your company) or external (such as clients, suppliers, customers, other stakeholders)? Are they lateral to you (at the same position or level), upstream from you (management), or downstream from you (employees, subordinates)? Who is the primary audience? Who are the secondary audiences? These questions, and others, help you to create an understanding of your audience that will help you craft a message that is designed to effectively communicate specifically to them.

You have relationships with Supervisors; Colleagues and Team Members; Subordinates; and the public, clients, supplies, and government.
Figure 1.3.2 Understanding your relationship to your audience.

Keep in mind that your different audiences will also have differing purposes for reading your document. Think about what their various purposes might be and how you can best help them achieve them. Considering what they are expected to do with the information you provide will help you craft your message effectively. Remember also that technical writing often has a long “life span” – a document you write today could be filed away and reviewed months or even years down the road.

TABLE 1.3.1 Workplace audiences and purposes
Audience Purpose for Reading
Executives Make decisions
Supervising Experts/Managers Advise decision-makers; direct subordinates
Technical Experts/Co-workers Implement decisions; advise
Lay People/Public/Clients Become informed; choose options; make decisions

Consider the needs of that audience as well. What is their interest in the matter at hand? What is their anticipated response to your message: will it be positive, neutral, or negative? How much do they already know about the situation or topic? Thinking about the audience’s needs allows you to determine the appropriate tone and the amount and type of information to include in the message.

Some companies develop audience profiles to help guide their communications. This is a good exercise whenever you have to communicate complex information. Here are some questions to consider as part of the audience profile:

Developing an Audience Profile

Identity and role:

  • Who are your primary readers? (specific names and titles, or general roles)
  • What is their level of authority? Do they have clearance to view your document?
  • What is their role? Are they above you in the organizational hierarchy? Lateral, subordinate?
  • Who else might read this document? (secondary readers)
  • How might cultural differences affect their expectations and interpretations?

Expertise and attitude

  • How much do they already know about the topic?
  • How much technical background do the readers have?
  • What is their attitude towards the topic?


  • Are they familiar with jargon (specialized technical vocabulary) or would plain language be more appropriate for the situation?
  • Given their role, would formal language or informal (conversational) language be suitable?
  • Given specific language needs, should your document be translated? (applies to documentation sent internationally.)

MESSAGE refers to what information you want to communicate. This is the content of your document. It should be aligned to your purpose and targeted to your audience. While it is important to carefully choose what content your audience needs, it is equally critical to cut out content that your audience does not need or want. “Time is money” may be a tired old cliché, but it is important to avoid wasting your audience’s time with information that is unnecessary or irrelevant to them. So, differentiate between the “need-to-know” information, which you must include, from the “nice-to-know” information, which you can omit or place in an appendix. In addition, your message should always be professional and expressed in an appropriate tone for the audience, purpose, and context. We will discuss aspects of using a professional style and tone in crafting your message more in Chapter 2.

CONTEXT refers to the situation that creates the need for the writing. In other words, what has happened or needs to happen creates the need for communication. The context is influenced by timing, location, current events, and culture, which can be organizational or social. Understanding context goes a long way in helping you create a useful message. Some questions you might ask relating to context analysis include:

Ignoring the context for your communication could result in awkward situations, or possibly offensive ones. It will almost certainly impact your ability to clearly convey your message to your audience.

Consider the subtle (and not so subtle) similarities and differences in the rhetorical situation when you offer feedback on Course Experience Surveys vs when you evaluate an instructor on

EXERCISE 1.3 Identify the differences in the rhetorical situations

Course Evaluation Survey

EXERCISE 1.4 Task and audience analysis

Download Task and Audience Analysis Exercises (.docx)

The table below contains a collection of details about a research project you have just completed on rising sea levels. Imagine that you’re writing documents for each of the five following audiences:

  1. Your supervisor/boss
  2. Scientists
  3. The general public
  4. Politician
  5. High school students

What information about rising sea levels might each audience be interested in? As you go down the list, write in the blank spaces in front of each detail the number that corresponds to the audiences that you think would find this detail most relevant.

Consider what kind of document might contain that information for that audience.

Interested Audience Categories of Information on Sea Level Rise
The dollar damage caused by sea level increases each year.
A literature review of previous research on rising sea levels.
Descriptions of calibration procedures for your instruments.
Some basic physics of how tides and currents work.
How much your project costs.
A log of all your measurements during the whole project.
A list of people who worked on the project.
Specifications of a new instrument to measure water conditions.
A new result showing a connection between sea level and coastal developments.
Procedures you used to avoid statistical biases in your data.
Your plans for further measurements.
Your recommendations for future research.

1.4 Case Studies: The Cost of Poor Communication

No one knows exactly how much poor communication costs business, industry and government each year, but estimates suggest billions. In fact, a recent estimate claims that the cost in the U.S. alone is close to $4 billion annually! (Bernoff, 2016). Poorly worded or inefficient emails, careless reading or listening to instructions, documents that go unread due to poor design, hastily presenting inaccurate information, sloppy proofreading — all of these examples result in inevitable costs. The problem is that these costs aren’t usually included on the corporate balance sheet at the end of each year, so often the problem remains unsolved.

You may have seen the Project Management Tree Cartoon before (Figure 1.4.1); it has been used and adapted widely to illustrate the perils of poor communication during a project.

Different interpretations of how to design a tree swing by different members of a team and communication failures can lead to problems during the project.
Figure 1.4.1 Project Management Tree Swing Cartoon. Source: Ward, 2019.

The waste caused by imprecisely worded regulations or instructions, confusing emails, long-winded memos, ambiguously written contracts, and other examples of poor communication is not as easily identified as the losses caused by a bridge collapse or a flood. But the losses are just as real—in reduced productivity, inefficiency, and lost business. In more personal terms, the losses are measured in wasted time, work, money, and ultimately, professional recognition. In extreme cases, losses can be measured in property damage, injuries, and even deaths.

The following “case studies” show how poor communications can have real-world costs and consequences. For example, consider the “Comma Quirk” in the Rogers contract that cost $2 million (Robertson, 2006).  Also, check out how a small error in spelling a company name cost £8.8 million (The Guardian, 2015). Or examine Tufte’s discussion (.pdf) of the failed PowerPoint presentation that attempted to prevent the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster (2001). Or you might want to read about how the failure of project managers and engineers to communicate effectively resulted in the deadly Hyatt Regency walkway collapse (McFadden, 2017). The case studies below offer a few more examples that might be less extreme, but much more common.

In small groups, examine each “case” and determine the following:

  1. Define the rhetorical situation: Who is communicating to whom about what, how, and why? What was the goal of the communication in each case?
  2. Identify the communication error (poor task or audience analysis? Use of inappropriate language or style? Poor organization or formatting of information? Other?)
  3. Explain what costs/losses were incurred by this problem.
  4. Identify possible solutions or strategies that would have prevented the problem, and what benefits would be derived from implementing solutions or preventing the problem.

Present your findings in a brief, informal presentation to the class.

Exercises adapted from T.M. Georges’ Analytical Writing for Science and Technology (1996).

CASE 1: The promising chemist who buried his results

Bruce, a research chemist for a major petrochemical company, wrote a dense report about some new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil-refining by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.

Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Bruce’s report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Bruce’s compounds was the safe, economical insecticide they had been looking for.

Unfortunately, Bruce had since left the company because he felt that the importance of his research was not being appreciated.

CASE 2: The unaccepted current regulator proposal

The Acme Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut the electric power consumption in aluminum plants by 35%. They knew that, although the competition was fierce, their regulator could be produced more cheaply, was more reliable, and worked more efficiently than the competitors’ products.

The owner, eager to capture the market, personally but somewhat hastily put together a 120-page proposal and sent it to the three major aluminum manufacturers, recommending that their regulators be installed at all company plants.

She devoted the first 87 pages of the proposal to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind this new regulator, and the next 32 to descriptions of the new assembly line she planned to set up to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared her regulator’s performance with present models, and a poorly drawn graph showed how much the dollar savings would be.

Acme Electric didn’t get the contracts, despite having the best product. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

CASE 3: The instruction manual the scared customers away

As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Sagatec Software, Inc. had built a reputation for designing high-quality and user-friendly database and accounting programs for business and industry. When they decided to enter the word-processing market, their engineers designed an effective, versatile, and powerful program that Sagatec felt sure would outperform any competitor.

To be sure that their new word-processing program was accurately documented, Sagatec asked the senior program designer to supervise the writing of the instruction manual. The result was a thorough, accurate and precise description of every detail of the program’s operation.

When Sagatec began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from office workers who were so confused by the massive manual that they couldn’t even find out how to get started. Then several business journals reviewed the program and judged it “too complicated” and “difficult to learn.” After an impressive start, sales of the new word-processing program plummeted.

Sagatec eventually put out a new, clearly written training guide that led new users step by step through introductory exercises and told them how to find commands quickly. But the rewrite cost Sagatec $350,000, a year’s lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.

CASE 4: One garbled memo – 26 baffled phone calls

Joanne supervised 36 professionals in 6 city libraries. To cut the costs of unnecessary overtime, she issued this one-sentence memo to her staff:

When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

After the 36 copies were sent out, Joanne’s office received 26 phone calls asking what the memo meant. What the 10 people who didn’t call about the memo thought is uncertain. It took a week to clarify the new policy.

CASE 5: Big science — Little rhetoric

The following excerpt is from Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Sagan, 1995) itself both a plea for and an excellent example of clear scientific communication:

The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would have been the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was cancelled by Congress in 1993 after about $2 billion had been spent — a worst of both worlds outcome. But this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood what modern high-energy accelerators are for. They are not for weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, called “the theory of everything.” Explanations that involve entities called quarks, charm, flavor, color, etc., sound as if physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view of at least some Congresspeople I’ve talked to, of “nerds gone wild” — which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I’ve read some of the material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it wasn’t too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what the project was about on a level accessible to bright but skeptical non-physicists. If physicists are asking for 10 or 15 billion dollars to build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, metaphors, and capable use of the English language, to justify their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary constraints, and political incompetence, I think this is the key to the failure of the SSC.

CASE 6: The co-op student who mixed up genres

Chris was simultaneously enrolled in a university writing course and working as a co-op student at the Widget Manufacturing plant. As part of his co-op work experience, Chris shadowed his supervisor/mentor on a safety inspection of the plant, and was asked to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo. In the same week, Chris’s writing instructor assigned the class to write a narrative essay based on some personal experience. Chris, trying to be efficient, thought that the plant visit experience could provide the basis for his essay assignment as well.

He wrote the essay first because he was used to writing essays and was pretty good at it. He had never even seen a compliance memo, much less written one, so was not as confident about that task. He began the essay like this:

On June 1, 2018, I conducted a safety audit of the Widget Manufacturing plant in New City. The purpose of the audit was to ensure that all processes and activities in the plant adhere to safety and handling rules and policies outlined in the Workplace Safety Handbook and relevant government regulations. I was escorted on a 3-hour tour of the facility by…

Chris finished the essay and submitted it to his writing instructor. He then revised the essay slightly, keeping the introduction the same, and submitted it to his co-op supervisor. He “aced” the essay, getting an A grade, but his supervisor told him that the report was unacceptable and would have to be rewritten – especially the beginning, which should have clearly indicated whether or not the plant was in compliance with safety regulations. Chris was aghast! He had never heard of putting the “conclusion” at the beginning. He missed the company softball game that Saturday so he could rewrite the report to the satisfaction of his supervisor.


Bernoff, J. (2016, October 16). Bad writing costs business billions. Daily Beast.

Georges, T. M. (1996). Analytical writing for science and technology.

McFadden, C. (2017, July 4). Understanding the tragic Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. Interesting Engineering.

Robertson, G. (2006, August 6). Comma quirk irks Rogers. Globe and Mail.

Sagan, C. (1995). The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark. New York, NY: Random House.

The £8.8m typo: How one mistake killed a family business.  (28 Jan. 2015). The Guardian.

Tufte, E. (2001). The cognitive style of PowerPoint.

Ward, J. (2019, July 8). The project management tree swing cartoon, past and present. TamingData. CC-BY-ND 4.0.

1.5 Writing Processes


Just as we use design processes to creatively solve complex problems, we use writing processes to create complex documents. In both cases, there are steps or stages, but we don’t always proceed directly from one step to the next in a chronological manner. These processes are often iterative, meaning we might return to previous stages in the process from time to time. The more complex the task, the more iteration might be needed. Examine the Design Process (Figure 1.5.1) and Writing Process (Figure 1.5.2) diagrams below. What similarities and differences can you see in these two processes? How are they similar or different to your own processes?

An Iterative design process. Image description available
Figure 1.5.1 Design Process. Source: Girls Get Set for Life, Tufts University, 2002.  [Image description]
An iterative Writing Process Diagram. Image description available.
Figure 1.5.2 Writing Process Diagram. Source: Curry & Hewings, 2003.  [Image description]

You may have come across a “writing process” before, and it may or may not have worked well for you. There is no single process that works for everyone in every situation. The key is to recognize the various steps in a typical writing process and figure out how to use or adapt them most effectively for your situation.

For example, you may have come across the 40-20-40 writing process, which suggests that you should break up the amount of time you spend on the writing task into three distinct stages of planning, drafting and revising, and give each one a specific percentage of the time you have available.

40-20-40 Writing Process

Stage 1 – Planning:  Spend 40% of your time planning your document (task analysis, thinking, discussing, free-writing, researching, brainstorming, concept mapping, focusing ideas, outlining, etc.).

Stage 2 – Drafting:  Spend 20% of your time writing a rough draft (quickly getting all your ideas down in print, in more or less complete sentences and paragraphs, in more or less the right order, without agonizing over style or grammar choices).

Stage 3 – Revising:  Spend 40% of your time revising, editing, and proofreading (polishing your draft, making sure the content is complete and well supported, ideas flow logically, formatting meets expectations, expression is grammatically correct and has the appropriate tone and vocabulary).

These percentages are a helpful guideline, as they emphasize the need to allot significant time for revision, but don’t always work for all people in all situations (think of a final exam situation!). It also does not clearly account for the need to iterate; sometimes while revising your draft (Stage 3), you may have to go back to the planning stage (Stage 1) to do additional research, adjust your focus, or reorganize ideas to create a more logical flow. Writing, like any kind of design work, demands an organic and dynamic process.

As with the design process, the writing process must begin with an understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. In an educational context, this means understanding the assignment you’ve been given, the specifications of that assignment, the objectives you are meant to achieve, and the constraints you must work within (due dates, word limits, research requirements, etc.). This is often referred to as “Task Analysis.” In professional contexts, you must also consider who your intended reader(s) will be, why they will be reading this document, and what their needs are, as well as deadlines and documentation requirements.

EXERCISE 1.5 Planning your writing process

Consider an upcoming writing assignment or task you must complete. To avoid putting it off until the last minute (and possibly doing a poor job), try planning a writing process for this task, and build in milestones. Anticipate how long various sub-tasks and stages might take. Make sure to include time for “task and audience analysis” to fully understand what’s involved before you start. Consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of the document? What are the specific requirements? Who will read it and why?
  • How much planning is needed? What will this entail? Will you need to do research? Do you need to come up with a topic or focus, or has one been assigned to you?
  • How complicated will the document be? Will it have several sections? Graphics? How much revision will be needed to perfect your document? Will you have time for a peer/tutor review?

You will be asked to complete project plans for some more involved assignments, which will help you plan your work and estimate the amount of time it will take you to complete it. For now, try using Seneca Libraries’ Assignment Calculator to see if it offers something similar to your planned writing process.

Image descriptions

Figure 1.5.1 image description:

A design process flow chart that encourages you to revisit previous steps as needed.

  1. Define the problem. This involves a needs assessment, problem statement, designing criteria and goals and background research.
  2. Generate possible solutions. Brainstorming using the idea trigger method, thumbnail sketching, and creative thinking. At this point, you may need to revisit your problem definition. Once you have a number of possible solutions, move on to the next step.
  3. Evaluate possible solutions. Do ideas meet design criteria? List the advantages and disadvantages. Select the best design alternatives. Use a decision matrix to evaluate. At this point, you may need to revisit your problem definition or brainstorm some more. Once you have evaluated possible solutions, move on to the next step.
  4. Make and test a model. Create detailed technical drawings, prototype or scale models, mathematical and computer models, Conduct performance and user tests. At this point, you made need to go back to brainstorming solutions or evaluating possible solutions. Once you have a model you are happy with, move on to the next step.
  5. Modify and improve design. Fix problems, improve design, do more testing if needed. In the worse case, scrap the design. You may need to go back to evaluating possible solutions to making and testing the model. Once you have a design you are happy with, move on to the next step.
  6. Communicate final design. Create final technical drawings, and technical manuals for assembly, operation, and maintenance.

[Return to Figure 1.5.1]

Figure 1.5.2 image description:

A writing process diagram that encourages constantly revisiting previous stages.

  1. Prewriting. This stage is for generating ideas, understanding the ideas of others, and collecting information (note-taking, free-writing, brainstorming, looping).
  2. Planning. Here, you are organizing and focusing ideas. This may involve mind mapping, clustering, listing, and creating outlines.
  3. Drafting. In the drafting stage, you are writing initial drafts of a text focusing mainly on the development, organization, and elaboration of ideas.
  4. Reflection. In the reflection stage, you can let the work sit and come back to it at a later point. You may cycle back between drafting a reflection a number of times before moving on.
  5. Peer/tutor review. Now you can get feedback from others. This may require you to return to the drafting and reflecting stages.
  6. Revision. Here you are further developing and clarifying ideas and the structure of the text. This may require you to return to the drafting and reflecting stages. If the work requires additional research or idea generation, return to the planning stage.
  7. Editing and proofreading. Here the focus is on surface-level features of the text.

[Return to Figure 1.5.2]


Curry, M.J. &  Hewings, A. (2003).  Approaches to teaching writing. In Teaching Academic Writing: A Toolkit for Higher Education. New York: Routledge. Used with permission.

Girls Get Set for Life. (2002). The Engineering design process. Tufts University.



Most writing produced in technical workplaces consists of a combination of technical writing (which transmits technical information) and business writing (which transmits information that promotes smooth business operations).  In the previous chapter, we defined technical writing as a “transactional” and primarily “problem-solving” genre and described some of the key conventions and considerations technical writers must keep in mind. In this chapter, we will look more deeply into the style of writing expected of this genre.

Chapter 2 Learning Objectives

This chapter will help you achieve the following objectives:

2.1  Understand how to use reader-centred writing (rather than a writer-centred one) that focuses on knowing your audience and writing specifically to meet their needs

2.2  Review and practice techniques to communicate with precision

2.3  Understand how to write to persuade using rhetoric in a professional context, avoiding logical fallacies and inappropriate marketing language

2.4   Recognize the importance of verbs and learn how to choose strong verbs as the “engines” that drive efficient and effective sentences; revise passages to improve concision and flow

How does technical writing style differ from essay writing? It is mostly characterized by high-information, goal-oriented sentences that are characterized by the following stylistic elements:

Characteristics of Technical Style

Active: The subject precedes the verb in most sentences to highlight action and actor.
Concise: Sentences contain only the necessary words to convey the intended idea or information.

Fact-based: A careful reliance on facts to support ideas will boost your credibility.
Objective: A presentation of accurate, unbiased information is essential for decision-making.
Specific: Concrete information will fully inform the reader.
Straight-forward: A direct approach will create a focus on the key message.

Technical writing requires accuracy and clarity not only in terms of content but also in terms of grammatical and mechanical accuracy. For a review of grammar basics, see Appendix B: Sentence Structure and Appendix C: Punctuation Rules.

To begin, complete the exercise below.

EXERCISE 2.1 Describe some differences between writing for school vs. writing for work

Writing for School Writing for Work
Document Life Span
Format & Design Elements
Writing Style

What key differences do you note between the two writing contexts? What do you think accounts for those differences?

2.1 KEY CONCEPT: Reader-Centred Writing

Writing can be conceptualized as writer-centred or reader-centred. Things like diaries and journals are primarily writer-centred, in that they are written for the benefit of the writer. Your schoolwork may also have been somewhat writer-centred, in that often your goal was to “show what you know” and thereby “get a good grade.” Technical communications require that you shift this mindset and write for the benefit of your reader—or design the content and structure of your communication for your “user.” This mindset should be informed by an understanding of your audience.  Use these guidelines and ask yourself the following questions:

Getting a clear understanding of your audience is important in communicating effectively. It also enables you to imagine your audience as you write and revise. Keep asking yourself whether what you have said would be clear to your audience. How could you say it better?

EXERCISE 2.2 Audience analysis

Choose one of the topics below. Then perform an audience analysis, using the questions above to gain an understanding of the needs of different audiences. Write a profile of your intended reader(s) and consider what sort of information they will need and why?

You have been asked to

  1.  Write a report on Maintaining Internet Privacy for
    a) A new internet user who just signed up for internet service
    b) A start up e-commerce website developer
  2. Prepare a document on Food-born Diseases for
    a) Restaurant workers (servers and kitchen staff)
    b) For a health inspector training course
  3. Provide information on a proposed New Bus Shelter Design to
    a) Mayor’s office
    b) Contractor
    c) Newspaper reporter writing an article on the issue

Professional Tone

“Tone” refers to the attitude that a document conveys towards the topic and/or the reader. You have likely read something that sounded angry, or optimistic, or humorous, or cynical, or enthusiastic. These words characterize the tone.  Technical communication tends to avoid displaying an obvious emotion and instead strives for a neutral tone.

Tone is created through word choice (diction), word order (syntax), sentence construction, and viewpoint. Consider a piece of academic writing that you may have read. It creates a formal tone through its use of specialized terminology, sophisticated vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and third person voice. This style suits the genre because it is directed at experts and scholars in the field and seeks to convey complex information densely and objectively, with an emphasis on reason, logic, and evidence.

Now consider a piece of business writing that you may have read. The tone may be sightly less formal but not colloquial–rather, it is conversational in tone. The language is direct and plain, and the sentences are shorter and more straightforward. It may make use of the second person (“you”). This style suits business writing because it is directed at colleagues, management, or clients who are seeking information clearly and quickly and who may need to take action on it.

Writing Constructively

Striking the appropriate tone involves understanding your purpose, context, and audience. It also involves an understanding that workplaces are often hierarchical and that cooperation and teamwork are required. Therefore, it is important to consider how you want your reader to feel, and what may make your reader feel that way. Your goal is to write constructively, which means using positive phrasing to convey your message to your reader. Table 2.1.1 illustrates the differences between destructive/negative and constructive/positive feelings the reader may experience as a result of the tone used in a document.

TABLE 2.1.1 Differences between destructive/negative and constructive/positive attitudes
Negative Constructive
misunderstood understood
outraged conciliatory
disgusted pleased
guilty capable
belittled empowered
patronized respected
defensive proud
chastised valued
humiliated honoured
excluded a sense of belonging
resentment contentment

Considering how your reader may feel after reading your document is an important part of revision. Did your tone come across like you hoped it would? Could it be misconstrued? Often this is where peer reviewing can be helpful. Asking a colleague to review your document before sending it off to its intended audience is a common professional practice.

Sometimes, you will need to communicate information that is unpleasant, such as delivering bad news or rejecting a request. Communicating constructively is possible—and arguably even more important—in these situations. Regardless of message, how can you ensure you are communicating constructively?

Consider the following perspectives:

Writer-Centred (I, we) Reader-Centred (you)
If I can answer any questions, I’ll be happy to do so. If you have any questions, please ask.
We shipped the order this morning. Your order was shipped this morning.
I’m happy to report that … You’ll be glad to know that …
Negative Phrasing Constructive Phrasing
We cannot process your claim because the necessary forms have not been completed Your claim can be processed as soon as we receive the necessary forms
We do not take phone calls after 3 p.m. on Fridays You try …
We closed your case because we never received the information requested in our letter of April …

EXERCISE 2.3 Revise an email for appropriate tone

A colleague has asked you to review his email before sending. What revisions to content, tone, and style would you suggest?

From:        Jake Burns
To:            J. Parsons, Project Co-ordinator
Date:        12 December 20XX
Subject:   Two Problems


Hi Ms. P

Say, we may need to increase the budget on this project by $12,000. Sam screwed up when he calculated material costs. Now we don’t have enough budgeted to add the additional G3 servers with the 36GB 15k hot pluggable hard drives. I know you don’t know what all that means, but trust me. WE NEED THOSE SERVER UPGRADES!!!

Also, I would like to talk about getting my office moved closer to the rest of the IT department. All the running back and forth is disturbing other employees. I am so far away from everyone that I figure I must need to change deodorant or something. ; )


EXERCISE 2.4 Revise for constructive tone

How do you think the following memo will make the recipients feel? How would you revise the following memo to more constructively address the problem?

From:     Ann Onymous
To:          All Employees
Date:       Feb. 3, 20XX
Subject:   Littering


For some time now, smoking has been strictly prohibited within five metres of the Main Building entrance. Do NOT smoke anywhere near the doors!

Some of you still insist on smoking and have been doing so inside this area. As a result, the areas near the rear exit and around the picnic tables are constantly littered with smoking-related debris (filter tips, half-smoked cigarettes, empty lighters, etc.), creating an eyesore and making more work for my staff, who have to keep cleaning up this mess.

Starting Monday, sand buckets will be provided outside the read doors and in the picnic area. Use them!

For further reading, see “Communication in the workplace: What can NC State students expect?” a study based on the responses of over 1000 professionals from various fields, including engineering, on how important business, technical and scientific communication is to their work.

This work is included with permission and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2.2 Communicating with Precision

So far we have discussed the importance of writing with the reader in mind; of striking the right tone for your audience, message, and purpose; of writing constructively; and of writing persuasively. Now we move onto the actual writing itself.  Two key characteristics of professional communication are that it is precise and concise. This precision and concision must be evident at all levels, from the overall document, to paragraphing, to sentence structure to word choice, and even to punctuation. Every word or phrase should have a distinct and useful purpose.  If it doesn’t, cut it or revise.

The 7 Cs of Professional Writing

The 7 Cs are simply seven words that begin with C that characterize strong professional style. Applying the 7 Cs of professional communication will result in writing that is

CLEAR writing involves knowing what you want to say before you say it because often a lack of clarity comes from unclear thinking or poor planning; this, unfortunately, leads to confused or annoyed readers. Clear writing conveys the purpose of the document immediately to the reader; it matches vocabulary to the audience, avoiding jargon and unnecessary technical or obscure language while at the same time being precise. In clarifying your ideas, ensure that each sentence conveys one idea, and that each paragraph thoroughly develops one unified concept.

COHERENT writing ensures that the reader can easily follow your ideas and your train of thought. One idea should lead logically into the next through the use of transitional words and phrases, structural markers, planned repetition, sentences with clear subjects, headings that are clear, and effective and parallel lists. Writing that lacks coherence often sounds “choppy” and ideas seem disconnected or incomplete. Coherently connecting ideas is like building bridges between islands of thought so the reader can easily move from one idea to the next.

CONCISE writing uses the least words possible to convey the most meaning while still maintaining clarity. Avoid unnecessary padding, awkward phrasing, overuse of “to be” forms (is, are, was, were, am, be, being), long preposition strings, vagueness, unnecessary repetition and redundancy. Use active verbs whenever possible, and take the time to choose a single word rather than a long phrase or cliched expression. Think of your word count like a budget; be cost effective by making sure every word you choose does effective work for you.  Cut a word, save a buck! As William Zinsser (1980) asserts, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

CONCRETE writing involves using specific, precise language to paint a picture for your readers so that they can more easily understand your ideas. If you have to explain an abstract concept or idea, try to use examples, analogies, and precise language to illustrate it. Use measurable descriptors whenever possible; avoid vague terms like “big” or “good.” Try to get your readers to “see” your ideas by using specific terms and descriptions. For example, when describing an amount use actual values like 0.1 ml or 250 grams.

CORRECT writing uses standard English punctuation, sentence structure, usage, and grammar. Being correct also means providing accurate information, as well as using the right document type and form for the task.

COMPLETE writing includes all requested information and answers all relevant questions–as well as anticipated questions. The more concrete and specific you are, the more likely your document will be complete and useful. Review your checklist of specifications before submitting your document to its intended reader.

COURTEOUS writing entails designing a reader-friendly, easy-to-read document; using tactful language and appropriate modes of addressing the audience; and avoiding potentially offensive terminology, usage, and tone. As we have discussed in an early section, without courtesy you cannot be constructive.

In some cases, some of these might come into conflict: what if being too concise results in a tone that sounds terse or an idea that seems incomplete? In such a situation, you have the flexibility to adapt the language to suit the circumstances.

Figure 2.2.1 illustrates one method of putting all the 7Cs together.

An ordered list of all the 7Cs with summarized tips for each one. Image description available.
Figure 2.2.1 Putting all the 7 Cs together. Source: Zicari & Hildemann. [Image description]

Be mindful of the tradeoffs, and always give priority to being clear: writing that lacks clarity cannot be understood and therefore cannot achieve its purpose. Writing that adheres to the 7 Cs helps to establish your credibility as a technical professional.

EXERCISE 2.5 Revise for clarity

Remember the librarian’s “garbled memo” from the Case Studies in Chapter 1.4? Try revising it so that it adheres to the 7 Cs; make it clear, coherent, concrete and concise, while also being complete, courteous and correct.


When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

Sentence Variety and Length

While variety makes for interesting writing, too much of it can also reduce clarity and precision. Technical writing tends to use simple sentence structures more often than the other types. That said, simple does not necessarily mean “simplistic,” short, or lacking in density. Remember that in grammatical terms, simple just means that it has one main clause (one subject and one predicate). You can still convey quite a bit of concrete information in a simple sentence.

The other consideration for precise writing is length. Your sentences should vary in length just as they can vary in type. However, you want to avoid having too many long sentences because they take longer to read and are often more complex. That is appropriate in academic writing but less so in technical writing. The goal is to aim for an average of around 20 to 30 words per sentence. Reserve the short sentences for main points, and use longer sentences for supporting points that clarify or explain cause and effect relationships. If you feel the sentence is too long, break it into two sentences. You do not want your reader to have to read a sentence twice to understand it. If you make compound or complex sentences, ensure that you use appropriate coordinating or subordinating strategies to make the relationship between clauses perfectly clear. See Appendix B for information on simple, compound, and complex sentence structures.

Precise Wording

Technical writing is precise writing. Vague, overly general, hyperbolic or subjective/ambiguous terms are simply not appropriate in this genre. You do not want to choose words and phrasing that could be interpreted in more than one way. For example, if you asked someone to define what makes a “good dog,” you might get responses like “obedient, effective hunter/retriever, well-behaved, affectionate, loyal, therapeutic, goofy” and “all dogs are good!” Choose words that most precisely, concisely, and accurately convey the idea you want to convey. Below are some guidelines and examples to follow for using precise wording.

1. Replace abstract nouns with verbs.

Verbs, more than nouns, help convey ideas concisely, so where possible, avoid using nouns derived from verbs. Often these abstract nouns end in –tion and –ment. See examples in the following chart.

Abstract Noun Verb
acquisition acquire
analysis analyze
recommendation recommend
observation observe
application apply
confirmation confirm
development develop
ability able, can
assessment assess

For example, change the noun into a verb as follows:

Instead of: The inspector made the recommendation for the safe disposal of construction debris.

Use: The inspector recommended the safe disposal of construction debris.

The second sentence is clearer and more concise than the first.

2. Prefer short words to long words and phrases.

The goal is to communicate directly and plainly so use short, direct words whenever possible. In other words, don’t use long words or phrases when short ones will do. Write to express, not impress.

Long Short
cognizant; be cognizant of aware, know
commence; commencement begin, beginning
utilize; utilization use (v), use (n)
inquire; make an inquiry ask
finalize; finalization complete, end
afford an opportunity to permit, allow
at this point in time now, currently
due to the fact that because, due to
has the ability to can

3. Avoid clichés.

Clichés are expressions that you have probably heard and used hundreds of times. They are over-used expressions that have largely lost their meaning and impact.

Clichés Alternatives
as plain as day plainly, obvious, clear
ballpark figure about, approximately
few and far between rare, infrequent
needless to say of course, obviously
last but not least finally, lastly
as far as ___ is concerned ?

4. Avoid cluttered constructions.

This category includes redundancies, repetitions, and “there is/are” and “it is” constructions.

combine/join together fill completely unite as one
finish entirely refer/return/revert back to emphasize/stress strongly
examine (closely) suddenly interrupt better/further enhance
eventually evolve over time strictly forbid rely/depend heavily
plan ahead harshly condemn protest against
completely surround on all sides estimate/approximate roughly gather/assemble together
clearly  articulate carefully consider successfully prove
future plan mutual agreement years of age
in actual fact positive benefits end result/product

Regarding “there are/is” or “it is” sentence constructions–the general rule is to avoid beginning sentences with these words since they do not contain information. Rather, begin with information words as follows:

Instead of: There are five joists that need replacing.

Use: Five joists need replacing.

This second sentence is much more concise and clear than the previous one.

5. Use accurate wording.

Sometimes this requires more words instead of fewer, so do not sacrifice clarity for concision. Make sure your words convey the meaning you intend. Avoid using words that have several possible meanings; do not leave room for ambiguity or alternate interpretations of your ideas. Keep in mind that readers of technical writing tend to choose literal meanings, so avoid figurative language that might be confusing (for example, using the word “decent” to describe something you like or think is good). Separate facts from opinions by using phrases like “we recommend,” “we believe,” or “in our opinion.” Use consistent terminology rather than looking for synonyms that may be less precise.

Qualify statements that need qualifying, especially if there is possibility for misinterpretation. Do not overstate through the use of absolutes and intensifiers.  Avoid overusing intensifiers like “extremely,” and avoid absolutes like “never, always, all, none” as these are almost never accurate. Remember Obiwan Kenobi’s warning:

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” (Lucas, 2005)

We tend to overuse qualifiers and intensifiers, so below are some that you should be aware of and consider whether you are using them effectively.

Overused Intensifiers
absolutely actually assuredly certainly clearly completely
considerably definitely effectively extremely fundamentally drastically
highly in fact incredibly inevitably indeed interestingly
markedly naturally of course particularly significantly surely
totally utterly very really remarkably tremendously
Overused Qualifiers
apparently arguably basically essentially generally hopefully
in effect in general kind of overall perhaps quite
rather relatively seemingly somewhat sort of virtually

For a comprehensive list of words and phrases that should be used with caution, see Kim Blank’s “Wordiness, wordiness, wordiness list” (2015).

6. Prefer the active voice.

The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. For example, The outfielder throws the ball. The subject, “outfielder” actively performs the action of the verb “throw.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action. In other words, something is being done to something by somebody: The ball was thrown (by the outfielder). Passive constructions are generally wordier and often leave out the person/thing doing the action.

Active Passive
S →V →O S ←V ←O
Subject → actively does the action of the verb → to the object of the sentence Subject ← passively receives the action of the verb ← from the object
Subject → acts → on object


Example: Bineshii submitted the report.

Subject ← is acted upon ← by the object


Example: The report was submitted by Bineshii.

Whenever possible, use the active voice to convey who or what performs the action of the verb. The active voice is used most of the time in technical communication because it is a clear, direct, and concise way of conveying ideas. It is appropriate, however, to use the passive voice when you want to distance yourself from the message, such as when delivering negative news. While the passive voice has a place—particularly if you want to emphasize the receiver of an action as the subject of the sentence or the action itself, or if you do not know who is performing the action, or if you want to avoid using the first person—its overuse results in writing that is wordy, vague, and stuffy.

Precise writing encapsulates many of the 7 Cs; it is clear, concise, concrete, and correct. But it is also accurate and active. To write precisely and apply the 7 Cs, look critically at your sentences, perhaps in a way you may not have done before: consider the design of those sentences, from the words to the phrases to the clauses, to ensure that you are communicating your message effectively.


Blank, K. G. (2015, November 3). Wordiness list. Department of English, University of Victoria.

Lucas, G. (Director). (2005). Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. [Film].

Zicari, A. & Hildemann, J. Figure 2.2.1. Used with permission.

Zinsser, W. (1980). Simplicity.

Image descriptions

Figure 2.2.1 image description:

A priority list of the 7 Cs.

  1. Clear: Plan ahead! Know your purpose and convey your ideas in a unified manner.
  2. Coherent: Organize your thoughts in a logical, structured progression.
  3. Concise: Budget your words wisely; ensure your writing contains only what’s necessary.
  4. Concrete: Use specific and precise language, use measurable descriptors, and avoid vague language.
  5. Correct: Adhere to proper grammar, punctuation, and document structure.
  6. Complete: Give all the important information and answer all relevant questions.
  7. Courteous: Format so that the document is easy to read. Use appropriate and tactful language.




2.3 Writing To Persuade


Persuasion involves putting forth a compelling argument to reinforce or otherwise influence behavior, action, and motivation. Sometimes, you may want to persuade your reader to take a particular action or position on an issue. To be effective, you should consider how to make effective use of the following elements of persuasion, often referred to as Rhetorical Appeals. The ancient Greek words are ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos (see Figure 2.3.1):

Emotional appeal is used sparingly in technical communication. Regardless, finding the appropriate blend of appeals is critical to making a successful argument. Consider that when making your case, you often have to “win both hearts and minds”—so you’ll need to appeal to both emotions and logic. Assess the context and audience to plan your approach. Do whatever you can to show the reader that you are a trustworthy source of information, and present your argument at the most opportune time. Also be mindful of the word choice and tone so that you are presenting a persuasive argument that is constructive and conveys the appropriate tone for your intended audience, message, and purpose.

Flow chart showing how to use appeals to logic, emotion, credibility, and timeliness to convine an audience
Figure 2.3.1 Using the rhetorical appeals to convince an audience [Image description]

Avoiding Ad-Speak

“Ad-speak” refers to the kind of language often used in advertisements.  Its aim is to convince consumers to buy something, whether they need it or not, hopefully without thinking too much about it. Because we hear this kind of rhetoric all the time, it easily becomes habit to use it ourselves. We must break this habit when communicating in professional contexts.

Ad-Speak tends to use strategies such as

As a student in a professionalizing program learning the specialized skills and developing the sense of social obligation needed to become a trusted professional, you should avoid using “sensational” words characteristic of marketing language. Instead, when trying to persuade your reader, make sure you use quantifiable, measurable descriptors and objective language in your writing. You cannot determine how many units of “excellence” something has, or its quantifiable amount of “awesomeness,” “fantastic-ness,” or “extraordinariness.” Describing something as “incredible” literally means it’s unbelievable.  So avoid using these kinds of words shown in Figure 2.3.2.

awesome, wonderful, fantastic, outstanding, great, excellent, fabulous, ideal, shiny, marvellous, amazing, intense, tasty, decent
Figure 2.3.2 Ad-Speak Word Cloud.

Rather, find measurable terms like “efficiency” (in time or energy use), “effectiveness” at fulfilling a specific task, measurable benefits and/or costs, or even “popularity” as measured by a survey.

Communicating Ethically

In professional writing, communicating ethically is critically important. Ethical communication involves communicating from a place of accountability, responsibility, integrity, and values. If you are communicating ethically, you are demonstrating respect for your reader, the organizations you work for and with, and the culture and context within which you work. You also foster fairness and trust through honesty. Failure to maintain integrity and ethics can result in consequences ranging from damage to reputation, loss of work, lawsuits, criminal charges, and even tragic loss of life.

This is precisely why many professional associations have guidelines that govern the ethical behavior of their membership. Two such documents that may be relevant to you are the Canadian Information Processing Society’s (CIPS) Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct and the Ontario Association of Engineering Technicians and Technologists’ (OACETT) Code of Ethics and Rules of Professional Conduct (pdf). For example, take note of the portions of the OACETT Code of Ethics that relate specifically to ethical communication.

Excerpt from OACETT Code of Ethics
“Members of the Association recognize the precepts of personal integrity and professional competence as fundamental ethics, and as such each Member shall:
  • hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment and the promotion of health and safety within the workplace;
  • undertake and accept responsibility of professional assignments only when qualified by training or experience;
  • provide an opinion on a professional subject only when it is founded upon adequate knowledge and honest conviction;
  • act with integrity towards clients or employers, maintain confidentiality and avoid a conflict of interest but, where such conflict arises, fully disclose the circumstances without delay to the employer or client;
  • uphold the principle of appropriate and adequate compensation for the performance of their work;
  • keep informed to maintain proficiency and competence, to advance the body of knowledge within their discipline and further opportunities for the professional development of their associates;
  • conduct themselves with fairness, courtesy and good faith toward clients, colleagues and others, give credit where it is due and accept, as well as give, honest and fair professional comment;
  • present clearly to employers and clients the possible consequences if professional decisions or judgements are overruled or disregarded;
  • report to the appropriate agencies any hazardous, illegal or unethical professional decisions or practices by fellow members or others; and
  • promote public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and applied science technology and protect the Association from misrepresentation and misunderstanding.”

It is important to become familiar with these standards of practice, and to consider how they impact communication practices. Remember that you are communicating in a professional context, and that comes with responsibility.  Consider the different rhetorical situations diagrammed in Figure 2.3.3, one for a marketer and one for an engineer.

Two Rhetorical triangles: one with the author as "Marketer," audience as "Consumer," and message as "Information about the product"; the other with the author as "Engineer, the audience as "clients, colleagues, etc)," and the message as "information about the design". There is some overlap between the two messages.
Figure 2.3.3 Comparison of the rhetorical situation for a marketer vs. an engineer. [Image Description]

Clearly, there may be some overlap, but there will also be significant differences based on the needs and expectations of the audience and the kind of message being delivered. We hear marketing language so often that it is easy to fall into the habit of using it, even when it’s not appropriate. Make sure you are not using “ad-speak” when trying to persuade in a professional context.


CIPS. (2018, June). CIPS code of ethics. Official Website of CIPS.

OACETT. (n.d.). Code of ethics and rules of professional conduct. Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists. PDF.

Image descriptions

Figure 2.3.1 image description:

Use rhetorical appeals to convince your audience of a claim or recommendation you’ve made or a position you’ve taken. From there, you can support your claim using different types of appeals or address and refute opposing ideas.

To support the claim, position, or recommendation, you can use different types of appeals:

When addressing and/or refuting opposing ideas, it’s okay to concede where appropriate. Conceding strengthens credibility appeal by making you seem fair-minded and unbiased. You may need to draw on credibility appeals to show that you are qualified, experienced, and a reliable, unbiased source of information.

Supporting your position using different types of appeals and addressing opposing ideas will allow you to convince your audience.

[Return to Figure 2.3.1]

Figure 2.3.3 image description:

When the marketer is the author, their audience is the consumer and their message is information about the product. When the engineer is the author, their audience could be a client or colleague, and their message is information about the design. There may be some overlap between the messages of the marketer and the engineer.

[Return to Figure 2.3.3]

2.4 The Importance of Verbs

Much of the style advice given so far revolves around the importance of verbs. Think of your sentence as a machine, and the verb as the engine that makes the machine work. Like machines, sentences can function efficiently or inefficiently, and the use of a strong verb is one way to make them work effectively. Here are some key principles regarding the effective use of verbs in your sentences. While effective sentences may occasionally deviate from the suggestions in this list, try to follow these guidelines as often as possible:

Use the verb strength chart in Table 2.4.1 as a guide to “elevate” weaker verbs (or words with implied action) in a sentence to stronger forms.

TABLE 2.4.1 Verb strength chart
[Skip Table]
Verb Forms Verb Strength Examples



Maintain the machine properly!

Write the report!

Active Indicative*

(S → V)

He maintains the machine regularly.

She writes reports frequently.

Active conditional

She would maintain the machine if he would let her.

He would write reports if he had more training.

Gerunds ( __ -ing)

Infinitives (to ___)

(these do not function as verbs in your sentence; actual verbs are highlighted in yellow)

While maintaining the machine, he gets quite dirty.

Report writing takes skill.

It takes a lot of time to maintain this machine.

To write effectively, one must get a sense of the audience.

Passive   (S ← V)

Passive Conditional

The machine is maintained by him.

It would be maintained by her if…

The report was written by her.

Reports would be written by him if…

Nominalizations (verbs turned into abstract nouns)

Participles (nouns or adjectives that used to be verbs)

Machine maintenance is dirty work.

A well-maintained machine is a thing of beauty.

Written work must be free of errors.

While you are not likely to use the command form very often, unless you are writing instructions, the second strongest form, Active Indicative, is the one you want to use most often (say, in about 80% of your sentences).

Part of the skill of using active verbs lies in choosing the verbs that precisely describes the action you want to convey. English speakers have become somewhat lazy in choosing a small selection of verbs most of the time (to be, to do, to get, to make, to have, to put); as a result, these often-used verbs have come to have so many possible meanings that they are almost meaningless. Try looking up “make” or “have” in the dictionary; you will see pages and pages of possible meanings! Whenever possible, avoid these bland verbs and use more precise, descriptive verbs, as indicated in Table 2.4.2.

TABLE 2.4.2 Bland vs. descriptive verbs
[Skip Table]
Bland Verbs Descriptive Verbs

Signal Verbs:

Talks about

Describe the rhetorical purpose behind what the author/speaker “says”:

Explains, clarifies
Describes, illustrates
Claims, argues, maintains
Asserts, stresses, emphasizes
Recommends, urges, suggests

Is, are, was, were being been

Is verb-ing

Instead of indicating what or how something “is,” describe what it DOES, by choosing a precise, active verb.

Replace progressive form (is ___ing) with the indicative form

She is describingShe describes

Get, gets

Usually too colloquial (or passive); instead you could use more specific verbs such as

Become, acquire, obtain, receive, prepare, achieve, earn, contract, catch, understand, appreciate, etc.

Do, does

Avoid using the emphatic tense in formal writing:

It does work →  it works.

I do crack when I see apostrophe errors → I crack when I see apostrophe errors.

Instead:  Perform, prepare, complete, etc.

Has, have

Has to, have to

This verb has many potential meanings! Try to find a more specific verb that “have/has” or “has to”:
  • She owns a car
  • They consume/eat a meal
  • The product includes many optional features
  • The process entails several steps

Instead of “have to” try:  Must, require, need, etc.


Build, construct, erect, devise, create, design, manufacture, produce, prepare, earn, etc.

Make a recommendation → recommend
Make a promise → promise
Make a plan → plan

For more detailed information on using signal verbs when introducing quotations, see Chapter 6.2: Integrating Source Evidence into Your Writing.

EXERCISE 2.6 Improve the following sentences by elevating the verb and cutting clutter

  1. Market share is being lost by the company, as is shown in the graph in Figure 3.
  2. A description of the product is given by the author.
  3. An investigation of the issue has been conducted by her.
  4. His task is regional database systems troubleshooting handbook preparation.
  5. While a recommendation has been made by the committee, an agreement to increase the budget will have to be approved by the committee.

EXERCISE 2.7 Revision practice

The following paragraph on The Effects of Energy Drinks does not conform to the 7Cs and contains far too many “to be” verbs. Revise this paragraph so that it has a clear topic sentence, coherent transitions, correct grammar, and concise phrasing. In particular, try to eliminate all “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be), and rephrase using strong, descriptive, active verbs. The first 7 are highlighted for you. Try to cut the word count (260) in half.

Energy Drinks are able to be consumed in many varied and different ways by people all over the world. Moreover, drinking these energy drinks is able to provide people in today’s society with the helpful benefits of increased awareness and energy. Besides, even though there are enhancements that may be present from drinking an energy drink, the negative side effects are posing more of a threat to a person than the energy boost that is able to be achieved. In a survey that was taken in the United States at an American university, it was reported that fifty one percent of participants were consuming greater than three energy drinks each month in the semester [1]. Looking at this statistic, it can be seen that a majority of students in university are drinking energy a large amount of drinks on a very regular basis. Which can be the cause of some health problems experienced by students. In the same study, it was also shown that energy drinks are capable of helping to increase energy and athletic endurance; for those who drank it. Despite the fact that there are some benefits to be had from drinking energy drinks, there is the problem of the negative side affects that are caused by the drinking of these energy drinks. However, the side affects that were commonly reported in the study are: headaches, and “energy crashes” (Smith 5). Being a potentially more severe problem than the minor problems of headaches and “crashes;” there is definitely the possibility of people which are becoming addicted to caffeine.

After trying the exercise, click on the link below to compare your revision to effective revisions of this passage done by other students:

Sample Revisions of Exercise 2.7 (.docx)

Table 2.4.3 sums up many key characteristics of effective professional style that you should try to avoid (poor style) and implement (effective style) while writing technical documents.

TABLE 2.4.3 Key characteristics of effective professional style
Poor Style Effective Style
Low VERB/WORD ratio per sentence High VERB/WORD ratio per sentence
Excessive ‘is/are’ verbs Concrete, descriptive verbs
Excessive passive verb constructions Active verb constructions
Abstract or vague nouns Concrete and specific nouns
Many prepositional phrases Few prepositional phrases
Subject and verb are separated by words or phrases Subject and verb are close together
Verb is near the end of the sentence Verb is near the beginning of the sentence
Main idea (subject-verb relationship) is difficult to find Main idea is clear
Sentence must be read more than once to understand it Meaning is clear the first time you read it
Long, rambling sentences Precise, specific sentences



Document design is the “nuts and bolts” of technical writing. It refers to not only the how information is laid out on the page, but also the signals you use to make information easy to find and use. No matter how brilliant or important the content, if it is not formatted in a way that enhances readability and conforms to formatting conventions recognized by the company you work for and by the industry you work in, it will likely not receive the attention it deserves. This section includes the information on how technical writers use formatting features to optimize the readability and usability of your documents.

Chapter 3 Learning Objectives

This chapter covers the following topics:

3.1 Understand the importance of readability to your technical audience and what that looks like in technical documents.

3.2 Understand how to use headings to organize information logically to enhance readers’ comprehension.

3.3 Understand the rules for embedding various kinds of lists in your documents to emphasize key points and simplify text.

3.4 Understand how to integrate various kinds of figures and tables into documents to effectively present visual data and images.

3.5 Apply revision strategies using style tips to enhance clarity and readability.

3.1 KEY CONCEPT: Readability

All documents have a purpose—to persuade, to inform, to instruct, to entertain—but the first and foremost purpose of any document is to be read. Choosing effective document design enhances the readability of your document so that the target audience is more likely to get the message you want them to receive, and your document is more likely to achieve your intended purpose. Documents are also designed with usability in mind. That is, effectively designed documents are created from a user-experience perspective: if a reader can easily learn to use the document and find content, then you will have achieved a usable design.

Keep in mind that people do not read technical writing for pleasure; they read it because they have to; it’s part of their job. And since “time is money,” the longer it takes to read the document, the higher the “cost.” Your job as the document designer is to make their reading process as easy, clear, useful and efficient as possible by using all the tools at your disposal. For example, choose document design elements, like a 12-point, sans serif font or headings and subheadings, that make your document “user friendly” for your target audience.

Designing a document is like designing anything else: you must define your purpose (the goals and objectives you hope your document achieves), as well as the constraints — such as word count and format — that you must abide by, understand your audience (who will read this document and why), and choose design features that will best achieve your purpose and best suit the target audience. In essence, you must understand the Rhetorical Situation (see Chapter 1.3) in which you find yourself: Who is communicating with whom about what and why? What kind of document design and formatting can help you most effectively convey the desired message to that audience? You want to use the most effective rhetorical strategies at your disposal; document design is one of those strategies.

Genres and Conventions

It’s not only the content and rhetorical strategies that have differing conventions; documents also differ in how they are designed and formatted. All genres of writing adhere to certain conventions in terms of content, the style of language used to express that content, and how the content is presented visually. If you look at an online news article (or an article in an actual newspaper), you will often notice consistent formatting features.

As you learned in previous writing classes, readers in different contexts expect different textual features, depending on the type of document they are reading and their purpose. A reader of an online editorial can expect strongly worded arguments that may rely on inflammatory emotional language but not be backed up with much empirical evidence;  we do not expect an online editorial to cite reliable sources in a scholarly format. In contrast, an academic reader expects the opposite: neutral, unemotional language, and plenty of empirical evidence to logically and validly support claims, with sources cited and documented in an appropriately academic bibliographical formats. In technical contexts, readers expect

Typical Newspaper Formatting Conventions
  • Large headlines, often using rhyme, alliteration, exaggeration or some other rhetorical device to grab attention
  • Very short paragraphs (generally 1-3 sentences long)
  • Pictures related to the article
  • A cut out box with a particularly attention-grabbing quotation from the article in larger, bolder print (to get readers interested in the article)
  • Advertisements on the side

See below for a discussion of formatting conventions for technical documents.

It is important for writers to understand the conventions of the genre in which they are writing. Conventions are the “rules” or expectations that readers/viewers have for that particular genre or medium. If you do not follow the target readers’ expectations, you run the risk of confusing them—or worse, damaging your credibility—and therefore not effectively conveying your message and fulfilling your purpose. Think of document design as “visual rhetoric.”  Make document design choices that best conform to the expectations of the genre and audience, and that most effectively convey the message you want to send.

Style Guides and Templates

In many writing contexts, style guides and templates will be available. Style guides dictate the general rules and guidelines that should be followed; templates offer specific content and formatting requirements for specific kinds of documents. Academic publishers make style guides available to prospective authors so that they know how to properly write and format documents they submit for publication. Newspapers, academic journals, organizations, and businesses often have their own “in house” style that must be followed by all writers within that organization. A company may have specific templates, for example, a memo template, that all employees must follow, in order to ensure consistency of messaging.

You likely had a style guide to help you format your written assignments for your introductory technology classes, and in science classes, you likely had a template to help you organize lab reports.

EXERCISE 3.1 List some conventions of academic formatting

Examine the formatting in Figure 3.1.1 below and list some of characteristics that adhere to academic writing format requirements that you are familiar with. It does not matter if you cannot read the text; simply examine the formatting.

An excerpt from an typical academic essay. It contains info about the student and course, a centred title, and double-spaced text with the first line of each paragraph indented
Figure 3.1.1 Page excerpt from an academic essay. Source: Last, 2019.

Now examine the document in Figure 3.1.2. What differences do you notice? List some of the features that differ from the academic writing sample above. Consider why typical readers of technical writing would find these features desirable. Which document would you rather read?

An excerpt from a Technical Report. It includes headings and sub-headings, a figure, and lists
Figure 3.1.2 Excerpt from a technical report. Source: Last, 2019.

Technical writing makes use of several typical design features to organize information efficiently and enhance readability. These include headings, lists, figures, and tables, as well as strategic use of passive space around all of these features and text. Each company, publisher, or organization may have its own style guide to which all writers within that organization, or those wishing to contribute written material, must adhere. In BTC440, SES391, and TEC400, we use the APA Style Guide. To get you started on applying a style guide to your writing, all work written for BTC440, SES391, and TEC400 should adhere to the basic guidelines briefly described below.

Basic Style Guide for BTC440, SES391,and TEC400 Written Assignments

Most workplace documents are created using Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) or using Google Drive tools such as Google Docs and Google Slides. This is generally industry standard, so it is crucial that you learn how to use these programs effectively to create sophisticated workplace documents.

The general specifications of technical writing documents that you can format in MS Word are as follows:

Margins 1 inch on all sides; justify left margin only; leave the right margin ragged for easier reading
If you are binding your report, leave a 2-inch left margin
Body Text Font Use either a serif or sans serif font depending on the context. Serif fonts include typefaces like Times New Roman and Cambria. Sans serif fonts include typefaces like Arial, Calibri, Verdana, etc.**
Heading Font The MS Word Styles tool formats headings using a sans serif font.
Font Size 11-12 point font (12 is preferred) for body text
12-20 point sans serif font for headings and subheadings.
Single spaced; no indentation; extra space between paragraphs; no more than 10 lines in length, with no more than 15-20 words per line. Letters and memos are always single spaced; reports may be single, 1.5 spaced. Drafts are often double spaced to make room for comments.

For specific document elements such as title page, letter of transmittal, and table of contents, see SELS’s A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports:  Content, Style, and Format (2021).

The rest of this chapter offers specific and detailed information on how and why technical writers use the following document design features:

  1. Headings: Headings and subheadings provide a clearly visible organization and structure that allows readers to read selectively and preview information. We include here several guidelines for font style, size and color to help you design headings effectively.
  2. Lists: Lists provide a way to concisely and efficiently convey information and emphasize ideas. There are several kinds of lists, each used for specific purposes.
  3. Figures and Tables: Visual representations of data and concepts serve to illustrate, clarify, and support ideas, while offering a reader a break from reading text-heavy pages.
  4. Passive Space: Leaving blank spaces strategically on the page (around lists, figures, and headings, and between paragraphs) helps the reader to absorb the information in the “active” space more effectively, and helps writers create a visually appealing look.

** NOTE: While a common misconception holds that sans serif fonts make electronic documents easier to read, font preferences vary, and persons with specific disabilities require either the serif or sans serif font to improve their ability to read documents. For example, the CNIB Clear Print guidelines recommend use of the sans serif font when creating documents for persons with visual impairments (n.d.). Assistive technologies can easily adapt documents for persons with disabilities by customizing the font (APA, 2020; WebAIM, 2020). When possible, check with the intended audience to see which is preferred. As a default, however, use your organization’s style guide to create readable documents. For example, Seneca College’s A Guide for Creating Accessible Documents 2012 states: “San [sic] serif fonts, such as, Frutiger, Arial, and Verdana are preferable” (2012, p. 10).  For more information on choosing font styles, see CNIB (n.d.), American Psychological Association (2020), and WebAIM (2020).



American Psychological Association (APA). (2020, June). Accessible typography. APA Style.

CNIB. (n.d.) Clear print accessibility guidelines. PDF.

Last, Suzan. (2019). Technical writing essentials. BCcampus.

Seneca College. (2012). A guide for creating accessible documents 2012. PDF.

Potter, R. L. (n.d., 2017, 2021). A guide to writing formal technical reports: Content, style, format.
Original document by University of Victoria (n.d.). Engineering work term report guide: A guide to content, style and format requirements for University of Victoria engineering students writing co-op work term reports. (Updated by Suzan Last, October, 2017 and adapted by Robin L. Potter (2021). OER.

WebAIM. (2020, October 27). Typefaces and fonts.

3.2 Headings

Headings are standard features of technical documents that serve several important functions:

Effective headings use concrete, descriptive language to tell the reader what to expect from the content of each section. Avoid “functional” headings when writing technical reports. Functional headings are used in documents that have consistent structures, such as science lab reports, when each section must fulfill a particular function. For example,

  1. Introduction
  2. Materials
  3. Procedure/Methodology
  4. Data/Results
  5. Discussion/Conclusions
  6. References

Technical reports are usually not so strictly organized or predictable.  Readers will find it much more helpful if headings concretely describe the content of each section rather than the function. Using descriptive headings will also result in an easily usable document; that is, the reader will easily be able to find information.

Note the differences in the two Tables of Contents in Figure 3.2.1, each generated automatically from headings within their respective documents. Which one gives a clear idea of the content of the report?

the box on the left shows a table of contents using only function based headings (Introduction, Problem Definition, Proposed Solution, Benefits, Conclusion, Recommendation, References. Table 1. Figure 1. The box on the right contains a table of contents using descriptive headings and captions: Ski Lift Safety Issues, Deropement Problems in Tow Lifts, Propsed Rope Catcher Solution, Benefits of Implementation, Resolving the Safety Issues, Recommendation, References. Table 1. Cost breakdown for one tower installation. Figure 1. Proposed Retainment Device
Figure 3.2.1 Functional vs descriptive headings. Source: Last, 2019. [Image description]

General Principles for Designing Headings

When designing the headings in your document, keep in mind these general principles:

SUMMARY:  DO and DON’T rules when designing headings

DO the following:

  • Use a sans serif font for your headings.
  • Use descriptive (rather than functional) headings.
  • Make sure there is slightly more white space above a heading than below it.
  • A heading must have a block of text below it. Remember to include a lead-in sentence below the heading when it is followed by a list, a figure, or table.

DON’T do the following:

  • Do not “stack” headings. Avoid stacking one heading directly below another. A heading is like a chapter title; it must have at least a sentence of information below it.  Stacked headings can indicate inefficient organization of information.
  • Do not overuse headings. Keep in mind that every sentence does not require its own heading, nor does every paragraph.  Overuse of headings indicates an inefficient organization of ideas that needs revision.
  • Do not use a heading to introduce a table, figure, or list. You must have text below a heading that introduces and explains the figure or table.
  • Avoid creating “lone headings.” Ideally, a heading should have at least one, often several, paragraphs of text below it.  A heading defines a SECTION of the document. In the example below, there are 2 first-level headings, 2 second-level headings, and 2 third-level headings. Having only one heading at a level is like having only one item in a list. Try to avoid it.
  • Avoid creating “widows and orphans” by leaving a heading at the bottom of the page with no body text below it. Insert a hard page break before your heading to avoid this.
  • Don’t refer to a heading as “this” in the body text below it. Begin your sentence as if the heading were not there. Never start a new section with a pronoun that refers to a previous idea.

The examples below illustrate the use of heading sizes and font types, with numbered headings and without, to show the relationship of ideas within the report. The headings were created using the Styles option in MS Word.

Level One Headings

First level headings should be the largest, and should be bolded.

Level Two Headings

Second level headings should be slightly smaller or in some way distinguished from first level headings. You might consider indenting the heading and aligning the subsequent blocks of text.

Level Three Headings

Third level headings, if you use them should be further distinguished by smaller size, italicizing, and/or indenting them. And so on…

Using the Styles function in Word, as well as the Document Elements, allows you to auto-create a table of contents from the headings in your documents. These will automatically update as you revise your document and add sections, which will save you considerable time in the long run. Similarly, you can also create an automatic Table of Figures if you use the Caption function. Learning how to use these formatting tools will make your report writing much easier, and will allow you combine sections written by different team members easily and effectively. Use the tutorials in MS Word, or search for current online video tutorials showing how to use these tools.

1. Straw Bale Construction

Under this first level heading you will find text all about straw bale construction. It will go on for several lines. If there is a Section numbered “1”, there will also be a “2″ Section. Avoid lone headings.

1.1. Post and Beam with Straw Bale Infill

This section may align directly under the previous heading, or be indented.

This will not be a lone heading; this section will have a more than one heading at this level (1.2 and maybe a 1.3).

1.1.1. Relevance

This third level heading is indented, and smaller or in italics to set it off from second level heading. Again, if you have a number 1.1.1 heading, you should have a number 1.1.2, etc.

1.1.2. Additional Third Level Heading

Text should added below each heading. Avoid stacked headings.

1.2. Additional Second Level Heading

Text, text text

2. Cinder Block Construction

More text… Make sure that you do not stack headings one on top of the other.

EXERCISE 3.2 Review questions

Answer the following review questions:

  1. As a guideline, how many headings should you use per page?
  2. What is an acceptable size range and font style for headings?
  3. What are “widows and orphans” in the context of document design?
  4. What are several purposes that headings can have in a document?
  5. What are “lone headings”? Should you use them?
  6. What are “stacked headings?”  Should you use them?
  7. What is the difference between a “functional” heading and a concrete or “descriptive” heading?
  8. True or False: You should have more white space above a heading than below it.
  9. True or False: A heading can be used to introduce a figure or a list.

Further practice: 

Review a document you have written, such as a research essay, and see if you can divide it into logical sections introduced by concrete, descriptive headings.

Review the Headings PowerPoint.


Last, Suzan. (2019). Technical Writing Essentials. BCcampus.

Microsoft. (n.d.). Add a heading.

Microsoft. (n.d.). Add, format, or delete captions in Word.

Potter, R. L. (n.d., 2017, 2021). A guide to writing formal technical reports: Content, style, format.
Original document by University of Victoria (n.d.). Engineering work term report guide: A guide to content, style and format requirements for University of Victoria engineering students writing co-op work term reports. (Updated by Suzan Last, October, 2017 and adapted by Robin L. Potter (2021). OER.

The Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT). (n.d.). I need to complete a technology report. OACETT.

Image descriptions

Figure 3.2.1 image description:

Function-based headings:

Descriptive headings:

[Return to Figure 3.2.1]


3.3 Lists

Lists are created when items in a series are dropped into bulleted or itemized points. Lists, when used correctly, can be a technical writer’s—and reader’s—best friend. Lists allow you to emphasize important ideas. They also increase the readability of text by simplifying long sentences or paragraphs and adding aesthetic passive space to make reading more pleasant. However, using the wrong kind of list or poorly formatting a list can create confusion rather than enhance readability. Therefore, it is important to understand the various types of lists and how and why to use them.

Guidelines for Creating Lists

Adhere to the following guidelines when creating lists of any kind:

  • Include between two to eight items in a list. You must have at least two items in a list (or it’s not a list; it’s just an item). Avoid having more than eight items in a list, as too many items can have the reverse effect. If you emphasize too many ideas, you end up emphasizing nothing. NASA recommends no more than eight steps in an emergency procedure; more than eight can be overwhelming in a crisis situation.
  • Try to avoid splitting a list over two pages if possible.
  • Avoid overusing lists. A list should always have explanatory text around it to identify the list and why it is needed. A series of lists does not give a reader adequate information and context, so do not overuse listing.
  • Adjust spacing before, after, and within lists to enhance readability. Avoid having a list of information all scrunched up into a dense block of text; this defeats the purpose of enhancing readability.
  • Use parallel phrasing for each listed item (note that each item in this list starts with a verb that is bolded only to catch your attention, not as a style you must follow).
  • Never use a heading to introduce a list. Always add a lead in sentence below a heading to create a context for the list.

Each kind of list is suited for specific purposes. All lists must conform to a set of rules of construction, punctuation, and formatting. You can use the Paragraph formatting tool in MS Word (see Figure 3.3.1) to format a ready list: simply highlight your list and click on either the bullet or number buttons in the top left of the image below.  Alternatively, MS Word will auto-create a list when you drop to a new paragraph and type 1. along with some text, then hit return. For more information on how to create a list in MS Word, click here.

Figure 3.3.1 Screenshot of Paragraph tools in Word 2010; you can auto-create lists using the top left buttons. Source: Last, 2019.

NOTE: If you are making lists by hitting ENTER then TAB and then a dash, you are doing it wrong, and this will make future editing and maintaining readability very difficult if not impossible. Especially when writing documents collaboratively that will need extensive revision and editing, you must make sure to use the correct formatting tools for consistency.

Common Types of Lists

Just as bar graphs serve a different purpose than pie charts, different kinds of lists also serve different purposes. This section will describe when and how to use the following five commonly used types of lists:

Bullet Lists

Bullet lists are the most commonly used kind of list. They are effective when

Bullet list items should generally be short (a word or a phrase). If you find your bulleted items are longer than this, consider using another kind of list, such as a labeled list or a nested list.

Numbered Lists

Use numbered lists when the order of the listed items is important and ideas must be expressed in sequential order. For example, use a numbered list when you must enumerate a series of steps in instructions, or when you are introducing ideas that will be discussed in a certain order in the following text. If you have a list of more than eight items, consider breaking up the list in two or more stages or categories (Steps in Stage 1, Steps in Stage 2, etc.).

Sample Numbered List

Revision of your document should be undertaken in five stages done in the following order:

  1. Check formatting for readability.
  2. Review content to ensure the document contains all necessary information.
  3. Edit sentence style and structure to ensure ideas are clearly and correctly expressed in a formal and precise manner.
  4. Proofread for grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage errors.
  5. Check your use of sources: cite and document according to APA standards.

NOTE:  The five steps in the sample numbered list is in parallel phrasing: each begins with a verb (check, review, edit, and proofread) in the present tense, emphasizing what the reader should do. This phrasing is otherwise known as the imperative mood. The numbers indicate the order in which these steps should be performed.

In-Sentence Lists

Use in-sentence lists when you want to (a) keep paragraph style, (b) avoid having too many lists on one page, and when (c) the list items are relatively short and can be expressed in a sentence clearly without creating a run-on. The previous sentence is an example of an in-sentence list. Note that a bracketed, lower-case letter introduces each listed item.

Typically, in-sentence lists have two-to-four items. Generally avoid putting more than four items in this kind of list (unless they are very short), or your sentence might become difficult to read.

Labeled Lists

Use a labeled list when you are listing items that need further explanation. These can be bulleted or numbered. Start the list item with the word or term (the “label”), placed in bold and followed by a colon. After the colon, write the explanation or amplification of the term or concept in normal body text.

Sample Labeled Lists (two formats)

The course assessment plan includes three main written assignments given in the following order:

  1. Report One: an internal proposal written in letter format
  2. Report Two: an internal proposal written in memo format
  3. Report Three: a comparative recommendation report written for an external client in long report format

The plan also includes two oral presentations:

  • Presentation 1: individual or pair presentation on a technical writing topic (worth 5%)
  • Presentation 2: team presentation giving a progress report on Report 3 (worth 10%)

Make sure the label portions (before the colon) are phrased consistently and either italicized or bolded for emphasis; try to make the explanations that follow roughly equal in length and detail.

Nested Lists

A “nested” list is a list-within-a-list or a list with sub-listed items. These are used to clarify relationships between items in categories and to avoid overly long bullet lists by categorizing items into sub-lists. Note the long bullet list on the left does not effectively categorize items, so emphasis is lost. The nested list is more effective.

Sample Bullet List (too long)
Sample Nested List

Every restaurant should contain the following beverage containers:

  • Coffee cups/mugs
  • Latte bowls
  • Tea cups
  • Travel mugs
  • Water glasses
  • Red Wine glasses
  • White wine glasses
  • Beer glasses
  • Beer steins
  • Cocktail glasses
  • Shot glasses
  • Reusable plastic cups.

(12 items is too many for one list!)

Every restaurant should contain the following kinds of beverage containers:

  • Hot beverage containers

    • Coffee mugs/cups
    • Latte bowls
    • Tea cups
    • Travel mugs
  • Cold beverage containers
    • Water glasses
    • Red wine glasses
    • White wine glasses
    • Beer glasses
    • Beer steins
    • Cocktail glasses
    • Shot glasses
    • Reusable plastic cups.

This is not an exhaustive list of the kinds of lists you may run across in your technical reading. These are simply the most common kinds of lists, and ones you should be able to identify and use effectively in your technical writing assignments to enhance readability.

Integrating and Punctuating Lists

Conventions for punctuating list items vary depending on the context. Legal writing tends to use more punctuation than technical writing (list items often end in semicolons and the final item is introduced by an “and”). In technical documents, punctuation will be guided by conventions set out by industry style guides like the IEEE and the APA, or by corporate style guides.  Technical communication courses, like BTC440, SES391, and TEC400, use the APA Style.

EXERCISE 3.3 Identify the document design errors in the following example

Five Kinds of List:

  1.     Bullet lists
  2. numbered lists.
  3. Lists can be written within a sentence using bracketed letters to introduce the list items.
  4. nested list
    • Also called a “list within a list”
  5. Labeled List

Just as there are rules for constructing lists, there are rules for how to incorporate them into your text. Most importantly, a list must be introduced by a lead-in sentence (or clause) that contains both a subject and a verb. Technical writers often use the expression “the following” somewhere in the lead-in sentence to clearly indicate that a list of items will follow.


If the lead-in is a complete sentence (i.e., it could end in a period), it should end in a colon that introduces the listed items. If the sentence is not a complete thought (i.e., you could not put a period there), the lead-in should not end in any punctuation, and each listed item must be able to grammatically complete the lead-in sentence. Don’t use a colon before a list unless the introduction to the list is a complete thought, that is, an independent clause. Remember this rule: if you can’t put a period there, then you can’t put a colon there.

Example Lead-in Sentences for Lists

Complete lead-in sentence (ends in a colon)

The term design project must allow students to incorporate the following elements into their solution:

  • Mechanical engineering principles
  • Electrical engineering knowledge
  • Software/programming basics

Partial lead-in sentence (no punctuation after lead-in)

The term design project must allow students to design a solution using

  • mechanical engineering principles,
  • electrical engineering knowledge, and
  • software/programming basics.

One of the most common errors found in technical reports has to do with the introduction of lists and how these are punctuated. Here are some additional examples of how—and how NOT—to introduce lists.

Pandas have the following traits:

  • Black and white fur
  • Vegetarian diet
  • Excellent problem-solving skills.

Common characteristics of pandas include: ×

  • black and white fur,
  • vegetarian diet, and
  • excellent problem-solving skills.

Pandas are: ×

  • black and white,
  • vegetarian, and
  • intelligent.

Pandas are

  • black and white,
  • vegetarian, and
  • intelligent.

Pandas have black and white fur, eat a vegetarian diet, and can solve difficult problems.

In some cases, a list might not be helpful and instead might just over-complicate your document. In such cases, list your ideas in sentence form, within the paragraph, as in the final panda example below. A page with too many lists looks like an outline instead of a coherently expressed series of ideas.

EXERCISE 3.4 Which of the follow lead-ins should end in a colon? Which should end with no punctuation?

  1. Our solution aims to meet the following objectives
  2. The design constraints that must be considered are
  3. All proposed designs must abide by the following constraints
  4. The proposed solutions offer many tangible benefits, such as
  5. The proposed solution offers the following tangible benefits

EXERCISE 3.5 Identify the types of lists below

1. List type: 2. List type:
Revision of your document should be undertaken in four stages:
  1. Check formatting for readability.

  2. Review content to ensure the document contains all necessary information in a logical order.

  3. Edit sentence style and structure to make sure it is formal, clear, and correct.

  4. Proofread for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and format errors.

The assessment plan for TEC400 includes three main writing tasks:
  • Infographic: A visual report that combines visual, textual, and graphic components

  • Correspondence: A carefully constructed email, memo, or letter

  • Formal report: A long document, with front and back matter, that reports on research findings

3. List type: 4. List type:
The 7 Cs refers to seven characteristics of effective professional writing. This writing should be
  • clear

  • concise

  • concrete

  • coherent

  • correct

  • complete

  • courteous

The TEC400 collaborative project tests your knowledge of the following principles:
  • Project management skills
    • Collaboration and communication
    • Time management
    • Problem-solving
  • Research skills
  • Report writing
    • Organization
    • Idea development
    • Documentation and citation
    • Technical style


  1. Create your own list, using the Paragraph Tools in Word. For example, make a list of as many kinds of vehicles as you can think of, being as creative as you can. If you can think of more than eight, consider what kind of list would be most suitable.
    1. Could you categorize them into nested lists? What kind of categories?
    2. Consider what text would introduce and follow your list.
    3. What kind of document would contain a list of vehicle types? Who would read it?
  2. Read Farkas’ article “Understanding and Using PowerPoint,” and create a set of bullet-listed notes summarizing his ideas on “Criteria for Creating Bullet Points.”

Review the Listing PowerPoint.


American Psychological Association (APA). (n.d.). Bulleted lists. APA Style:

Farkas, D. K. (2005, May). Understanding and using Powerpoint. STC Annual Conference Proceedings, pp. 313-320. PDF.

Last, S. (2019). Technical writing essentials. BCcampus.

Microsoft. (n.d.). Create a bulleted or numbered list.

3.4 Figures and Tables

Visual elements such as graphs, charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, and maps capture your readers’ attention and help them to understand your ideas more fully. They are like the illustrations that help tell the story. These visuals help to augment your written ideas and simplify complicated textual descriptions. They can help the reader understand a complicated process or visualize trends in the data. The key concept to remember here is that visuals clarify, support, illustrate, and augment your written text. In the current shift to visual narrative, they sometimes play an important role in conveying ideas and information in a concise and memorable visual format. Therefore, they can sometimes replace written text. Visuals may save you a hundred words or so of additional explanation and clarification when used effectively. If you have visual elements in your document, they must be based on and supplement your written content. Throwing in “gratuitous graphics” just to decorate or take up space can confuse your reader.

yin yang symbol, put in the document randomly to illustrate the point about "gratuitous graphics"

It is important to choose the right kind of visual to convey the story you want your reader to understand. If visuals are poorly chosen or poorly designed for the task, they can actually confuse the reader and have negative consequences. For example, it’s very likely that the first thing you noticed when you opened this page was the image above. Did you wonder why is it there? What it is about? Has it distracted you? The fact that it contains no caption or labels deepens the mystery.

Conventions for Integrating Visuals in your Document

Each style of visual has its own conventions that you will recognize after you have seen enough of them. In addition, different publications have different style guides that dictate the specifics of how to format and integrate visual elements.  In general, however, whenever you integrate any kind of visual, you should adhere to five key rules.

Five Rules for Integrating Graphics into your Document
  1. Give each visual a numbered caption that includes a clear descriptive title (e.g., “Figure 1: Sales of Blue Corollas in 2021”).
  2. Refer to the caption number within the body text and discuss the visual aid’s content.
  3. Label all units (x and y axes, legends, column box heads, parts of diagrams, etc.).
  4. Provide the source for the data and/or visual image if you did not create it yourself.
  5. Avoid distorting the data or image.

In addition, visual elements should also be surrounded with sufficient passive space to emphasize the image and enhance its readability. If copying and pasting an image, make sure all elements are clear and the print size is readable. A visual that has been shrunk down to an unreadable size does not help the reader understand your ideas.  If at all possible, try to orient the visual image in the same direction as the body text.

Examine Figure 3.4.1 below. Do you understand what information it conveys? What is missing?

A graph with missing information. Image description available.
Figure 3.4.1 [Image Description]

If you look carefully, you might be able to guess what story this graph is telling. However, the lack of a descriptive caption and labeling of axes makes it impossible to know for sure. Compare it to Figure 3.4.2 below.

A graph that contains all of the necessary labels. Image description available.
Figure 3.4.2 Water Consumption in Edmonton during the 2010 Gold Medal Hockey Game (EPCOR, 2010). [Image description]

Figure 3.4.2 has a numbered caption (which I have just referred to in my paragraph), a descriptive title, and it has properly labelled x and y axes and legends. It also cites the source for the graph in the caption using an in-text citation, which is included as a full reference below.  The original image has not been distorted in any way. Thus, it follows the five key rules listed above.

In addition to those five general rules, there are specific guidelines for implementing them. These are outlined in detail in A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports (2021).

Specific Guidelines for Integrating Graphics


Visual elements are referred to as either Tables or Figures. Tables are made up of rows and columns and the cells usually have numbers in them (but may also have words or images). Figures refer to any visual elements—graphs, charts, diagrams, photos, etc.—that are not tables. They may be included in the main sections of the report, or if they contain supplemental material they may be contained in an appendix. Ensure that figures and tables are not broken over two pages. Consider placing tables that require a full page in an appendix.

Labeling Tables and Figures

Tables and figures must all be labeled consistently throughout your documents with numbered captions that clearly identify and describe them. In technical communication, figure captions are placed below the figures, while table titles must be placed above the tables. This is because we generally read tables from the top down, and therefore want to see the caption at the top. Figures are not always read top down. When you open a page and see a figure, the first thing you want to know is “what is that?” The caption below it should immediately identify what the figure represents for the reader without the reading having to read the paragraph before it.

Use the following conventions to assist the reader in understanding your graphics:

  • Numbering:  Table and figures are numbered sequentially, but separately:

E.g., Table 1, Table 2, Figure 1, Figure 2, Table 3, etc.

  • Captioning: After the figure or table number, add a descriptive caption that clearly indicates what the figure or table illustrates without having to read anything else on the page.

There are two systems for numbering figures and tables within your document:

  • Simple Consecutive Numbering: All figures and tables are numbered consecutively (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, Table 1, Table 2, Table 3, etc.) throughout the document regardless of which section they are in.
  • Section-based Numbering: Within each section, figures and tables may be numbered sequentially through each section (e.g., Table 1.1 refers to the first table in section 1, Table 2.4 refers to the fourth table in section 2).

If a large number of illustrations are presented, the latter option is the better choice. This can become confusing, however, when using sub-sections.

If the table or figure that you present in your report was not created by you, but comes from other sources, you must include a citation for the original source in your caption; e.g., Figure 1. Network Design (Grant, 2021). You must ensure that all figures and tables represent data accurately and ethically, and that they do not distort data to create bias.

Using the Insert → Caption … function will allow MS Word to keep track of the figure and table numbering for you, and allow you to auto-create a List of Figures and Tables at the beginning of your document.

If you don’t use the Insert Caption function, then you should manually change the font of your captions to distinguish them from body text.  Caption font is usually slightly smaller than body font and is often italicized.

Referring to Tables and Figures in your Text

Any figures or tables you use in your document must be discussed in your text. Use the following guidelines when discussing and referring to tables and figures:

  • Place the table/figure immediately below the paragraph where it is first mentioned in the text.
  • Refer to tables and figures in your text by their numbers, not their placement in the text. E.g, “See Figure 9 for a detailed schematic” (not “see the figure below”); “The test results are summarized in Table 1.”
  • Format the in-text reference to the tables and figures in bold (optional, but be consistent throughout your document).

Selecting the Right Visual

Every type of visual aid serves a different purpose. For example, a pie chart displays a comparison of parts to a whole, while a bar chart shows comparisons of various variables to each other. Below is a description of visual and graphic aids commonly incorporated into technical reports adapted from Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking (n.a., 2012).  Note: APA Style recommends labeling for figures to be situated above the visual aid. In technology, figures are typically labeled below.


A chart is commonly defined as a graphical representation of data (often numerical) or a sketch representing an ordered process. Whether you create your charts or do research to find charts that already exist, it is important for them to exactly match the specific purpose in your document or presentation.

In the rest of this section, we’re going to explore three common types of charts: statistical charts, sequence-of-steps chart, and decision trees.

Statistical Chartsimage

For most audiences, statistical presentations must be kept as simple as possible, and they must be explained. When visually displaying information from a quantitative study, you need to make sure that you understand the material and can successfully and simply explain how one should interpret the data. If you are unsure about the data yourself, then you should probably not use this type of information. This is surely an example of a visual aid that, although it delivers a limited kind of information, does not speak for itself.

Sequence-of-Steps Charts


Charts are also useful when you are trying to explain a process that involves several steps. These two visual aids in Figure 3.4.4 depict the process of cell division called mitosis using a sequence-of-steps chart, but they each deliver different information. The first chart lacks labels to indicate the different phases of cell division. Although the first chart may have more color and look more polished, the missing information may confuse the audience. In the second chart, each phase is labeled with a brief explanation of what is happening, which can help the audience understand the process.

Decision Trees


Decision trees are useful for showing the relationships between ideas. Figure 3.4.5 shows how a decision tree could be used to determine the appropriate weather for playing baseball. As with the other types of charts, you want to be sure that the information in the chart is relevant to your purpose and that each question and decision is clearly labeled.


Strictly speaking, a graph may be considered a type of chart, but graphs are so widely used that we will discuss them separately. A graph is a pictorial representation of the relationships of quantitative data using dots, lines, bars, pie slices, and the like. Graphs show the variation in one variable in comparison with that of one or more other variables. Where a statistical chart may report the mean ages of individuals entering college, a graph would show how the mean age changes over time. A statistical chart may report the number of computers sold in the United States, while a graph will show the breakdown of those computers by operating systems such as Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Technical communicators can show graphs using a range of different formats. Some of those formats are specialized for various professional fields. Very complex graphs often contain too much information. If the graph is cluttered, it becomes difficult to comprehend.

In this section, we’re going to analyze the most common graphs technical communicators use in their documents and presentations: line graphs, bar graphs, and pie graphs.

Line Graph


A line graph is designed to show trends over time. In Figure 3.4.6, we see a line graph depicting the fall of Enron’s stock price from August 2000 to January 2002. Notice that although it has some steep rises, the line has an overall downward trend clearly depicting the plummeting of Enron’s stock price. Showing such a line graph helps the reader see the relationships between the numbers.

Bar Graph

Bar graphs are useful for showing the differences between quantities. They can be used for population demographics, fuel costs, math ability in different grades, and many other kinds of data.

The graph in Figure 3.4.7 is well designed. It is relatively simple and is carefully labeled, making it easy for you to guide your reader through the quantities of each type of death. The bar graph is designed to show the difference between natural deaths and homicides across various age groups. When you look at the data, the first grouping clearly shows that eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds are more likely to die because of a homicide than any of the other age groups.


The graph in Figure 3.4.8 is a complicated bar graph depicting the disparity between the haves and the have nots within the United States. On the left hand side of the graph you can see that the top 20% of people within the United States account for 84.7% of all of the wealth and 50.1% of all of the income. On the other hand, those in the bottom 40% account for only 0.2% of the wealth and 12.1% of the actual income.



While the graph is very well designed, it presents a great deal of information. In a document, readers will have time to sit and analyze the graph, but in a speaking situation, audience members need to be able to understand the information in a graph very quickly. For that reason, this graph is probably not as effective for speeches as the one in Figure 3.4.7.

Pie Graph

Pie graphs should be simplified as much as possible without eliminating important information. As with other graphs, the sections of the pie need to be plotted proportionally. In the pie graph shown in Figure 3.4.9, we see a clear and proportional chart that has been color-coded. Color-coding is useful when it’s difficult to fit the explanations in the actual sections of the graph; in that case, you need to include a legend, or key, to indicate what the colors in the graph mean. In this graph, readers can see very quickly that falls are the primary reason children receive concussions.

Note that the information is organized from greatest percentage to the smallest in a clockwise direction. Use this method to represent the information in a logical order.



Figure 3.4.9 Causes of Concussions in Children. Source:Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking, 2012.



The pie graph in Figure 3.4.10 is jumbled, illegible, confusing, and overwhelming in every way. The use of color coding doesn’t help. Overall, this graph simply contains too much information and is more likely to confuse an audience than help them understand something.


In the world of visual aids, representations is the word used to classify a group of aids designed to represent real processes or objects. Often, technical communicators want to visually demonstrate something that they cannot physically bring with them to the speech. In this section we’re going to explore four common representations: diagrams, maps, photographs, and video or recordings.


Diagrams are drawings or sketches that outline and explain the parts of an object, process, or phenomenon that cannot be readily seen. Like graphs, diagrams can be considered a type of chart, as in the case of organization charts and process flow charts.




Figure 3.4.11 The Human Eye. Source: Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking, 2012.

When you use a diagram, be sure to explain each part of the phenomenon, paying special attention to elements that are complicated or prone to misunderstanding. In the example shown in Figure 3.4.11, you might wish to highlight that the light stimulus is reversed when it is processed through the brain or that the optic nerve is not a single stalk as many people think.


Maps are extremely useful if the information is clear and limited. There are all kinds of maps, including population, weather, ocean current, political, and economic maps, so you should be able to find the right kind for the purpose of document. Choose a map that emphasizes the information you need to deliver.

The map shown in Figure 3.4.12 is simple, showing clearly the geographic location of Nigeria. This can be extremely valuable for some audiences who might not be able to name and locate countries on the continent of Africa.



Figure 3.4.12 African Map with Nigerian Emphasis. Source: Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking, 2012.


Figure 3.4.13 is a map of the state of Rhode Island, and it emphasizes the complicated configuration of islands and waterways that characterize this state’s geography. Although the map does not list the names of the islands, it is helpful in orienting the audience to the direction and distance of the islands to other geographic features, such as the city of Providence and the Atlantic Ocean.

Photographs and Drawings


Sometimes a photograph or a drawing is the best way to show an unfamiliar but important detail. Figure 3.4.14 is a photograph of a ships rigging. This photograph emphasizes the sheer amount and complexity of the ship’s rigging.

Video or Audio Recordings

Another very useful type of visual aid is a video or audio recording. Whether it is a short video from a website such as YouTube or Vimeo, or a piece of a podcast, a well-chosen video or audio recording may be a good choice to enhance your document if it is distributed in an electronic form. For example, this text includes several links to outside visual support, which makes this document a dynamic and informative text.

TABLE 3.1.1 Common types of illustrative graphics–a summary

[Skip Table]
Type of Visual Description and Purpose
Table Places detailed data/information in categories formatted into rows and columns for comparison; used when exact figures are important. Label column headings (box heads) and/or rows (stubs).
Graphs Bar Graph Compares and contrasts two or more subjects at the same point in time, or compares change over time.
Column Graph Reveals change in a subject at regular intervals of time.
Line Graph Shows the degree and direction of change relative to two variables; compares items over time, shows frequency or distribution, or shows correlations.
Charts Pie Chart Displays the number and relative size of the divisions of a subject; shows relation of parts to a whole (parts must sum to 100% to make sense).
Org. Chart Maps the divisions and levels of responsibility or hierarchy within an organization.
Flow Chart Shows the sequence of steps in a process or procedure.
Gantt Chart Indicates timelines for multi-stepped projects, especially used in proposals and progress reports.


Diagram Identifies the parts of a subject and their spatial or functional relationship; emphasizes detail or show dimensions.
Illustration Depicts information using pictorial detail.
Photo Shows what a subject looks like in realistic detail or shows it being used.
Map Shows the distribution of data using a geographic map.
Animation Simulates a process, operation, or incident.
Film clip Depicts a process, operation, or incident in realistic detail.

For more information on how to format content in a long report, see SELS’s A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports  (2021).


EXERCISE 3.7 Design a figure to match the data

Using what you have learned about figures and tables, create two different visual representations of the data described in the following paragraph. Explain why you chose those methods and list the pros and cons of each:

We surveyed the students in 3 sections of TEC400 (total of 100 students) to gauge which aspect of the writing process they found most challenging: Pre-writing, Drafting, or Revising. The results among the 3 sections were consistent. Overall 50% of students said that they found the Pre-writing stage to be the most challenging, while 28% found the Drafting stage most difficult and 22% said the Revision stage was most challenging (see Figure 1). These results suggest that we should place more emphasis on teaching and practicing pre-writing strategies during the course.

[create a Figure 1 and a descriptive caption that illustrates the data above]

Content on the type of visual aids was adapted from Stand up, speak out: The practice and ethics of public speaking, Saylor Academy, 2012. CC 3.0. The author of this first edition has chosen to remain anonymous.


Additional Resources

For a look at how professionals can animate data, check out Hans Rosling’s The joy of stats on YouTube [Online].


American Psychological Association (APA). (2020). Tables and figures. APA Style.

Anonymous. (2012). Stand up, speak out: The practice and ethics of public speaking, Saylor Academy. CC 3.0.

BBC Four. (2010, November 26). Hans Rosling’s 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes – The joy of stats. BBC. YouTube.

EPCOR, Edmonton’s Water Utility. (2010). Water consumption in Edmonton during 2010 gold medal hockey game. Cited in Flowing Data.

Graves, H. & Graves, R. (2011). Communicating through visuals. In A strategic guide to technical communications, 2nd ed. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press, pp. 137-148.

Potter, R. L. (n.d., 2017, 2021). A guide to writing formal technical reports: Content, style, format.
Original document by University of Victoria (n.d.). Engineering work term report guide: A guide to content, style and format requirements for University of Victoria engineering students writing co-op work term reports. (Updated by Suzan Last, October, 2017 and adapted by Robin L. Potter (2021). OER.

Image descriptions

Figure 3.4.1 image description:

A graph with no figure number or caption and no x or y axis labels, so it is difficult to determine what point it is trying to make. It shows something rising and falling during a hockey game. This thing spikes at the end of each period and drops dramatically when Canada wins.

[Return to Figure 3.4.1]

Figure 3.4.2 image description:

A graph charting water consumption in Edmonton during the 2010 Gold Medal Hockey Game. The graphs shows spikes in water consumption at the end of each period, followed by very low usage periods, especially near the end of the 3rd period, and between the end of the game and the medal ceremony. It also has a line depicting water usage the previous day, which was fairly steady throughout the day.

[Return to Figure 3.4.2]

3.5 Style Tips: Revising to Enhance Readability

Anything that you write in technical workplaces is designed to be read and used. As such the content must be designed so that it is usable. Thus, increasing usability means increasing the functionality of your document in terms of both content and document design—making it “user friendly.” If your document is difficult to read because vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphing, organization, or formatting is unclear, your reader will likely stop reading.

The Revision Checklist below offers a step-by-step process for revising your document to achieve a readable style. It incorporates key information fromChapter 2: Professional Style and Chapter 3: Document Design. Implementing this checklist means doing several “passes” over your document, looking at different aspects each time. For example, in your “first pass,” review the entire document for overall formatting, content requirements, coherent flow of information, and appropriate tone.

Revision Checklist

1. First Pass: Document-level Review

  • Review requirements to ensure that you have included all necessary content.
  • Make sure your title, headings, subheading, and table/figure labels are clear and descriptive. Headings should clearly and efficiently indicate the content of that section; figure and table captions should clearly describe the content of the visual.
  • Make sure visual elements have appropriate passive space around them.
  • Make sure ideas flow in a logical order and explanations come in a timely manner. Make sure visuals illustrate your textual information.
  • Write “reader-centred” prose: determine the relationship between your purpose in writing and your reader’s purpose in reading. Give your readers the information they want and need to get from your document as efficiently as possible.
  • Make sure you are using an appropriate tone (neutral, objective, constructive, formal).

2. Second Pass: Paragraph-level Review

  • Make sure each paragraph begins with a topic sentence that previews and/or summarizes the content to come.
  • Add coherent transitions to link one sentence logically to the next.
  • Delete unnecessary or irrelevant information.
  • Avoid overly long or short paragraphs (5-10 lines long is a reasonable guideline).

3. Third Pass: Sentence-level Review

  • Watch sentence length; consider revising sentences longer than 25 words. Vary the length and structure of sentences.
  • Look at the ratio of verbs to number of words per sentence. Generally, the more verbs/words in the sentence, the better the sentence.
  • Use concrete, strong, active verbs – avoid vague, passive, verbs and “is/are/was/were/being” whenever feasible (transform the –tion and –ment words into verbs).
  • Create a clear actor/action relationship (subject-verb).
  • Verbs like “make” “do” ‘have” and “get” have many possible meanings. Try to find more precise ones.
  • In general, keep subject and verb close together, and keep verb near the beginning of the sentence.

4. Fourth Pass: Word-level Review

  • Use concrete, specific, precise words; avoid vague, abstract, generalizing words.
  • Match your vocabulary to your audience: experts can tolerate complex information with a lot of terminology; general readers require simpler, less detailed descriptions/explanations.
  • Use clear, plain language rather than pompous diction; write to express, not impress.
  • Avoid “sound bite” phrases that have no real meaning; use a single word instead of a phrase whenever possible.
  • Avoid clichés, colloquial expressions, and slang. Rather, use conversational language.
  • Use second person (you) pronouns carefully and sparingly.
  • Avoid “ad speak” — don’t sound like you are “selling” something; use objective, measurable descriptors.

If your document incorporates sources, you will want to do an additional “pass” to make sure that all sources are cited properly and in chronological order in the body text, and that they all cross-reference to your list of references at the end of the document. See Chapter 6: Citing and Documenting in APA Style for details.



Teams are created in college and university as well as in workplaces to address the increasing degree of complexity of the projects that are assigned. The Conference Board of Canada includes teamwork skills as important skills to “enter, stay in, and progress in the world of work.” Teams are formed for many purposes; however, one important reason is to gather people with diverse experiences and expertise to solve problems and pursue opportunities. A project will only be as good as the team that completes it; as a result, creating a friendly, collaborative, efficient, and communicative team will go a long way to achieving success.

Learning Objectives

This section contains chapters with the following learning objectives:

4.1  Understand how to use team project management tools and strategies, such as team charters, agendas, minutes, and work logs to facilitate collaboration.

4.2 Understand various models for understanding team dynamics, and reflect on how you might apply them to help you and your team mates resolve conflicts and work productively.

4.3 Understand collaborative writing processes and strategies, and reflect on what works for your team.



The Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.). Employability skills.

4.1 Team Project Management Tools and Strategies

Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

Teamwork is a key component of almost any workplace, but it is essential in engineering and software development environments where you often find yourself working as part of a team on large projects. Imagine for a moment how many people must work together to design a product like Skyrim (Skyrim development team).

It is is widely accepted that team synergy and team intelligence lead to greater efficiency and better results in most situations. Why, then, are some people reluctant to engage in teamwork? Perhaps this reluctance stems from ineffective or dysfunctional teamwork experiences in the past. Often the culprit in these situations is not a “poor team player” or an “inability to get along with others.” More likely it was caused by one of two things: misaligned goals or confusion over roles. For teamwork to be effective, all members of the team must understand and share the goals of the project, and all members must fully understand their roles—what is expected of them, and how they will be held accountable. An effective team leader will make sure that goals and roles are fully understood by all team members.

“Introduction to Teamwork,” a section in Designing Engineers, by McCahan, et al. (2015) provides a detailed description of the stages of the Tuckman Team Formation model and the need for effective communications at each stage. You may already be familiar with the Tuckman model, which was first developed by Bruce Tuckman and involves Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning (Bruton & Lumen Learning, n.d.). At each phase, important interpersonal and project-related work is achieved. The activity ranges from getting to know the team members and brainstorming ideas, to weathering interpersonal and project challeges, to developing concensus and optimizing team performance, to meeting project deadlines and requirements and sharing in a sense of accomplishment (Bruton & Lumen Learning, n.d.). To learn more about the Tuckman model, see Chapter 4.2 Models for Understanding Team Dynamics or click Five Stages.

A team, according to McCahan et al., “is a group of people who come together to work in an interrelated manner towards a common goal.” They go on to differentiate a team from a group by noting that a team is connected by “a common purpose or goal and the reliance on the skills of all the members to meet the goal” (McCahan et al., 2015, p. 220). In other words, team members see themselves as part of a collective working towards a common goal rather than individuals working on separate tasks that may lead to an end product. They establish norms according to which all members must function so as to enable the team to achieve its goal (Bruton & Lumen Learning, n.d.). In order to work effectively, team members need to communicate clearly and constructively, and learn how to deal with crises and conflicts that will inevitably arise.

EXERCISE 4.1 Reflect on your previous team work experience

Think of a time when you had to work with others to produce something – a poster, presentation, document, etc. Briefly describe what the task was and then consider the following questions:

  1. What was the team’s overall goal?
  2. What was your job within the group?
  3. How were the jobs distributed?
  4. How well did your group function?  Did anyone on the team behave in ways that McCahan et al. characterize as “hitchhikers, hijackers, isolationists, and enablers”? (McCahan, 2015, p. 243).
  5. Was the outcome successful?
  6. Would you happily work with those team mates again on another project? Why or why not?
  7. How would you rate your overall experience and why?

Some common benefits of working in teams include increased productivity, increased innovation, and increased efficiency. Excellent teams have synergy that makes them more than simply the sum of their parts. The term “team intelligence” refers to the fact that collectively, teams have more knowledge and skill than the single individuals working separately. However, challenges can also arise when working in a team. Conflicts within a team do occur and often they begin as a result of poor communication and weak focus. Some ways to handle these challenges include the following:

There are several tools and strategies that teams can use to improve their functioning and productivity. Some examples include using the following documents:

Many software programs and apps can help teams manage projects. Students often use Google Docs to work collaboratively on a document or project. The most common one used in the workplace is Microsoft Project.  Whatever tool you choose to use, it should be something that all members can access and understand.

Team Charters

Team charters can take many forms and can serve a variety of functions depending on the context. In the business world, they often define the purpose, duration, scope and goals of team projects in term of the desired output. They might also list team members, resources, deliverables, reporting systems, and so on. In the working world, a team charter may have an audience that extends beyond the team members. Often, in an educational setting, a Team Charter as a way for each team to define their own values, expectations, goals and procedures.

The main purpose of the Team Charter in this context is to help team members ensure that they on “on the same page” so to speak; that you all have the same expectations of one another for how you will conduct yourselves, contribute equitably, and produce effectively. A team charter, then, can act as a set of “by laws” or guidelines, and can help to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts from arising in the future. It is a negotiated set of behaviours that you all agree will govern your interactions. It can also set you up for having the tools and procedures in place to successfully managing conflict when it does inevitably arise.  Here are some questions to consider when negotiating and creating your team charter:

Meeting Documents: Agendas and Minutes

What happens at team meetings should be planned and recorded for future reference. Agendas and Minutes are documents that do this. A meeting also should have a chair (the person who keeps things on track) and a recorder (who records what happened and what decisions were made). The Agenda is the plan for what you want to discuss and accomplish at the meeting. It is usually made up of a list of items, sometimes with a time frame for each item.

Sample Agenda

TEC400 Team Meeting Agenda


Place and time:



  • Updates from each team member (progress) (5 min each)
  • Develop work plan for upcoming week (15 min)
  • Determine next meeting time (5 min)
  • Work on Milestone 3 together (45 min)
  • Matters arising

Minutes follow up on the agenda by recording topics discussed and decisions made at a meeting. One person is responsible for recording the events of the meeting and distributing the minutes to each member (via email usually). That way, no one should forget the tasks they agreed to complete and their deadlines.

Sample Minutes

TEC400 Team Meeting Minutes

Thursday Feb, 15, 20XX

B3089, 3:30-4:45

Present: Jaime, Chris, Renee

Regrets: Joe (has the flu)


  • All team members have completed last week’s work plan (Joe emailed a report, as she is sick)
  • In the coming week, we plan to complete the following:
    Task Who will do it?
    1. Interview Facilities Management contact Renee
    2. Research bike share programs (Joe?)
    3. Design a survey/questionnaire Chris
    4. Do a site visit Jaime
  • Next meeting: next Thursday Feb 21, after class
  • Excellent progress during meeting; Joe confirmed via text that he will follow up on researching bike share programs.
  • Meeting adjourned 4:50 p.m.

Work Logs

Work logs are common documents used in the work place to keep track of what work is done, by whom, and how long it took. These can be very helpful for keeping a team on track and ensuring equitable workloads. To ensure accountability, have each team member sign off on the work log.

Sample Work Log
Date Task Description Assigned to Status / Date Completed Total Time Spent

Team signatures:

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

Gantt Charts

When planning  a team project over a significant time span, teams often use Gantt Charts to help map out the work schedule in a clear and detailed way. Gantt charts are typically used in proposals to show the target audience that the proposers have a well-thought out and feasible plan for completing the project. They can also be used in progress reports to update the reader on what tasks are complete, which are in progress, and which are yet to be completed.

Gantt charts can take many forms, and you can download software to make complex and detailed charts (see the Wikipedia page on Gantt Charts, for examples). However, using a simple table for the Gantt Charts you will create for course assignments will be sufficient. See the sample chart in Table 4.1.1 for an overview of some of the tasks that are included in projects that involve clients. Of course, the tasks will be different for every project you plan.

Table 4.1.1 Sample Gantt Chart outlining a project timeline

Sample Gantt Chart


The next section reviews several Models for Understanding Team Dynamics.


Bruton, J./L. & Lumen Learning. (n.d.). The five stages of team development. In The principles of management. Lumen Learning. OER. CC BY 4.0.

McCahan, S., Anderson, P., Kortschot,M., Weiss, P. E., & Woodhouse, K. A.  (2015).  Introduction to teamwork.  In Designing engineers: An introductory text.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, pp. 219-246.

Perelman, L.C.,  Paradis, J., Barrett, E. (n.d.). Gantt Charts. The Mayfield handbook of technical and scientific writing. MIT.

UESP Wiki. (2015). Skyrim: Development team. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages.

4.2 Five Models for Understanding Team Dynamics

An important aspect of effective teamwork entails understanding group dynamics in terms of both team situation and individual temperament. This section reviews a variety models often applied in workplaces that can help a team perform optimally and manage crises effectively.

The Tuckman Team Model

“Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development,” proposed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965, is one of the most famous theories of team development. It describes four stages that teams may progress through: forming, storming, norming, and performing, with a fifth stage that was added later: adjourning.  According to McCahan et al., the stages move from organizing to producing, and although the stages appear linear, in fact teams may move backwards depending on events that may influence the team and the communications strategies that they use. Some teams can also stall in a stage and never fully realize their potential. Figure 4.2.1 outlines these stages. Please refer to the McCahan et al. text (2015) or to Bruton & Lumen Learning (n.d.) for a more complete discussion.

circular diagram of Tuckman’s Linear Model of group development. Shows five stages: Forming, stroming, norming, performing, and adjourning.
Figure 4.2.1
The Stages of the Tuckman Model 
(eCampus Ontario, 2018). 

Note that at each stage, communication is a critical component of successfully moving to the next stage. The forming stage, when everyone is getting to know each other and are trying to make a good impression, is a good time to create a set of shared expectations, guidelines, or a team charter. A team forming activity is also a good idea to help build trust and get to know the various strengths and weaknesses of the team members. This is an orientation stage, on both interpersonal and professional levels, when preliminary boundaries and expectations are established.

The storming stage is the one most often characterized by group conflict and dysfunction. It is often when the preliminary expectations and boundaries are challenged as individuals learn more about each other’s motivations. This coincides with the “brainstorming” stage of the design process, in which each member contributes ideas that could potentially become the focus of the project. It is also the stage where team mates learn about each others’ strengths and weaknesses and try to determine what their roles will be in the project.  Learning to harness the constructive potential of conflict and compromise in this stage is important to progressing to the next stage. Key is differentiating between constructive conflict, characterize by disagreement over ideas, and destructive conflict, characterized by personal attacks. Avoiding the latter will create the momentum teams need to move to the next stage.

During the norming stage, if conflicts have been resolved and team mates have proved flexible, all is going well, each team member knows their role and works on their part of the project. Sometimes, people work independently in this stage, but check in with team mates frequently to make sure work flow is efficient and effective. Group cohesion ensures that everyone is responsible to the task and to each other.  Problems might arise at this stage if teammates do not fully understand their role, the team expectations, or the overall goal; revisiting the forming or storming stage may be required. In practical terms, checking in with team members will help resolve any questions regarding roles and goals.

Few first-time teams reach the performing stage, as this happens when teams have worked together well on several projects, have established a synergy, and have developed systems that that make projects go smoothly and efficiently. Less time is needed to form, storm and learn to norm; performing teams can move quickly and interdependently to tackle the task at hand. Adjourning and going their separate ways can often be somewhat emotional for these teams. Figure 4.2.2 from Nicoleti (n.d.) depicts the trajectory of each team member during each stage.

Forming: 4 arrows pointing to the centre. Storming, 4 arrows going in various random directions. Norming: 4 arrows going in almost the same direction. Performing: 4 arrows perfectly aligned. Adjourning: 4 arrows pointing outward from the centre in the 4 cardinal directions.
Figure 4.2.2 Trajectory of team mates during each stage of the Tuckman team formation model (Nicoleti, n.d.).

DISC Model

DISC theory, developed in 1928 by Dr. William Moulton Marston (who also, as it happens, created the Wonder Woman comic series!), has evolved into a useful model for conflict management as it predicts behaviours based on four key personality traits he originally described as Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance (1928/2002). The names of these four traits have been variously revised by others over the decades, so you might find different terms used in different contexts. The four general traits are now often described as (1) Dominance, (2) Influence/Inspiring (3) Steadiness/Supportive, and (4) Compliance/Conscientiousness (see Figure 4.2.3).

Circle separated into 4 quadrants, each with one of the DISC profiles briefly described
Figure 4.2.3 DISC Profile (Marston, 1928/2002).

Industries often use DISC assessments in professional contexts. Having some insight into your teammates’ personality traits can help when trying to resolve conflicts. General characteristics of each trait are as follows:

GRIP Model

Richard Beckhard’s GRPI model, originally developed in 1972, has been widely adapted in sports contexts as the GRIP model (see Figure 4.2.4), outlining four interrelated components of highly effective teamwork:

A circle in 4 pieces representing each of the GRIP elements: GOALS, ROLES, INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS, AND PROCESSES
Figure 4.2.4 GRIP Model of teamwork dynamics.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Model

Thomas and Kilmann’s model (1974) for handling team conflict outlines five main approaches to managing team conflict (Competing, Accommodating, Compromising, Avoiding, and Collaborating), placed in a matrix of two scales: Assertiveness—the degree to which one tries to meet one’s own needs and Cooperativeness—degree to which one tries to satisfy the needs of other team members (See illustration).

Each approach can have both positive and negative impacts:

  1. Competing: A highly assertive, but uncooperative behaviour, characterized by the urge to “win at all costs,” dominate, and engage in power struggles; can result in animosity, but it can also spur teammates to compete constructively, which can lead to interesting innovations if well managed.
  2. Accommodating: A highly cooperative but unassertive behaviour may seem like a good way to avoid conflict, but it can also lead to self-silencing of good ideas in order to appease others, which may lead to feelings of resentment.
  3. Compromising: Compromising is most moderate in both scales; while it might seem constructive, it can lead to dissatisfaction and mediocre progress or results. Sometimes compromise is necessary, but often, the best solution comes from a single inspirational source.
  4. Avoiding: Being unassertive and uncooperative is generally the least effective way to deal with conflict, as this simply avoids the problem and neglects the need for a solution. However, when a feasible solution to a problem seems impossible, sometimes ignoring it and focusing on what is positive can be more productive.
  5. Collaborating: Being highly assertive and cooperative is the best way to find solutions that benefit the whole team and build respect.

Lencioni Model

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni (2002), outlines five common problems teams experience that impact their effectiveness:

  1. Lack of trust: If team members do not trust each other, they are unlikely to take risks or ask for help. A lack of trust means a low level of comfort that makes it difficult to communicate and perform effectively as a team
  2. Fear of conflict:  Avoiding conflict can lead to an artificial “peace” at the expense of progress and innovation. Conflict is a normal part of team work and can be very productive if managed effectively.
  3. Lack of commitment: Team members do not commit to doing the work, do not follow through on decisions or tasks, do not meet deadlines, and let their teammates down, ultimately affecting the success of the whole project.
  4. Avoidance of accountability: Team members who do not see themselves as being accountable will produce work that is below the standard of excellence set by the team.
  5. Inattention to results: When team members focus on their own personal goals instead of project goals, they lose sight of the expected results that actually measure the success of the project. Not focusing on the results during the process means that no one is planning how to improve those results.
    A pyramid representing the Lencioni model
    Figure 4.2.5 Lencioni Model: Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002).

Lencioni advises tackling each dysfunction, displayed in the pyramid in Figure 4.2.5, from the bottom up. Establishing trust is a crucial first step to being able to manage conflict, achieve commitment, create accountability and focus on results.

EXERCISE 4.2 Apply these models to your experience

Apply one or more of these models to your past or current experience of teamwork:

  1. Have you engaged in the Tuckman team formation steps?
  2. Can you determine which of the DISC characteristics most closely matches your personality traits?
  3. Have you experienced a team project where misaligned goals or unclear roles had a negative impact?
  4. Do you think learning about the conflict modes or typical dysfunctions can help make your future team experiences more productive?
  5. Could you propose an alternative model for effective teamwork?

Beckhard, R. (1972). Optimizing team building efforts. Journal of Contemporary Business, pp. 23–27.

Bruton, J./L. & Lumen Learning. (n.d.). The five stages of team development. In The Principles of Management. Lumen Learning. OER. CC BY 4.0.

eCampus Ontario. (2018). Tuckman’s Linear Model of group development. In Communication for business professionals – Canadian Edition [Online]. eCampus Ontario. CC-BY-SA.

Lencioni, P. (2002). Five dysfunctions of a team. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Marston, W. M. (1928/2002). Emotions of normal people. Keegan Paul Trench Trubner and Co. Ltd. Republished London: Routledge, 2002.

McCahan, S., Anderson, P., Kortschot,M., Weiss, P. E., & Woodhouse, K. A.  (2015).  Introduction to teamwork. In Designing engineers: An introductory text. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, pp. 219-246.

Nicoleti, D. (n.d.). Modelo de Tuckman.png. Wikimedia Commons. . CC BY-SA 4.0.

Thomas, K. W. &  Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Tuxedo NY: Xicom.

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), pp. 384-399. Available:

4.3 Collaborative Writing

Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

You have likely had at least one opportunity to work and write collaboratively with others, as this is an increasingly common way to work, both in school and in the workplace. The engineering design process, for example, at least in part, entails working collaboratively to gather, organize, manage and disseminate information (McCahan, et al., 2015). This information is often carefully analyzed and used to make important decisions, so it is critical that team members collaborate effectively in managing these communications tasks.

Engineers report spending a considerable amount of their time writing, and they frequently engage in collaborative writing. A recent survey asked various professionals what portion of their work week was devoted to writing, collaborative writing, and international communications (Swartz, et al., 2018). The results shown in Table 4.3.1 indicate that collaborative writing makes up a significant portion of overall writing tasks.

TABLE 4.3.1 Percentage of total work week that engineers and programmers report spending on communications tasks
Engineers Programmers
Time spent writing 35 % 25 %
Time spent planning and writing documents collaboratively 19 % 12 %
Time spent communicating internationally (across national borders) 14 % 18 %

Research has also shown that “writing in general and collaborative writing in particular have been recognized to be fundamental to most professional and academic practices in engineering” (Gimenez & Thondhlana, 2012). Figure 4.3.1 shows that engineers rate writing skills as extremely important to career advancement (Swartz, et al., 2018).

37%=Extremely important; 36%=very important; 20%=moderately important; 5%=slightly important; 2%=not at all important
Figure 4.3.1 The importance of writing for career advancement for surveyed engineers. (Swartz, et al., 2018. CC-BY 4.0).

Like any kind of teamwork, collaborative writing requires the entire team to be focused on a common objective; according to Lowry et al., an effective team “negotiates, coordinates, and communicates during the creation of a common document” (2004). The collaborative writing process, like the Tuckman team formation model, is iterative and social, meaning the team works together and moves back and forth throughout the process.

Successful collaborative writing is made easier when you understand the different strategies you can apply, how best to control the document, and the different roles people can assume. Figure 4.3.2 outlines the various activities involved at various stages of the collaborating writing process.

Four collaborative writing stages. Image description available.
Figure 4.3.2  Collaborative writing stages (Last, 2019). [Image description]

Collaborative writing strategies are methods a team uses to coordinate the writing of a collaborative document. There are five main strategies (see Table 4.3.2), each with their advantages and disadvantages. Can you think of any other benefits or limitations?

TABLE 4.3.2 Collaborative writing strategies (adapted from Lowry et al., 2004; in Last, 2019)
[Skip Table]
Writing Strategy
When to Use Pros Cons

One member writes for the entire group.

For simple tasks; when little buy-in is needed; for small groups.

Efficient; consistent style.

May not clearly represent the group’s intentions; less consensus produced


Each member is in charge of writing a specific part and write in sequence.

For asynchronous work with poor coordination; when it’s hard to meet often; for straightforward writing tasks; small groups.

Easy to organize; simplifies planning.

Can lose sense of group; subsequent writers may invalidate previous work; lack of consensus; version control issues

Parallel Writing: Horizontal Division

Members are in charge of writing a specific part but write in parallel. Segments are distributed randomly.

When high volume of rapid output is needed; when software can support this strategy; for easily segmented, mildly complex writing tasks; for groups with good structure and coordination; small to large groups.

Efficient; high volume of output.

Redundant work can be produced; writers can be blind to each other’s work; stylistic differences; doesn’t recognize individual talents well.

Parallel Writing: Stratified Division

Members are in charge of writing a specific part but write in parallel. Segments are distributed based on talents or skills.

For high volume rapid output; with supporting software; for complicated, difficult-to-segment tasks; when people have different talents/skills; for groups with good structure and coordination; small to large groups.

Efficient; high volume of quality output; better use of individual talent.

Redundant work can be produced; writers can be blind to each other’s work; stylistic differences; potential information overload.

Reactive Writing

Members create a document in real time, while others review, react, and adjust to each other’s changes and addition without much pre-planning or explicit coordination.

Small groups; high levels of creativity; high levels of consensus on process and content.

Can build creativity and consensus.

Very hard to coordinate; version control issues.

Document management reflects the approaches used to maintain version control of the document and describe who is responsible for it. Four main control modes are listed in Table 4.3.3, along with their pros and cons. Can you think of any more, based on your experience?

TABLE 4.3.3 Document control modes (Last, 2019)
Mode Description Pros Cons
Centralized When one person controls the document throughout the process. Can be useful for maintaining group focus and when working toward a strict deadline. Non-controlling members may feel a lack of ownership or control of what goes into the document.
Relay When one person at a time is in charge but the control changes in the group. Democratic Less efficient
Independent When one person maintains control of his/her assigned portion. Useful for remote teams working on distinct parts. Often requires an editor to pull it together; can reflect a group that lacks agreement.
Shared When everyone has simultaneous and equal privileges. Can be highly effective; non-threatening; good for groups working F2F, who meet frequently, who have high levels of trust. Can lead to conflict, especially in remote or less functional groups.

Roles refer to the different hats participants might wear, depending on the activity. Table 4.3.4 describes several roles within a collaborative writing team. Which role(s) have you had in a group project? Are there ones you always seem to do? Ones that you prefer, dislike, or would like to try?

TABLE 4.3.4 Collaborative writing roles (Last, 2019)
Role Description
Writer A person who is responsible for writing a portion of the content
Consultant A person who is external to the project and has no ownership or responsibility for producing content but who offers content and process-related feedback (peer reviewers outside the team; instructor)
Editor A person who is responsible for the overall content production of the writers, and can make both style and content changes; typically has ownership of the content production
Reviewer A person, internal or external, who provides specific content feedback but is not responsible for making changes
Team Leader A person who is part of the team and may fully participate in authoring and reviewing the content, but who also leads the team through the processes, planning, rewarding, and motivating.
Facilitator A person external to the team who leads the team through processes but doesn’t give content-related feedback.
Digital Collaboration Tools: A Sample List

Collaborative writing is made easier through the use of digital tools. Below is a short list of some Seneca-approved collaboration tools.

EXERCISE 4.3 Follow up and reflect

Refer back to the warm-up in Exercise 4.1 at the start of this section. Using the tables above, analyze your example to determine the writing strategy and mode that best describes your experience, and what role(s) you took on.

How effective was the strategy that you used? Would another strategy have been more effective?


Educational Technology Advisory Committee. (n.d.).  Educational technology tool finder. Seneca College Employee Pages.

Gimenez, J. & Thondhlana, J. (2012). Collaborative writing in engineering: Perspectives from research and implications for undergraduate education. European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(5), pp. 471-487. DOI:

Last, S. (2019). Technical writing essentials: Introduction to professional communications in the technical fields. OER. BCcampus. CC BY 4.0.

Lowry, P. B., Curtis, A., & Lowry, M. R. (2004). Building a taxonomy and nomenclature of collaborative writing to improve interdisciplinary research and practice. Journal of Business Communication, 41, pp. 66-97. DOI:

McCahan, S., Anderson, P., Kortschot, M., Weiss, P. E., & Woodhouse, K. A.  (2015).  Introduction to teamwork. In Designing engineers: An introductory text. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, p. 14.

Swartz, J., Pigg, S., Larsen, J. Helo Gonzalez, J., De Haas, R. & Wagner, E. (2018). Communication in the workplace: What can NC State students expect? Report from the Professional Writing Program. North Carolina State University, 2018.

Image description

Figure 4.3.2 image description:

Four stages of collaborative writing

  1. Team Formation
    • Team introductions, getting to know each others’ skill sets
    • Team bonding, building trust
    • Operating agreements, setting expectations
  2. Team Planning
    • Review tasks to be done and roles of each team mate, create a work plan
    • Set team goals and objectives: milestones, deliverables, due dates
    • Determine processes for workflow and decision making
  3. Document Production
    • Plan the document: research, brainstorm, outline the document format and content
    • Compose a draft of the document
    • Revise: iterative revisions, consider using an outside peer reviewer
  4. Wind Up
    • Final document review to edit and approve content, organization, and style
    • Final document processing (proofreading and submitting)
    • External approval

[Return to Figure 4.3.2]



Most projects you work on—whether you are developing innovative new products, planning or implementing ideas, proposing ideas, or recommending solutions—will require research. Research can save you time by determining what other similar designs/solutions have already been proposed, what has been tried and tested in the past and what the results were, what patents are already in place, and so forth. It also helps you to understand the background of your project and how it fits into a larger context. Research helps you to find out about previous studies on your topic and what those researchers have concluded. Finally, research is necessary to help you to develop and validate your ideas by showing how similar projects have had beneficial outcomes. Researching is one of the key steps in any number of projects you may be working on once you enter the workplace.

Chapter 5 Learning Objectives

This chapter contains the following sections that will help you develop your research skills and meet the following learning objectives:

5.1 Understand basic research terminology related to conducting and disseminating various kinds of research.

5.2  Find and evaluate research sources and how to determine their reliability, authority, and relevance as research sources in professional context.

5.3 Understand how to use various methods to define the scope of your project and narrow your research question for a problem-based project.

5.4 Understand the human research ethics requirements and protocols when humans are involved (e.g., surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc.)

5.5 Understand what stakeholders are, how to map the stakeholders related to your project, and the general types of stakeholder engagement and consultation strategies commonly used in public engagement plans.


5.1 Research Terminology

Nicholas Walliman, in his handbook Research Methods: The Basics, defines research methods as “the tools and techniques for doing research” (2011). These techniques include collecting, sorting, and analyzing the information and data you find. The better the tools and more comprehensive the techniques you employ, the more effective your research will be. By extension, the more effective your research is, the more credible and persuasive your argument will be.

Here are some basic terms and definitions you should be familiar with:

Research: the systematic process of finding out more about something than you already know, ideally so that you can prove a hypothesis, produce new knowledge and understanding, and make evidence-based decisions

Research Methods:  techniques of collecting, sorting, and analyzing information/data

Data:  bits of information.

The typical kinds of research sources you will use can be grouped into three broad categories:

Data can be categorized in several ways:

Primary data

Data that have been directly observed, experienced and recorded close to the event. These are data that you might create yourself by

  • Measurement: collecting numbers indicating amounts (temperature, size, etc.)
  • Observation: with your own senses or with instruments (camera, microscope)
  • Interrogation: conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, polls, or questionnaires
  • Participation: experience of doing or seeing something (visit the site, tour the facility, manipulate models or simulations, Beta test, etc.)

Note: Primary research done in an academic setting that includes gathering information from human subjects requires strict protocols and will likely require ethics approval. Ask your instructor for guidance and see Chapter 5.4 Human Research Ethics.

Secondary Data

Comes from sources that record, analyze, and interpret primary data. It is critical to evaluate the credibility of these sources. You might find such data in

  • Academic research: refereed academic studies published in academic journals
  • Print sources: books, trade magazines, newspapers, popular media, etc.
  • Online research: popular media sources, industry websites, government websites, non-profit organizations
  • Non-written Material: TV, radio, film, such as documentaries, news, podcasts, etc.
  • Professional Documents: annual reports, production records, committee reports, survey results, etc.

Quantitative Data

Use numbers to describe information that can be measured quantitatively. These data are used to measure, make comparisons, examine relationships, test hypotheses, explain, predict, or even control.

Qualitative Data

Use words to record and describe the data collected; often describe people’s feelings, judgments, emotions, customs, and beliefs that can only be expressed in descriptive words, not in numbers. These include “anecdotal data” or personal experiences.

Research methods are often categorized as quantitative, qualitative, or “mixed method.” Some projects, like a science project, require the use of the scientific method of inquiry, observation, quantitative data collection, analysis, and conclusions to test a hypothesis. Other kinds of projects take a more deductive approach and gather both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support a position or recommendation. The research methods you choose will be determined by the goals and scope of your project, and by your intended audience’s expectations. More specific methodologies, such as ways to structure the analysis of your data, include the following:

In all cases, the way you collect, analyze, and use data must be ethical and consistent with professional standards of honesty and integrity. Lapses in integrity can not only lead to poor quality reports in an academic context (poor grades and academic dishonesty penalties), but in the workplace, these lapses can also lead to lawsuits, loss of job, and even criminal charges. Some examples of these lapses include

Failing to cite quoted, paraphrased or summarized sources properly is one of the most common lapses in academic integrity, which is why your college writing subjects, COM101 and COM111, spent considerable time and effort to give you a sophisticated understanding of how and why to avoid plagiarizing, as well as the consequences of doing so. If you would like to review this information, see Appendix C: Integrating Source Evidence into Your Writing, and consult Seneca College’s Policy on Academic Integrity and Seneca’s Student Resources on Academic Integrity .



Seneca College. (n.d.) Academic Integrity Policy.

Seneca College. (n.d.). Student Resources. Academic Integrity at Seneca College.

Walliman, N. (2011). Research ethods: The basics. New York: Routledge.

5.2 Finding and Evaluating Research Sources

In this “information age” when so much information is available at our fingertips on the Internet, it is crucial to be able to critically search through the reams of information in order to select credible sources that can provide reliable and useful data to support your ideas and convince your audience. In the era of “fake news,” deliberate misinformation, and “alternative facts,” developing the skill to evaluate the credibility of sources is critical.

Since you have completed COM101 and COM111, you are familiar with academic journals and how they differ from popular sources, as in Figure 5.2.1. These contain peer-reviewed articles written by scholars, often presenting their original research, reviewing the original research of others, or performing a “meta-analysis” (an analysis of multiple studies that analyze a given topic). If you would like to refresh your memory on this, watch this Seneca Libraries video: Popular and Scholarly Resources.

Magazines like Psychology Today are popular sources. Academic journals like the Journal of Marriage and Family are scholarly
Figure 5.2.1 Examples of Popular vs Scholarly Sources (Last, 2019).1

Scholarly articles published in academic journals are usually required sources in academic research essays; they are also an integral part of engineering projects and technical reports. Many technical rojects require a literature review, which collects, summarizes and sometimes evaluates the work of researchers in a field whose work has been recognized as a valuable contribution to the “state of the art.” However, they are not the only kind of research you will find useful. Since you are researching in a professional field and preparing for the workplace, you will draw upon many credible kinds of sources in a professional context.

Table 5.2.1 lists several types of sources you may find useful in researching your projects. You should also consult Seneca Libraries Writing and Communicating Technical Information: Key Resources, where you will find key databases for technical research.

TABLE 5.2.1 Typical research sources for technical projects
[Skip Table]
Source Type Description
Academic Journals, Conference Papers, Dissertations, etc.

Scholarly (peer-reviewed) academic sources publish primary research done by professional researchers and scholars in specialized fields, as well as reviews of that research by other specialists in the same field.

For example, the Journal of Computer and System Sciences publishes original research papers in computer science and related subjects in system science; International Journal of Robotics and Animation is one of the most highly ranked journals in the field.

Reference Works

Specialized encyclopaedias, handbooks, and dictionaries can provide useful terminology and background information.

For example, the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology is a widely recognized authoritative source.

You may cite Wikipedia or in a technical report, but be sure to compare the information to other reliable sources before use.


Chapters in Books

Books written by specialists in a given field usually contain a References section that can be very helpful in providing in-depth context for your ideas.

For example, Designing Engineers by Susan McCahan et al. has an excellent chapter on effective teamwork

Trade Magazines and Popular Science Magazines

Reputable trade magazines contain articles relating to current issues and innovations; therefore, they can be useful in determining what is “cutting edge,” or finding out what current issues or controversies are affecting the industry.

Examples include Computerworld, Wired, and Popular Mechanics.

Newspapers (Journalism)

Newspaper articles and media releases offer a sense of what journalists and people in industry think the general public should know about a given topic. Journalists report on current events and recent innovations; more in-depth “investigative journalism” explores a current issue in greater detail. Newspapers also contain editorial sections that provide personal opinions on these events and issues.

Choose well-known, reputable newspapers such as The New York Times.

Industry Websites (.com)

Commercial websites are generally intended to “sell,” so you have to select information carefully, but these websites can give you insights into a company’s “mission statement,” organization, strategic plan, current or planned projects, archived information, white papers, technical reports, product details, costs estimates, etc.

Organization Websites (.org)

A vast array of .org sites can be very helpful in supplying data and information. These are often public service sites and are designed to share information with the public.

Government Publications and Public Sector Websites (.gov/.edu/.ca)

Government departments often publish reports and other documents that can be very helpful in determining public policy, regulations, and guidelines that should be followed.

Statistics Canada, for example, publishes a wide range of data.

University websites also offer a wide array of non-academic information, such as strategic plans, facilities information, etc.


You may have to distinguish your innovative idea from previously patented ideas; you can look these up and get detailed information on patented or patent-pending ideas.

Public Presentations

Public consultation meetings and representatives from industry and government speak to various audiences about current issues and proposed projects. These can be live presentations or video presentations available on YouTube or TED talks.


Can you think of some more? (Radio programs, podcasts, social media, etc.)

The importance of critically evaluating your sources for authority, relevance, timeliness, and credibility cannot be overstated. Anyone can put anything on the internet; and people with strong web and document design skills can make this information look very professional and credible—even if it isn’t. Since much research is currently done online, and many sources are available electronically, developing your critical evaluation skills is crucial to finding valid, credible evidence to support and develop your ideas. In fact, this has become such a challenging issue that there are sites like this List of Predatory Journals that regularly update its online list of journals that subvert the peer review process and simply publish for profit.

Mark Twain, supposedly quoting British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” On the other hand, H.G. Wells has been (mis)quoted as stating, “statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write” (Quora, n.d.). The fact that the actual sources of both of these “quotations” are unverifiable makes their sentiments no less true. The effective use of statistics can play a critical role in influencing public opinion as well as persuading in the workplace. However, as the fame of the first quotation indicates, statistics can be used to mislead rather than accurately inform—whether intentionally or unintentionally.

When evaluating research sources, be careful to critically evaluate the authority, content, and purpose of the material, using questions in Table 5.2.2. You may also want to view the brief Seneca Libraries video, Evaluating Websites.

TABLE 5.2.2 Evaluate the authority, content, and purpose of information
[Skip Table]

Who are the researchers/authors/creators? Who is their intended audience?

What are their credentials/qualifications? What else has this author written?

Is this research funded? By whom? Who benefits?

Who has intellectual ownership of this idea? How do I cite it?

Where is this source published? What kind of publication is it?

Authoritative Sources: written by experts for a specialized audience, published in peer-reviewed journals or by respected publishers, and containing well-supported, evidence-based arguments.

Popular Sources: written for a general (or possibly niche) public audience, often in an informal or journalistic style, published in newspapers, magazines, and websites with a purpose of entertaining or promoting a product; evidence is often “soft” rather than hard.



What is the methodology of their study? Or how has evidence been collected?

Is the methodology sound? Can you find obvious flaws?

What is its scope? Does it apply to your project? How?

How recent and relevant is it? What is the publication date or last update?


Is there sufficient data here to support their claims or hypotheses?

Do they offer quantitative and/or qualitative data?

Are visual representations of the data misleading or distorted in some way?

Intended Use and Intended Audience

Why has this author presented this information to this audience?

Why am I using this source?

Will using this source bolster my credibility or undermine it?

Am I “cherry picking” –  using inadequate or unrepresentative data that only supports my position, while ignoring substantial amount of data that contradicts it?

Could “cognitive bias” be at work here? Have I only consulted the kinds of sources I know will support my idea? Have I failed to consider alternative kinds of sources?

Am I representing the data I have collected accurately?

Are the data statistically relevant or significant?

Given the pie chart in Figure 5.2.2, if you only consulted articles that rejected global warming in a project related to that topic, you would be guilty of cherry picking and cognitive bias.

Pie chart showing that of the 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles between 1991-2012, only 24 rejected global warming
Figure 5.2.2 The number of articles that reject global warming out of all peer-reviewed climate articles within a 21 year time period (DeSmog Blog, n.d.).

Beware of Logical Fallacies

We all have biases when we write or argue; however, when evaluating sources, you want to be on the look out for bias that is unfair, one-sided, or slanted. Consider whether the author has acknowledged and addressed opposing ideas, potential gaps in the research, or limits of the data. Look at the kind of language the author uses: is it slanted, strongly connotative, or emotionally manipulative? Is the supporting evidence presented logically, credibly, and ethically? Has the author cherry-picked or misrepresented sources or ideas? Does the author rely heavily on emotional appeal? There are many logical fallacies that both writers and readers can fall prey to (see Table 5.2.3). It is important to use data ethically and accurately, and to apply logic correctly and validly to support your ideas.

TABLE 5.2.3 Common logical fallacies
[Skip Table]
Bandwagon Fallacy

Argument from popularity – “Everyone else is doing it, so we should too!”

Hasty Generalization

Using insufficient data to come to a general conclusion.

E.g., An Australian stole my wallet; therefore, all Australians are thieves!

Unrepresentative Sample

Using data from a particular subset and generalizing to a larger set that may not share similar characteristics.

E.g.,  giving a survey to only female students under 20 and generalizing results to all students.

False Dilemma

“Either/or fallacy” – presenting only two options when there are usually more possibilities to consider

E.g.,  You’re either with us or against us.

Slippery Slope

Claiming that a single cause will lead, eventually, to exaggerated catastrophic results.

Slanted Language

Using language loaded with emotional appeal and either positive or negative connotation to manipulate the reader

False Analogy

Comparing your idea to another that is familiar to the audience but which may not have sufficient similarity to make an accurate comparison

E.g., Governing a country is like running a business.

Post hoc, ergo prompter hoc

“After this; therefore, because of this”

E.g., A happened, then B happened; therefore, A caused B.

Just because one thing happened first, does not necessarily mean that the first thing caused the second thing.

Circular Reasoning

Circular argument – assuming the truth of the conclusion by its premises.

E.g.,  I never lie; therefore, I must be telling the truth.

Ad hominem

An attack on the person making an argument does not really invalidate that person’s argument. It might make them seem a bit less credible, but it does not dismantle the actual argument or invalidate the data.

Straw Man Argument

Restating the opposing idea in an inaccurately absurd or simplistic manner to more easily refute or undermine it.


There are many more… can you think of some?

For a bit of fun, check out Spurious Correlations.

Critical thinking lies at the heart of evaluating sources. You want to be rigorous in your selection of evidence because, once you use it in your paper, it will either bolster your own credibility or undermine it.

  1. Cover images from journals are used to illustrate the difference between popular and scholarly journals, and are for noncommercial, educational use only.

Government of Canada. Statistics Canada.

Last, S. (2019). Technical writing essentials. BCcampus.

Seneca Libraries. (2013, July 2). Evaluating Websites. Seneca College. YouTube.

Seneca Libraries. (2013, July 2). Popular and Scholarly Resources. Seneca College. YouTube.

Seneca Libraries. (2021, January 4 updated). Writing and Communicating Technical Information: Key Resources. Seneca College.

What is the source of the H.G. Wells quote, ‘Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write/”? (n.d.). Quora.

Why climate deniers have no credibility — in one pie chart.  DeSmog Blog.

5.3 Defining the Scope of your Project

Often, when you are first given a project, the problem is fairly general and open-ended. This allows you to approach the problem in a variety of ways, but also requires you to do some work to decide which particular approach you will take. Most projects will require careful consideration of scope.

Who is your audience? What is your purpose? What are the limitations placed on what can be expected or achieved? What are the constraints you have to work within? Clearly, no project will be relevant to all people in all places at all times. You must define the scope by considering:

Your project will first require background research to clearly define the problem you are tackling. How do you know there is a problem? What measurable impacts can you point to? What will you need to prove that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed? Can you provide data to show the extent of the “unsatisfactory situation” and how it negatively affects people? Is there an expected goal or target that any proposed solution is expected to meet?

The process of coming up with a focused idea for your research can take many forms. Strategies for narrowing and focusing include the following:

In engineering fields, projects most often take a problem-solution approach. This entails clearly defining the problem in as open-ended a way as is feasible, possibly considering its causes and effects, and potentially coming up with or evaluating ideas for a solution.

In presenting your solution, you will have to find research to provide support for the basic premise of your research question (is this idea feasible?) and prove your hypothesis (will it be effective/beneficial?). You might do this by showing that similar ideas have been implemented and/or researched in other areas, or that the ideas you are presenting are based on sound evidence. Collecting your own primary data (such as a questionnaire or site visit) may also help show how your ideas are feasible in the local community context.

Using appropriate methods and finding the right sort of research allows you to convince people that your ideas have validity and merit, and that the knowledge you have acquired or created is evidence-based. Research gives you the tools to inform and persuade by doing the following:

The first step in most projects is figuring out what you don’t know and what you need to know. Without this basic context work, it’s difficult to work your way to finding relevant sources that can help you apply and analyze information and data from sources, and synthesize them into your own argument or recommendation.

A problem-solving approach offers many ways to narrow your focus. Try creating a concept map like in Figure 5.3.1 to get a sense of the many ways you might approach your topic, and then narrow down your focus to one of those approaches. This will help you think of key words to use in your search for sources. The more you brainstorm, the more potential key words and synonyms you can come up with. The “mind map” below shows various ways to consider the larger context of your problem and find a specific area to focus on.

Hand-drawn concept map with "Climate Change" in the bubble, and several ideas radiating from it.
Figure 5.3.1 Concept map for refining a topic on climate change (University of Victoria Libraries, n.d.). [Image description]

This kind of “graphic brainstorming” can help you consider many different ways your topic can be approached. You can ask questions such as how? why? who? to further extend this exploration. Your goal here is to narrow down your focus to one “bubble” (that is perhaps 3 or 4 nodes away from your central topic node) that can afford a promising topic while limiting the scope to something you can accomplish in the given time frame and assignment specifications (word count, research requirement, goal, etc.). For brief instructions on how to use a concept map, view the following video found through The Learning Portal: How to use concept mapping  (2016).

Clearly you can’t solve the problem of climate change in one paper or project. And no reasonable instructor or employer would expect you to do so. However, you might be asked to explore effective ways to reduce carbon emissions in a specific industry in a given period of time and/or geographical region. Or you might investigate whether a particular form of alternative energy would be effective in a particular situation. Even then, you would have to consider approaches. Would you recommend changing a policy or law to try to address the causes of the problem? Providing incentives to industry or consumers? Innovating a current technology or process? Creating a new technology or process? Evaluating a currently proposed solution?

Researching what other people working in this field have studied and written about can help you refine your focus and choose how you want to “participate in this conversation.” The ultimate aim is to narrow your topic enough to provide a specific question to guide your research and identify key words and terminology related to your topic. A good research question should be somewhat open ended; that is, the answer should not be a simple “yes” or “no.” The focus of your research question should allow you to provide a comprehensive answer that takes context into careful consideration.

Figure 5.3.2 shows a more specifically problem-based approach to concept mapping the general idea and finding areas of potential focus.  A good focus for a paper or project will likely be 3-4 nodes away from the central problem box.

A problem-based approach to concept mapping. Image description available
Figure 5.3.2 Refining your project scope using a problem-based approach to concept mapping (Last, 2019). [Image description]

You generally cannot cover all of these issues in one paper or project. Try to narrow your focus so that you can research a specific aspect of the topic in-depth. Choose one specific focus (proposing a solution), and consider what other aspects must be included (defining the problem; choosing a specific demographic or geographical area to focus on).

As an example, consider the issue of Climate Change and how it might fit into each of these “narrowing your focus” categories.

Examples of Narrowing the Focus on Climate Change Topics

Define the Problem

Several years ago, research focused on defining the problem of climate change, and convincing the general public and government officials that a problem exists and is serious enough that we must start working on solutions immediately. Now, the vast majority of scientists and researchers accept that a problem exists: The climate is indeed warming and this is a problem. Ongoing research might determine ways to convince people who are not yet convinced and ways to motivate people to take the problem seriously enough to consider changing their behaviour or policies.

Identify Causes

In the last few years, there has been controversy over what the CAUSES of this problem are. Is climate change a naturally occurring, cyclical phenomenon or “anthropogenic” (human-caused)? Research has convinced most people that climate change is anthropogenic: that human consumption of fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.

Research is ongoing about what kinds of activities (fracking, building dams, etc.) might contribute more or less to climate change. Research might also consider effective ways to modify human behaviour in order to slow down those causes.

Identify Effects

Much research currently explores the effects of climate change, and even how we can determine what specific effects can be the direct effect of climate change. This can be done from many different disciplinary approaches. For example:

  • Social justice research explores how certain groups of people (based on geography or socio-economic status) are impacted more severely than others.

  • Political theorists may explore how different government types create different kinds of policies in response to the problem.

  • In economics, researchers might try to predict how climate change may affect certain aspects of the global or local markets.

  • In psychology, researchers might explore how people respond to the idea of climate change (e.g., stress, depression, motivation, etc.). 

  • Environmental researchers have numerous possible topics!  For example, how is climate change affecting a particular species in a particular region?  What impact might this have on the local ecology or human society?  How should building standards in coastal areas be adapted for climate change?      

Explore Solutions

Research questions—such as “Are Carbon Taxes and Caps an Effective Way to Reduce GHS Emissions?” and “Will Developed Nations’ Taxes Help Developing Countries Create Low Carbon Technologies?”—analyze the effectiveness of proposed or currently implemented solutions. Some research compares the effectiveness of two possible solutions. Some propose new solutions (Tidal Power or AI controlled systems to enhance efficiency). Some might propose implementation of previous solutions in new contexts.


As you can see, research will be needed in all stages and sections of your project.

EXERCISE 5.1 Background research

Think of a problem you have recently encountered on campus – something that caused inconvenience, unnecessary cost, or some other “unsatisfactory situation” for you. What kind of research would you have to do to prove

  1. That this is a significant problem that needs solving?
  2. That it affects a large number of people, not just you?
  3. That this situation has tangible, measurable, negative consequences?

How would you convince someone in a position of authority (i.e., “decision-makers”) that they should apply time and resources to remedy this situation?

Use Seneca College Libraries library guide for technical communication to help you determine where you can find appropriate sources to research this problem in more depth. Here is the link: Writing and Communicating Technical Information (2021, updated).


The Learning Portal. (2016, September 1). How to use concept mapping. YouTube.

Seneca College Libraries. (2021, January 4, updated). Writing and Communicating Technical Information. Seneca College.

University of Victoria Libraries. (n.d.). [Concept Map].

Image descriptions

Figure 5.3.1 image description:

A concept map to brainstorm topics related to climate change.

Climate change

[Return to Figure 5.3.1]

Figure 5.3.2 image description:

A problem based approach to concept mapping.

What is the central problem or issue you are researching?

  1. Define the problem.
    1. Are people aware of the problem? Do you need to create awareness?
    2. Is the current situation misunderstood?
  2. Identify causes.
    1. Need to create awareness?
    2. Known causes
    3. Yet to be determined?
    4. Controversial?
  3. Identify effects.
    1. Environmental
    2. Political
    3. Social
    4. Economic
  4. Look at solutions.
    1. Propose a solution
    2. Compare or evaluate proposed solutions
    3. Critique proposed solutions
    4. Consider disciplinary approaches

[Return to Figure 5.3.2]

5.4 Human Research Ethics


“Primary research” is any research that you do yourself in which you collect raw data directly from the “real world” rather than from articles, books, or internet sources that have already collected and analyzed the data. If you are collecting data from human participants, you are engaging in “human research” and you must be aware of and follow strict ethical guidelines of your academic institution. Doing this is part of your responsibility to maintain academic integrity.

In Canada, any post-secondary educational institution that receives funding from one of the three federal granting bodies must ensure that all research involving humans conducted at that institution complies with the Tri-Council Policy Statement (2018). These rules are in place to protect people and communities from potential risk or harm and to ensure ethical conduct while doing research. In some cases, your program instructors may have applied for “course-based ethics approval” for students in their classes to conduct certain kinds of carefully limited research (such as surveys or interviews) for a class project or assignment. Ethics approval is generally required for research that collects data from human subjects in the following ways:

These are the most common methods used in undergraduate courses. There are many other methods, including engaging with people and their information via social media, organizing focus groups, engaging in beta-testing or prototype trials, etc. But for the purposes of your writing course, these other methods are generally not recommended because they involve additional ethical considerations for you and your instructor.

Guidelines for Students Conducting Human Research

At Seneca College, it will be unlikely that you conduct research using human subjects. Should the opportunity arise, you must first check in with your professor who will determine if an application must be submitted to the college Research Ethics Board (REB). In order to adhere to the ethical requirements involved in conducting human research, you must abide by the following ethics guidelines when recruiting participants, gaining their informed consent, and managing the data you collect. For more detailed information, see Seneca College’s Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Human Subjects Policy (2007).

Ethics Guidelines for Conducting Course-Based Human Research–The Basics (Last, 2019)

Recruiting Participants

When recruiting potential participants, you must give them the following information before you begin:

  • Student researcher(s) name(s):  Inform them of your name and contact information
  • Affiliation:  Provide a) the name of your institution, b) your course name and number, and c) your instructor’s name and contact information
  • Purpose:  Describe the purpose of your research (objectives), and the benefits you hope will come from this research (overall goal). Your research should not involve any deception (e.g., claiming to be gathering one kind of information, such as “do you prefer blue or green widgets?”, but actually gathering another kind, such as “what percentage of the population is blue/green color blind?”).

Informed Consent

You must gain the informed consent of the people you will be surveying, interviewing, or observing in non-public venues. This can be done using a consent form they can sign in person, or an “implied consent” statement on an electronic survey. The consent form should include all the information in the “recruiting” section above; in addition, you should

  • inform participants that their participation is voluntary and that they may withdraw at any time without consequence, even if they have not completed the survey or interview,
  • disclose any and all risks or discomfort that participation in the study may involve, and how these risks or discomfort will be addressed, and
  • ensure that all participants are adults (19 years of age or older) and fully capable of giving consent; do not recruit from vulnerable or at-risk groups, and do not collect demographic data regarding age, gender, or any other information not relevant to the study (e.g., phone numbers, medications they are taking, whether they have a criminal records, etc.).

Managing the Data

Participants should be told what will happen to the data you gather:

  • In the case of surveys, the data is anonymous if you will not track who submitted which survey.  In anonymous surveys, let participants know that once they submit their survey, it cannot be retrieved and removed from the overall results.
  • Let survey participants know a) that your research results will be reported without their names and identifiers, b) where the data will be stored, c) how it will be “published”, and d) what will happen to the raw data once your project is complete
  • Let interview participants know how their information will be used and if their names will be included or cited.

There may be additional issues that must addressed, such as accessibility and cultural considerations, but those listed above are the most essential. If you are unsure whether a particular line of inquiry or method of data collection requires ethics approval, you should ask your instructor, and your instructor should contact Seneca’s Office of Research and Innovation. Most importantly, you should always be completely up front and honest about what and how you are researching.

It may seem like “a lot of fuss” to go through simply to ask people whether they prefer blue widgets or green widgets, but there are important reasons for these guidelines. In the past, people posing as students have conducted “surveys” on campus for unethical reasons, asking students questions that were inappropriate and even harassing. People participating in your research need to be reassured that you are doing this for a legitimate reason, and must be able to contact the relevant faculty member or the campus research ethics office to verify that you have authority to do this research.

For larger scale research projects, such as for a capstone course, an honour’s or master’s thesis, or a dissertation, students must apply for ethics approval with their academic supervisor before doing any research involving human subjects. Failure to obtain ethics approval before conducing research may result in the data not being accepted as part of the project, thesis or program. It may  prevent work from being accepted for publication, and can result in a university audit or academic integrity investigation.

Designing a Survey

When designing a questionnaire to give to the public, you must avoid doing anything that would cause physical or emotional harm to your participants. For example, be careful how you word sensitive or controversial questions in surveys and during interviews.  Be careful to avoid inserting unintended bias or asking leading questions. You want to design questions to get meaningful and accurate responses rather than ambiguous information that is impossible to quantify or analyze. For more detailed information on how to design effective and ethical questionnaires, see Purdue University’s OWL site for information on Creating Good Interview and Survey Questions.

If you plan to conduct a survey as part of your research project, you may be asked to provide your instructor with detailed information regarding your research methodology. Commonly requested details are in the checklist below.

Course-Based Human Research Checklist (Last, 2019)

Students wishing to do human research to collect data for a class project may be asked to provide their instructor the following information:

  • A brief description of the project in lay language that can be understood by the participants and clearly identifies that this is a course-based project; this must include the course name and number, the instructor’s name and contact information, and the names of all persons involved in collecting data for the project
  • A full description of all data collection methods, procedures, and instruments, as well as expectations regarding the amount of time required for participation; copies of any questionnaires must be provided for the instructor’s approval
  • A copy of the informed consent form that will be read and signed by the participants
  • A sample script you will use to explain to participants that their participation is entirely voluntary and that they can withdraw at any time, without explanation or consequences
  • The means by which participants’ anonymity will be protected and data will be kept confidential
  • How the raw data, including tapes, notes and other types of data will be disposed of at the end of the project
  • The way in which the results will be presented and/or dissemination.



Government of Canada. (2018/2020, February 19, modified). Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical conduct for research involving humans. Panel on Research Ethics.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). (n.d.). Creating good interview and survey questions. Purdue University.

Seneca College. (2007, October 31). Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Human Subjects Policy.

5.5 Stakeholder Engagement and Consultation


One important area of primary research undertaken when embarking on any large scale project entails “public engagement,” or stakeholder consultation. Public engagement is the broadest term used to describe the increasingly necessary process that companies, organizations, and governments must undertake to achieve a “social license to operate.” Stakeholder engagement can range from simply informing the public about plans for a project, to engaging in more consultative practices like getting input and feedback from various groups, and even to empowering key community stakeholders in the final decision-making process.

For projects that have social, economic, and environmental impacts, stakeholder consultation is an increasingly critical part of the planning stage. Creating an understanding of how projects will affect a wide variety of stakeholders is beneficial for both the company instigating the project and the people who will be affected by it. Listening to stakeholder feedback and concerns can be helpful in identifying and mitigating risks that could otherwise slow down or even derail a project. For stakeholders, the consultation process creates an opportunity to be informed, as well as to inform the company about local contexts that may not be obvious, to raise issues and concerns, and to help shape the objectives and outcomes of the project.

What is a Stakeholder?

Stakeholders include any individual or group who may have a direct or indirect “stake” in the project – anyone who can be affected by it, or who can have an effect on the actions or decisions of the company, organization or government. They can also be people who are simply interested in the matter, but more often they are potential beneficiaries or risk-bearers. They can be internal – people from within the company or organization (owners, managers, employees, shareholders, volunteers, interns, students, etc.) – and external, such as community members or groups, investors, suppliers, consumers, policy makers, etc. Increasingly, arguments are being made for considering non-human stakeholders such as the natural environment (Driscoll & Starik, 2004).

Stakeholders can contribute significantly to the decision-making and problem-solving processes. People most affected by the problem and most directly impacted by its effects can help you

People who are attempting to solve the problem can help you

There are also people who could help solve the problem, but lack awareness of the problem or their potential role. Consultation processes help create the awareness of the project to potentially get these people involved during the early stages of the project.

Stakeholder Mapping

The more a stakeholder group will be materially affected by the proposed project, the more important it is for them to be identified, properly informed, and encouraged to participate in the consultation process. It is therefore critical to determine who the various stakeholders are, as well as their level of interest in the project, the potential impact it will have on them, and power they have to shape the process and outcome. You might start by brainstorming or mind-mapping all the stakeholders you can think of. See Figure 5.5.1 as an example.

Hand-drawn concept map with 35 color-coded nodes listing stakeholders in the traffic citation system
Figure 5.5.1 Sample Brainstorm Stakeholder Map (Hagan, 2017, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Once you have identified stakeholders who may be impacted, organize them into categories or a matrix. One standard method of organizing stakeholders is to determine which are likely to be in support of the project and which are likely to oppose it, and then determine how much power or influence each of those groups has (see Figure 5.5.2).  For example, a mayor of a community has a strong level of influence. If the mayor is in full support of the project, this stakeholder would go in the top right corner of the matrix. Someone who is deeply opposed to the project, but has little influence or power, would go at the bottom left corner.

A tool for mapping the level of support different groups have for a project in relation to their level of influence
Figure 5.5.2 Sample stakeholder mapping matrix

A matrix like this can help you determine what level of engagement is warranted:  where efforts to “consult and involve” might be most needed and most effective, or where more efforts to simply “inform” might be most useful.  You might also consider the stakeholders’ level of knowledge on the issue, level of commitment (whether in support or opposed), and resources available.

Levels of Stakeholder Engagement

There are various levels of engagement, ranging from simply informing people about what you plan to do to actively seeking consent and placing the final decision in their hands. This range, presented in Figure 5.5.3, is typically presented as a “spectrum” or continuum of engagement from the least to most amount of engagement with stakeholders.

spectrum moves from left to right: Inform, consult, involve, collaborate, empower.
Figure 5.5.3 Spectrum of public engagement

Depending on the type of project, the potential impacts and the types and needs of stakeholders, you may engage in a number of levels and strategies of engagement across this spectrum using a variety of different tools (see Table 5.5.1):

  1. Inform:  Provide stakeholders with balanced and objective information to help them understand the project, the problem, and the solution alternatives. (There is no opportunity for stakeholder input or decision-making.)
  2. Consult: Gather feedback on the information given. Level of input can range from minimal interaction (online surveys, etc.) to extensive. Can be a one-time contribution or ongoing/iterative opportunities to give feedback to be considered in the decision-making process.
  3. Involve: Work directly with stakeholders during the process to ensure that their concerns and desired outcomes are fully understood and taken into account. Final decisions are still made by the consulting organization, but with well-considered input from stakeholders.
  4. Collaborate: Partner with stakeholders at each stage of decision-making, including developing alternative solution ideas and choosing the preferred solution together. The goal is to achieve consensus regarding decisions.
  5. Empower: Place final decision-making power in the hands of stakeholders. Voting ballots and referenda are common examples. This level of stakeholder engagement is rare and usually includes a small number of people who represent important stakeholder groups.
TABLE 5.5.1 Typical tools for public engagement
Inform Consult Involve / Collaborate / Empower
  • Public meetings
  • Briefings
  • News media
  • Public presentations
  • Info kiosks
  • Hotlines
  • Newsletters
  • Bulletins
  • Social media
  • Websites
  • Fact sheets
  • Arts and entertainment
  • Blog posts
  • Public meetings, hearings, workshops, town halls
  • Focus groups
  • Study circles
  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Opinion polls
  • Questionnaires
  • Social media
  • Suggestion boxes
  • Comment forms
  • Consensus workshops
  • Charrettes
  • World Cafes
  • Study groups
  • Focus groups
  • Task force
  • Think tanks
  • Advisory boards, committees
  • Citizen panels or juries
  • Polling
  • Votes, referenda
  • Social media

Basic Steps for a Consultation Process

There is no single “right” way of consulting with stakeholders. Each situation will be different so each consultation process will be context-specific and will require a detailed plan. A poorly planned consultation process can backfire as it can lead to a lack of trust between stakeholders and the company. Therefore, it is critical that the process be carefully mapped out in advance, and that preliminary work is done to determine the needs and goals of the process and the stakeholders involved. In particular, make sure that whatever tools you choose to use are fully accessible to all the stakeholders you plan to consult; an online survey is not much use to a community that lacks robust wifi infrastructure. Consider the following steps:

  1. Situation Assessment: Who needs to be consulted about what and why? Define internal and external stakeholders, determine their level of involvement, interest level, and potential impact, their needs and conditions for effective engagement.
  2. Goal-setting: What is your strategic purpose for consulting with stakeholders at this phase of the project? Define clear understandable goals and objectives for the role of stakeholders in the decision making process. Determine what questions, concerns, and goals the stakeholders will have and how these can be integrated into the process.
  3. Planning/Requirements: Based on situation assessment and goals, determine what engagement strategies to use and how to implement them to best achieve these goals. Ensure that strategies consider issues of accessibility and inclusivity and consider vulnerable populations. Consider legal or regulatory requirements, policies, or conditions that need to be met. Determine how you will collect, record, track, analyze and disseminate the data.
  4. Process and Event Management: Keep the planned activities moving forward and on-track, and adjust strategies as needed.  Keep track of documentation.
  5. Evaluation: Design an evaluation metric to gauge the success of the engagement strategies; collect, analyze, and act on the data collected throughout the process. Determine how will you report the results of engagement process back to the stakeholders.
Stakeholder Consultation:  Communication Skills

Effective communication is the foundation of stakeholder consultation. The ability to create and distribute effective information, develop meaningful relationships, build trust, and listen to public input is essential. The basic communication skills required for any successful stakeholder engagement project include:

  • Effective Writing: the ability to create clear and concise written messages using plain language and structural conventions.
  • Visual Rhetoric: the ability to combine words, images, and graphics to support, clarify, and illustrate ideas and make complex issues understandable to a general audience.
  • Public Speaking/Presenting: the ability to present information to large audiences in a comfortable and understandable way. The ability to create effective visual information that increases the audience’s understanding.
  • Interpersonal and Intercultural Skills: the ability to relate to people in face-to-face situations, to make them feel comfortable and secure, and to be mindful of cultural factors that may affect interest level, accessibility, impact, values, or opinions.
  • Active Listening: the ability to focus on the speaker and portray the behaviors that provide them with the time and safety needed to be heard and understood. The ability to report back accurately and fully what you have heard from participants.
Additional Resources

For information on developing stakeholder consultation with indigenous communities, read Part I: Stakeholder Consultation. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has an online “Public Participation Guide (EPA, n.d.).  For a recent and local example of a stakeholder engagement plan, see the University of Victoria’s  “Campus Greenway Engagement Plan (University of Victoria Campus Planning and Sustainability, n.d.).  A significant step in this plan — a Design Charrette — was implemented in the fall of 2018; the results of that engagement activity, presented in a Summary Report (.pdf) (University of Victoria Campus Planning and Sustainability,  2018), and it resulted in changes and augmentation of the original plan based on stakeholder feedback.



Clennan, R. (2007, April 24).  Part 1: Stakeholder consultation. International Finance Corporation. PDF. [Accessed February 9, 2021].

Driscoll, C. & Starik, M. (2004). The primordial stakeholder: Advancing the conceptual consideration of stakeholder status for the natural environment. Journal of Business Ethics, 49(1),  pp. 55-73.

EPA. (n.d.).  Public Participation Guide: View and Print Version. United States Environmental Protection Agency. [Accessed Feb. 24, 2019].

Hagan, M. (2017, August 28). Stakeholder mapping of traffic ticket system. Open Law Lab. Available: . CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.[Accessed Feb 24, 2019].

University of Victoria Campus Planning and Sustainability. (n.d.).  Engagement plan for: The University of Victoria Grand Promenade landscape plan and design guidelines. Campus Greenway. University of Victoria.

University of Victoria Campus Planning and Sustainability. (2018). The Grand Promenade Design Charrette: Summary Report 11.2018,” Campus Greenway. University of Victoria.



Citing and documenting your sources is a critical component of using research in your writing and presentations. It gives credit to the experts upon whom you have relied to build your argument. From an ethical standpoint, citing correctly, accurately, and thoroughly strengthens your credibility and the validity of your ideas.

Chapter 6 Learning Objectives

This chapter will help you understand how to use APA style to

  • cite summarized, paraphrased, and quoted information
  • create in-text citations that alert the reader to your use of a source,
  • effectively place in-text citations within your sentences,
  • create an informative and usable References section, and
  • document various kinds of sources you may use in your documents.

It contains the following sections:

6.1 Writing Summaries

6.2 Integrating Evidence into Your Writing

6.3. Referring to Authors and Titles

6.4 Creating a References List: Sample Entries

6.5 Frequently Asked Questions

6.1 Writing a Summary


Knowing how to summarize is the first step in being able to use research information in your document ethically. A summary provides an objective, condensed (shortened) description of the content of a piece of writing or presentation. Unlike a review, it does NOT analyze, evaluate, or critique; your opinion of the work is not typically part of the summary (unless you have been asked to add your thoughts afterward). Since summaries usually occur within a context (e.g., part of your report), your thoughts about what you have summarized will probably be relevant to your subsequent analysis. But when writing the actual summary of someone else’s ideas, you must neutrally and accurately describe what you take to be the important ideas in the author’s or presenter’s work in as few words as possible. Occasionally, if the work you are summarizing has an unusual form, style, or tone that affects the content, your summary might describe HOW the author presents those ideas.

What is the purpose of a summary?

A summary is meant to inform your reader—who has not read the text or seen the presentation—of what the text or speech is about. It describes its purpose or main idea, and summarizes the supporting arguments that develop that idea. The summary often forms the foundation upon which a critique or new ideas rely. Following a good summary, a reader will then know if he or she will find the information useful and if reading or viewing the original is worthwhile.

In technical contexts, you will find the following types of summaries, which serve different purposes:

Being able to write a clear and useful summary is a valuable skill both in academic and professional contexts.

How do you write an effective academic summary?

Before you can summarize anything, you must understand the original text and do some pre-writing. Some of the most common flaws in summaries come from not completing these pre-writing steps. For example, some summary writers get bogged down in the small details and neglect to present the main idea; or they present a series of unconnected thoughts that come directly from the source, but do not coherently indicate what that source was about or how ideas were developed; occasionally, a writer may summarize the structure of a text instead of the ideas in that text. These errors occur because the pre-writing work was done poorly.

A Note About Online Paraphrasing Tools: Online paraphrasing tools are being used by many students to switch-up the language of an original text in order to avoid plagiarism. It is highly ill-advised to use such a tool. The text that the machine creates is often nonsensical due to a haphazard use of vocabulary that is devoid of context. You are strongly advised not to use such tools.

Pre-writing Stage

  1. Actively read the article or pay attention to the presentation. Make notes. Make sure you understand what you are summarizing: What is its main purpose? What is the “thesis”? What are the main points that support the thesis? Explain it verbally to someone else or in free writing. Use your own words to make sure you really understand what you have read or seen.
  2. Reread the article (or your notes on the presentation, or the slides if they have been provided) and break it up into sections or “stages of thought.” Briefly summarize each section and indicate how it relates to the main idea. Again, paraphrase. Omit the finer details.
  3. Keep your purpose and intended audience in mind when you design your summary; remember, your intended reader has not read the article or seen the presentation. Why are you summarizing it? Why is your audience reading your summary?

Writing Stage

Now you are ready to begin writing your summary. Follow these steps:

  1. Provide the author’s name and title of the text being summarized. If you are are summarizing a speaker’s presentation, give the presenter’s name, the title or topic of the presentation. If context is important to your summary, give some details about the intended audience, etc.
    • In “Can Ethics be Technologized?” Peter Dombrowski (1995) critiques the idea that …
  2. Paraphrase (write in YOUR OWN WORDS) the author’s THESIS or main idea:
    • … the idea that ethics can be reduced to an objective formula or algorithm that can be implemented in any given situation. 
  3. Describe, in a neutral and objective manner, how the author supports and develops the main idea. Do not editorialize (evaluate, critique, analyze, etc.); simply describe. Keep the following in mind:
    • Summarize the key points used to develop the main idea.
    • Leave out details and examples that are not important to the main idea.
    • Do not quote from the article, or limit quotations to a single key word or important phrase. Padding your summary with quotations is not an accepted method for summarizing.
    • Use signal phrases, such as “Dombrowski explains” and “Dombrowski asserts” to show that the ideas are not yours, but that they come from the article you are summarizing. Do not accidentally plagiarize. Do not inadvertently present the author’s ideas as your own.
    • Cite and document your source using the APA method; e.g., (Dombrowski, 1995).
    • Keep your summary at about 1/3 the length of the original.
  4. Pay attention to verb tense: summaries of ideas are generally given in the present tense, while results and findings are often given in the past tense.

Summaries of presentations are generally given in the past tense since the presentation happened only once in the past, while a text can be read and reread several times, making it more “present.” However, a video presentation, such as a TED Talk, would likely be summarized in the present tense, much like an article, because it can be reviewed over and over again. The verb tense you should use is not subject to absolute rules; you will have to use some judgment to determine what sounds best (and what sounds awkward).

Example Reference

Dombrowski, P. M. (1995, September). Can Ethics be Technologized? Lessons from Challenger, Philosophy, and Rhetoric.  In IEEE Transactions of Professional Communication, 38.3, pp. 146-50 . DOI:  10.1109/47.406727

Rewriting Stage

Review and revise your draft using the following steps:

  1. Revise content and organization: Is it complete? Should you add any key ideas? Is it well organized? Is the content accurate? Does it follow the order of ideas of the original text?  Can you get rid of any unnecessary content? Have you used your own words and phrasing?
  2. Edit for flow:  Do ideas flow smoothly together? Are sentences clear, concise, correct and coherent? Or do they require effort to decode? Do transitions effectively indicate the relationships between ideas? Have you effectively introduced, developed and concluded?
  3. Proofread: Look for mechanical errors (typos, spelling, punctuation), and for grammar and usage errors that may have crept in during revision and editing.

Signal Phrases

Signal phrases allow you to clearly indicate when words, phrases and ideas you include in your writing come from someone else. These include verbs that introduce summaries, paraphrases, and quotations. In general, it is best to avoid verbs like

Instead, use a verb that more precisely and accurately describes the author’s rhetorical intention — describe what the author is DOING in this quotation, or what rhetorical purpose the author is trying to achieve. Chapter 6.2 contains a useful table of Signal Verbs for various purposes.

 “I Can’t See the Forest for the Trees”

A summary should move from a statement of the general purpose to the specific ideas used to develop that purpose; it should be neither too vague nor too specific. There is an expression: “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” It means you get too focused on the details so you miss the “big picture.” You don’t want to be too general or too detailed. You want to give an accurate description of the forest as a whole, and quickly go over the main characteristics of the types of trees that comprise it (the key examples used to illustrate the main idea). Don’t let your summary get bogged down in the details, specific examples, and precise data (the species of fungus on the leaves of the trees).

See examples of paraphrases and summaries on the website for the Online Writing Lab at the University of Purdue.



Online Writing Lab (OWL). Paraphrase and summary exercises. University of Purdue.

6.2 Integrating Evidence into Your Writing

Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

Writing in both academic and professional technical contexts often entails being able to correctly and fluently incorporate and engage with other writers’ words and ideas in your own writing. The three main ways to integrate evidence from sources into your writing include quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. Each method requires a citation because you are using another person’s words and/or ideas. Even if you do not quote directly, but paraphrase source content and express it in your own words, you still must give credit to the original authors for their ideas.  Similarly, if you quote someone who says something that is “common knowledge,” you still must cite this quotation, as you are using their sentences structure, organizational logic, and/or syntax.

Integrating Quotations

WHY:  Using direct quotations in your argument has several benefits:

WHEN:  Be careful not to over-quote. Quotations should be used sparingly because too many quotations can interfere with the flow of ideas and make it seem like you don’t have ideas of your own. Typically, no more than a brief paragraph is quoted. Paraphrasing can be more effective in some cases.

So when should you use quotations?

How to Integrate Quotations Correctly

Integrating quotations into your writing happens on two levels:  argumentative and grammatical. At the argument level, the quotation is being used to illustrate or support a point that you have made, and you will follow it with some analysis, explanation, comment, or interpretation that ties that quote to your argument. Never quote and run: don’t leave your reader to determine the relevance of the quotation. A quotation, statistic, or bit of data cannot speak for itself; you must provide context and an explanation for quotations you use.  Essentially, you should create a “quotation sandwich” (see Figure C-1). Remember the acronym I.C.E. → Introduce – Cite – Explain.

A sandwich. "Introduce" and "Explain" are the pieces of bread that contain the quote
Figure C-1 Quotation sandwich (Last, 2019).

The second level of integration is grammatical. This involves integrating the quotation into your own sentences so that it flows smoothly and fits logically and syntactically. The three main methods to integrate quotations grammatically include the following:

  1. Seamless Integration Method: Embed the quoted words as if they were an organic part of your sentence (if you read the sentence aloud, your listeners would not know there was a quotation).
  2. Signal Phrase Method: Use a signal phrase (Author + Verb) to introduce the quotation, clearly indicating that the quotation comes from a specific source
  3. Colon Method: Introduce the quotation with a complete sentence ending in a colon.

Consider the following opening sentence (and famous comma splice) from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, as an example:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .”

1.  Seamless Integration: Embed the quotation, or excerpts from the quotation, as a seamless part of your sentence:

Charles Dickens begins his novel with the paradoxical observation that the eighteenth century was both “the best of times” and “the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859).

2.  Signal Phrase: Introduce the author and then the quote using a signal verb (scroll down to see a list of common verbs that signal you are about to quote someone):

Describing the eighteenth century, Charles Dickens observes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859).

3.   Colon: If you use your own introductory words form a complete sentence, you can use a colon to introduce and set off the quotation. This can give the quotation added emphasis.

Dickens defines the eighteenth century as a time of paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859).

The eighteenth century was a time of paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859).


Dickens, Charles. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities. Serialized. Discovering Dickens: A Community Reading Project. Stanford University.

Editing Quotations

When you use quotation marks around material, this indicates that you have used the exact words of the original author.  See the example below.

Sample Quotation, Citation, and Reference

Engineers are always striving for success, but failure is seldom far from their minds. In the case of Canadian engineers, this focus on potentially catastrophic flaws in a design is rooted in a failure that occurred over a century ago. In 1907 a bridge of enormous proportions collapsed while still under construction in Quebec. Planners expected that when completed, the 1,800-foot main span of the cantilever bridge would set a world record for long-span bridges of all types, many of which had come to be realized at a great price. According to one superstition, a bridge would claim one life for every million dollars spent on it. In fact, by the time the Quebec Bridge would finally be completed, in 1917, almost ninety construction workers would have been killed in the course of building the $25 million structure” (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).

Petroski, H. (2014). The Obligation of an Engineer. In To Forgive Design. Boston: Belknap, p. 175.

Sometimes the text you want to quote will not fit grammatically or clearly into your sentence without making some changes. Perhaps you need to replace a pronoun in the quote with the actual noun to make the context clear, or perhaps the verb tense does not fit. There are two key ways to edit a quotation to make it fit grammatically with your own sentence:

You are allowed to change the original words, to shorten the quoted material or integrate material grammatically, but only if you signal those changes appropriately with square brackets or ellipses:

Example 1:  Petroski observed that “[e]ngineers are always striving for success, but failure is seldom far from their minds” (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).

Example 2:  Petroski recounts the story of a large bridge that was constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century in Quebec, saying that “by the time [it was done], in 1917, almost ninety construction workers [were] killed in the course of building the $25 million structure” (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).

Example 3:  “Planners expected that when completed the … bridge would set a world record for long-span bridges of all types” (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).

Integrating Paraphrases and Summaries

Instead of using direct quotations, you can paraphrase and summarize evidence to integrate it into your argument more succinctly. Both paraphrase and summary requires you to read the source carefully, understand it, and then rewrite the idea in your own words. Using these forms of integration demonstrates your understanding of the source, because rephrasing requires a good grasp of the core ideas.

Paraphrase and summary differ in that paraphrases focus on a smaller, specific section of text that when paraphrased may be close to the length of the original. Summaries, on the other hand, are condensations of large chunks of text, so they are much shorter (about 1/3 of the original length) than the original and capture only the main ideas. For more information on how to write a summary, see Chapter 6.1: Writing Summaries.

Sample Paraphrase
At the end of its construction, the large cantilever bridge cost $25 million dollars, but the cost in lives lost far exceeded the prediction of one death for each million spent. While the planners hoped that the bridge would set a global record, in fact its claim to fame was much more grim (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).
Sample Summary
According to Petroski, a large bridge built in Quebec during the early part of the twentieth century claimed the lives of dozens of workers during its construction. The collapse of the bridge early in its construction represented a pivotal design failure for Canadian engineers that shaped the profession (Petroski, 2014, p. 175).

Regardless of whether you are quoting, paraphrasing or summarizing, you must cite your source any time you use someone else’s intellectual property—whether in the form of words, ideas, language structures, images, statistics, data, or formulas—in your document.

Using Signal Verbs

Use signal verbs to introduce summaries and paraphrased content. Verbs like “”says,” “writes” or “discusses” tend to be commonly over-used to signal a quotation and are rather vague. In very informal situations, people use “talks about” (avoid “talks about” in technical communications ). These verbs, however, do not provide much information about the rhetorical purpose of the author.

The list of signal verbs below offers suggestions for introducing quoted, paraphrased, and summarized material that convey more information than verbs like “says” or “writes” or “discusses.” When choosing a signal verb, try to indicate the author’s rhetorical purpose: What is the author doing in the quoted passage? Is the author describing something?  Explaining something? Arguing? Giving examples? Estimating? Recommending? WarningUrging?  Be sure the verb you choose accurately represents the intention of the source text. For example, don’t use “concedes” if the writer isn’t actually conceding a point. Look up any words you don’t know and add ones that you like to use.

Table C.1 Commonly used signal verbs (Last, 2019)
Making a claim Recommending Disagreeing or Questioning Showing Expressing Agreement Additional Signal Verbs











call for
























points out



















Be careful with the phrasing after your signal verb. In some cases, you will use “that” to join the signal phrase to the summarized or paraphrased text:

Smith argues that bottled water should not be allowed on college campuses (Smith, 20XX). 

But not all signal verbs can be followed by “that.”

It would be incorrect to write the following:

We can use clauses with that after these verbs related to thinking:

Think               I think that you have an excellent point.

Believe            He believes that unicorns exist.

Expect             She expects that things will get better.

Decide             He decided that it would be best to buy the red car.

Hope               I hope that you know what you are doing.

Know              I know that you will listen carefully

Understand      She understood that this would be complicated.

And after verbs related to saying:

Say                  She said that she would be here by 6 pm.

Admit              He admits that the study had limitations.

Argue              She argues that bottled water should be banned on campus.

Agree              He agrees that carbon taxes are effective.

Claim              They claim that their methods are valid.

Explain            He explained that the rules are complicated.

Suggest           They suggest that you follow instructions carefully.

But some verbs require an object (a person or thing) before you can use “that”:

Tell                  tell a person that… tell as story… tell the truth

Describe          describe the mechanism

Convince         convince an audience that you are credible

Persuade        persuade a reader that this is a worthwhile idea

Inform             inform a colleague that their proposal has been accepted

Remind            remind the client that …

Analyze            analyze a process; analyze a text; analyzethe problem

Summarize       summarize a text; summarize an idea

Support            I support the idea that all people are created equal



Practice Exercise C-1

Download the linked Word document containing a practice exercise for integrating quotations:
Integrating Quotations Exercise



6.3 Referring to Authors and Titles


Writing in academic and professional contexts often entails writing about or responding to the words and ideas of other authors and speakers. College writing is often a “dialogue” or conversation between students and their professors, so it is a good way to practice skills you will use in the workplace. Research conducted for courses generally builds on or reacts to the work of previous scholars. As student writers, you often use the works of published authors to support your arguments or provide a framework for your analysis. When you do this, you must cite and document your sources; you may also need to identify the author and title that you are referring to in the text. Here below are some basic conventions (rules) to follow when you refer to sources in text.  For examples of References entries, please go to Citing and Documenting Sources.

Referring to Authors

The first time that you mention the author, use the full name (but no titles, such as Mr. Ms, or Dr.). If there are more than three authors, use the Latin abbreviated term “et al.” to refer to additional authors. APA Style requires that you also include the publication date:

Every time you refer to the author after the first time, use the last name only. Never refer to the author by the first name (William or Will) only. Always use the last name:

Referring to Titles

When referring to titles, there are two distinct methods to indicate two types of works:

  1. APA Style requires that the titles of shorter works that are published within a larger work (an article in a newspaper, an academic article in a periodical, a chapter in a book) be noted using capitalization without quotations marks italics in a list of References, but with quotation marks or italics when mentioned in text. A larger, stand-alone work, like a book, is italicized in both cases. Titles of webpages are italicized. See examples below:
    • “The Case Against Bottled Water” is an editorial written by Justin Trudeau and Sean Petty, published in The Star, a Toronto newspaper (2008).
    • “People For Sale,” a magazine article published in The Utne Reader, is written by E. Benjamin Skinner (2008).
    • “Bottled Water: The Pure Commodity in the Age of Branding” is an academic journal article by Richard Wilk, published in the Journal of Consumer Culture (2006).
    • Reference Examples (2020) can be found on the APA Style website.
Tip:  Remember to always include the year of publication.
  1. When referring to titles of larger works, or works that have smaller articles published within them (books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, movies, novels, etc.), use italics* except for website titles, which are capitalized only:

* Note: Before computers, people underlined these kinds of italicized titles, as this was the only option available on a typewriter; however, underlining is “so 20th century” and is no longer done unless you are writing by hand.

Using these conventions helps the reader to know what kind of text you are writing about without you having to specify it. Like most specialized terminology or conventions, it offers a kind of short hand to avoid wordiness. If you do this incorrectly, you mislead and confuse the reader.

For example, if you are writing about William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” you must use quotation marks around the title.  If you don’t use them, and simply write — the lamb — then you are referring to the animal, not the poem. If you italicize The Lamb, you are telling the reader that this is the title of a book (which is incorrect).

Question for Review

Why is the following incorrect? What mistaken ideas does it give to the reader?

In The Case Against Bottled Water, Sean and Justin explain why bottled water is not as safe as tap water.


American Psychological Association (APA). (2020). References examples. APA Style.

Petty, S. & Trudeau, J. (2008, August 11).  The case against bottled water. The Star.

Skinner, B. (2008, July/August). People for sale. Utne Reader.

Wilk, R. (2006, November). Bottled water: The pure commodity in the age of branding. Journal of Consumer Culture.

Phillips, R. W.,  Fyhyri, A., & Sagberg, F. (2011, August). “Risk compensation and bicycle helmets,” Risk Analysis, 31(8), pp. 1187-1195

6.4 Creating a References List

A list of references is where detailed information about the various research sources mentioned in your document are itemized. This list allows readers to learn more about your sources and use the information to validate your research. A list of references contains the author(s), year of publication, title, publication information, along with the URL for each source.

How do I set up my References list?

Different citation styles use various terms to introduce their list of references, for example, Bibliography or Works Cited. APA style uses the term References.

At the end of your paper, add a list of all the sources you have cited in your paper, in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name. Each reference must provide thorough and complete documentation so that readers can identify the kind of source, and retrieve it if they want to read it. It is important to use the correct conventions for each type of source, as readers familiar with academic conventions will expect this, and they will be able to tell what kinds of sources you are referencing based on what information is included and how it is formatted. If you use conventions incorrectly (such as failing to italicize or use quotation marks around titles to indicate what kind of source it is), you can confuse and mislead your readers.

Format Guidelines for Setting up a REFERENCES List

Here are some general formatting guidelines for setting up your references list:

  • Create a bold heading called References, aligned with the left margin. If you are using headings, make this heading consistent with other first level headings in your document.
  • The author’s last name should be flush with the left margin, and the second and other lines of the entry must be formatted using the “hanging indent” function.
  • Give all authors’ names (up to five), but only use the first initial. The last name of each author is written first, followed by the author’s initials. Separate names with commas, and include the ampersand (&) before the last author.
  • Capitalize only the first word (and the first word after a colon, as well as proper nouns) in titles of articles within journals, magazines and newspapers, chapters in books, conference papers, and reports. Only use ALL CAPS for acronyms.
  • Capitalize the first letter of all main words in the titles of books, journals, magazines and newspapers.
  • Add a space between references if you single space each reference.

If you use citation software (such as Zotero, Endnote, or Mendeley) to generate a list of references, be sure to review the references it generates for any errors. These programs are not foolproof, and it is up to you to make sure your references conform to APA conventions. For example, sometimes the auto-generator will give a title in ALL CAPS or the author’s full first name. You will have to revise this. They usually do not give DOIs; you may have to add these.

Sample References List

The sample References list below shows the preferred formatting. Note the hanging indent that makes the names on the left stand out in a highly readable format.


Brown, A. B., Adams, P. D., & Smith, J. A.  (1979, November).  Improved procedure for error detection. Can. J. of Elec. Engineers, 9, pp. 545-588.

McCahan, S., Anderson, P.,  Kortschot, M., Weiss, P. E., & Woodhouse, K. A. (2015).  Working in teams. In Designing engineers:  An introductory text. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, pp. 219-260.

Murdoch University Library. (2017, July 6). IEEE Style: A guide to referencing style for Murdoch University students and staff.  Murdoch University.

Ogot, M. & Kremer, G. (2004).  Engineering design: A practical guide. Pittsburgh: Togo Press.

Referencing Different Kinds of Sources–Examples

For detailed examples on creating References using APA style, visit the References Examples page on the APA Style website.

APA Style (2020) requires that the basic guideline for referencing online sources is to follow the standard citation for the print source given previously and add the electronic location (URL) or the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) at the end of the citation.  Add a URL at the end of the reference if the source is available on the World Wide Web.  If both a URL and a DOI are available, place the DOI last.

Articles from Journals and Magazines (items that are published periodically)

Author(s). (date). Article title. Journal or Magazine Title, volume # only(issue #), pp.  DOI [If available online, add URL and/or DOI link]


Zhou, H. Y. & Hou, K. M. (2012, August). Intelligent urban public transportation for accessibility dedicated to people with disabilities. Sensors, 12(8), xx-xx.

Note that the volume number is italicized and the issue number is not.


Sakals, M. (2015, September-October). Eyes in the sky: Unmanned aerial vehicles in the natural resources sector. Innovation Magazine [Online],19(5), 17-19.

Conference Paper

 Author(s). (date). Title of paper.  Presented at Name of Conf., City of Conf., Abbrev. State/Prov., pp. xxx-xxx. Paper   number [If available online, give URL or DOI].

Ibrahim, M. (2003). Creative design dynamics and creative systems. Presented at the 2003 IEEE Int. Systems Conference, Vancouver, BC.

Same paper published in conference proceedings:

Ibrahim, M. (2003). Creative design dynamics and creative systems. In Proc. 2003 IEEE Int. Systems Conf., Vancouver, BC, pp. 273-278. DOI: 10.1109/SYSTEMS.2009.4815811.

Newspaper Articles

Author(s). (year, Month, day). Title of article. Title of Newspaper. URL.


Wilson-Clark, C. (2004, March 29).  Computers ranked as key literacy. The West Australian.


Bart, B. (2002, October 14). Going faster. Globe and Mail. A p.1.

Webpage or Website (WWW) (material only available online such as blogs, etc.)

Author(s). (date). Webpage title. Website Name. URL.

Fogarty, M. (n.d.). Which versus that. Grammar Girl, Quick and Dirty Tips

Murdoch University Library. (n.d.).  IEEE Style: A guide to referencing style for Murdoch University students and staff. Murdoch University.


Author(s). (year). Title of book. City: Publisher.

Ogot, M. & Kremer, G. (2004).  Engineering design: A practical guide. Pittsburgh: Togo Press.

Chapter in a book

Author(s). (year). Title of chapter. In Title of book. City: Publisher, pp.

McCahan, S.,  Anderson, P.,  Kortschot, M.,  Weiss, P. E., & Woodhouse, K. A. (2015). Introduction to teamwork.  In Designing engineers: An introductory text. Hoboken: Wiley, pp. 219-260.

Technical Report (Government, Industry, Organizations)

Author(s). (date). Title of the report.  Name of Company/Organization, City, Report. #. URL or DOI

Delcan. (2019). Johnson Street Bridge Condition Assessment Report. Delcan and City of Victoria, Victoria, B.C.

University of Victoria Campus Planning and Sustainability. (2018).  The Grand Promenade: Design Charrette.  Campus Greenway, Summary Report 11.2018.

Personal Communication (interview, telephone, email, etc.)

Author. (year, Month, day ). Private communication.

Gates, Bill. (2021, January 27). Private communication.


Author. (year, Month, day). Title of patent. U.S. Patent x xxx xxx.

Wilkinson, J. P.  (1990, July 16).  Nonlinear resonant circuit devices. U.S. Patent 3 624 125.

Lecture or Presentation

Speaker. (Date). Title of Presentation/Lecture. Occasion and location of presentation. [Type of medium: URL if available online].

Potter, R.L. ( 2020, October 22). Team dynamics.  TEC400 Lecture. Seneca College.

Lecture Notes

Author. (date). Title of class notes. Class notes for Course Number. Department, University.

Smith, J. (2015, Winter). Maxwell’s equations and time-varying electromagnetic fields. Class notes for ECE359. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Victoria.

Reference Work (Encyclopedia, Dictionary, Handbook, etc.)

Author(s). (year). Chapter title. In Book title, xth ed. [Type of medium]. Editor(s) name(s), Ed(s). Location: Publisher, volume or chapter number (if available), pp. URL. Add the date access if you expect the source information to change..

With an author

Hart , D. & Bauen, A.  (2002). Fuel cell fuel cycles. In Fuel cell technology handbook. G. Hoogers, Ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. ENGnetBASE [Accessed: Sept. 22, 2008].

French, A. D., Bertoniere, N. R., Brown, R. M., Chanzy, H.,  Gray, D., Hattori, K., & Glasser, W. (2003). Cellulose. In Kirk-Othmer encylopedia of chemical technology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/0471238961.0305121206180514.a01.pub2.

No author

Composite material. (2008, May 18). In Wikipedia. [Accessed: May 24, 2008].

Image from a print source

Similar to a chapter in a book or article in a print journal:

Creator of image. (date). Title of image. In Title of article or Title of book, and the rest of the required publication information for an article or book.

Coutenay, B. (2021). Image of sunflower. In Flowers for all seasons. Toronto: Pearly Publishers.

Images from an online source

Creator of image. (date). Title of the image. Web Site name, the URL.

Coutenay, B. (2021). Image of a sunflower. Flowers Almanac.


Artist. (Credit). (date). Title of episode.Title of Program: Subtitle. Publisher. Available: URL.

Gary, S. (Presenter). (2019, June 12). Mars Insight’s drill fails. SpaceTime with Stuart Gary. Sydney: SpaceTime. [Podcast episode].



Find a variety of sources (at least 5 different types) on a specific topic related to your current course project. Set up a References list for them in APA Style.


American Psychological Association (APA). (2020).  References examples. APA Style.

Seneca College Libraries. (2021, February 9, updated). APA citation guide (APA 7th edition): Welcome. Seneca College.

6.5 Frequently Asked Questions

1. In-Text Citations – Where do they go?

It can be tricky to know exactly where to place the in-text citation in your sentence. Generally, the default position for a citation is at the end of the sentence, unless placing it there would create confusion. For example, where should the citation go in the following sentence?

Smith claims that “insert a quotation here,” but other scientists argue that her conclusions are flawed.

If you place the citation for Smith at the end of the sentence, you are saying that Smith acknowledges that many scientists think her conclusions are flawed. That wouldn’t make sense. You would have to cite like this:

Smith claims that “insert a quotation here” (2021), but other scientists (Jones, 2019; Blake, 2020; and Singh, 2021) argue that her conclusions are flawed.

The citation can be placed at several places:

Occasionally, some writers use APA citations like this:

As Jones (2019) and Blake (2020) have shown, quantum theory has many practical applications in real world settings. Singh (2021) disagrees, however, and argues that ….

NOTE: Your citation should NOT go inside the quotation marks; it is not part of the quotation. However, punctuation must be placed AFTER the citation, as that citation is part of that sentence (or clause), not part of the next sentence.  For example

Author X claims “this idea is a quotation” (2021). The next sentence starts here…

Author X claims “this idea is a quotation” (2021), and I add my interpretation after.

This is why you must put the period AFTER the citation when a sentence ends with a citation. A citation that comes AFTER the period technically belongs to the next sentence, as in the preceding example.

For detailed information on creating citations, please visit the APA Style In-text Citations page.

2. Do I need to keep citing the source every time I refer to it?

If you are discussing the ideas in a source at length (for example, in a summary), you do not need to cite every consecutive sentence. Cite the first time you mention the source. As long as the following sentences clearly indicate that the ideas come from the same source—for example, you are using signal phrases, such as “the author further clarifies the problem by…”—you do not need to keep citing.

If you stop using signal phrases, be sure to include a citation. If you introduce material from another source or add your own analysis between references to that source, you will have to re-cite the source when you refer to it again. Always make sure your reader knows which ideas come from a source, and which come from you, and when you shift from one to the other. If in doubt, cite.

3. What if a source has more than one author?

If the source you are citing has one or two authors, use their names in your signal phrase:

If the source has three or more authors, use the name of the lead author, followed by “et al.”– the Latin term meaning “and the others.” In APA style, “et al.” does not have to be italicized:

NOTE: In your Reference at the end of your paper, it is a courtesy to list the names of ALL the authors who contributed to the source (rather than using “et al.”). However, if there are 6 or more authors, it is acceptable to use “et al.” in your reference list.

4. How do I find the title of an academic journal?

 Figure 6.1.1 shows a typical .pdf file of a journal article. It will help you determine the various elements of an academic article that must be included in your reference. Note the difference between the database (such as Elsevier, EbscoHost, JSTOR, etc.) and the name of the journal.

An academic article will have information about the database, title, volume, issue, date, pages, authors, doi, and summary
Figure 6.1.1 Elements of an Academic Article.

American Psychological Association (APA). (2020).  APA Style.

American Psychological Association (APA). (2020).  In-text citations. APA Style.

Seneca College Libraries. (n.d.). APA citation guide (APA 7th edition): Welcome. Seneca College.



Technical communication involves the routine transmission of information that enable technical personnel to perform their routine tasks. Just as the literary genre of poetry contains many forms — such as sonnets, haiku, epics, limericks, etc., — each with its own set of rules and conventions, technical writing also contains many forms, and each form has some conventions that must be observed. Technical writing includes many forms which have conventions that must be observed.  These forms and conventions include

• Formats, which refer to the overall document type
• Conventions, which include the standard components and content for each of the document types

This chapter discusses the formatting of technical documents, including reports, using recognized conventions. It also introduces routine correspondence along with technical information types.

Chapter 7 Learning Objectives

In the following sections, you will learn about general format, structure, and content expectations. You will learn to

7.1  Format Documents using recognized conventions for document design

7.2 Create effective Correspondence: Text Messages, E-mails, Letters, and Memos that help you achieve your goals

7.3 Apply principles of organization, parallelism, and enumeration to create Instructions

7.4 Convey understandable technical information using Technical Descriptions and Definitions




7.1 Formatting Technical Documents


Robin L. Potter

Technical documents are typically created using conventional formats that are recognized in professional contexts. For example, letters have a familiar look because of the standard components that are used to format such documents. These formats serve to signal the level of formality and the purpose of the documents. They also help to create a degree of standardization in the documentation that circulates within and outside of organizations. Formats also inform readers on how to read the documents. When you create a document in the workplace, it is expected that you will use formats and styles customarily used within the organization.

The chapter on Correspondence includes information on formatting email, memos, and letters. This chapter will focus on formatting various types of reports:

  1. Infographics
  2. Short reports
  3. Long reports
  4. Slide reports

More detailed information about these can be found in the Seneca Libraries’ technical communication library guide: Writing and Communicating Technical Information: Home. Below is an overview of basic formats for the documents.


Infographics are reports that look like posters. They are created with digital templates or slide deck software to report information using visual narratives or stories. Infographics combine visual elements like icons, graphs, images, and/or charts, along with concise text, to promote an idea or to convey information in an engaging way. Software, such as PowerPoint, Adobe Spark, or Canva can be used to create infographics.

If you are seeking one specific type of format for infographics, you will be disappointed. Here, you can let your creative side flourish as you customize backgrounds, fonts, and formats to suit your subject and purpose. Some software, like Canva, offers free and premium ready-made templates that you can adapt to your own content. The key is to have done your research, mapped or sketched out your ideas, and planned the visuals you will be using to support them. Once you have done this, go into the software and design your document using a variety of background, font, and chart options.

When creating an infographic choose a template that aligns with your content. For example, if you are showing data related to geographic areas, choose a map template; if you are making a comparison, choose a two-column format.

Below are three examples of infographics. Note the sparse use of text ,which offers only key information, and relevant images to highlight key ideas.

Pictorial infographic example: Potable Water Use in Canada (Statistics Canada 2019).

Map infographic example: An Overview of Canada’s Forest Sector (Statistics Canada, 2018).

Text-based infographic example: What is radioactive waste? (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 2017)

Seneca College offers many resources for learning about infographics. You might want to consider completing the Seneca Sandbox’s Creating Infographics tutorial or signing up for a webinar  to learn more about how to create effective infographics.


Report Formats

The previous sections of this text discuss the different types of technical reports and their typical usage and contents. Here we will discuss their various formats–that is, how they are prepared to conform to workplace conventions.

Informal Reports

Informal reports, also known as short reports, are routine documents of two to five pages or so in length that focus on one specific topic–such as a recommendation, brief proposal, progress, or inspection. Such reports can be formatted either as memo or email reports for internal purposes. They can also be formatted as letter reports when conveyed outside the organization. An email report consists of a report that is composed inside the email message box. Both memo and letter reports are usually attached to transmittal email messages for rapid electronic delivery. See the chapter on Correspondence for information on how to format these documents.

Formal Reports

Formal reports, also known as long reports, are documents that consist of about five or more pages in length. These reports not only offer a detailed discussion of research findings but are also used to make complex decisions within technical contexts. Examples of these reports include proposal, recommendation, problem-solving, feasibility, and compliance reports.  Such documents can be circulated inside or outside an organization, with the transmittal document being formatted as a memo or letter to signal the document’s internal or external destination.

Since formal reports are lengthy documents, they are accompanied by additional components consisting of the front and back matter that serve to aid the reader in understanding the document and locating information. The components of a formal report are listed below. For information on how to create and paginate the front and back matter and how to format the contents to achieve optimum readability, please refer to Seneca’s A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports (2021).

Typical Components of Formal Reports
Front Matter

Cover page

Transmittal document (either a memo or a letter)

Abstract or summary

Table of contents

List of tables and figures




Background, methodology

Findings, discussion

Conclusion (and recommendations)

Back Matter



Slide Reports

Slide reports are visual documents created using PowerPoint or other slide deck software and are a genre of slide documents (or slidedocs). Nancy Duarte, a leader in presentation skills education and author of Slidedocs (2016), coined the term after noticing how PowerPoint was being used to create documents other than presentation slide decks. In technology, slide reports have been used for the following purposes: definitions and descriptions, explanations, guides, instructions, tutorials, and report previews or summaries (Potter, 2020).

Slide reports are full reports meant to be read and not presented. As such, these documents include a title page, table of contents and list of tables and figures, a glossary (if needed), section or chapter guides, a list of references, and appendices (if required). While they offer full text development of ideas, they bridge genres by resembling presentations in the ample use of visual content to amplify ideas, set context and atmosphere, and support and clarify ideas.  These are typically visually engaging documents, with content developed in “bite-sized” segments for quick reading on the go.

Characteristics of Technical Slide Report Design
  • Headings, subheadings
  • Enhanced appearance through the use of color and font styles
  • Generous use of purposeful visual aids and visual information
  • Full paragraph development using short paragraphs
  • Information chunking into short sections
  • One idea per slide (recommended)
  • Parallel listing for items in a series
  • Pull quotes to highlight key points
  • Section guides for longer reports
  • Section overviews set below headings



To view an example of a technical slide report, see Elite Electronics Inc.’s Guide to FCC Certification for Part 15C Wireless Transmitters.


An overview of Canada’s forest sector. (2018, May 8). Statistics Canada.

Canva. [Sample Infographic Templates]. (n.d.).

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.(2017, December 8). What is radioactive waste? Government of Canada.

Duarte, N. (2016). Slidedocs.

Elite Electronics Engineering, Inc. (2015, March). Guide to FCC certification for Part 15C wireless transmitters.

Potable water use in Canada. (2019, June 11). Statistics Canada.

Potter, R.L. (2020). Slide reports. Robin L. Potter: Artwork and Writing.

Potter, R. L. (n.d., 2017, 2021). A guide to writing formal technical reports: Content, style, format. Original document by University of Victoria (n.d.). Engineering work term report guide: A guide to content, style and format requirements for University of Victoria engineering students writing co-op work term reports. (Updated by Suzan Last, October, 2017 and adapted by Robin L. Potter (2021). OER.

Seneca Libraries. (n.d.). Library & information technician: Create websites and infographics. Seneca College.

Seneca Libraries. (n.d.). Writing and Communicating Technical Information: Home. Seneca College.

Seneca Sandbox. (n.d.). Creating infographics. Seneca College.

Statistics Canada. (2018, May 8). An Overview of Canada’s Forest Sector. Infographic.

Statistics Canada. (2019). Potable Water Use in Canada Infographic.



7.2 Correspondence: Text Messages, Emails, Memos, and Letters


Text messaging, emailing, and posting on social media in a professional context requires that you be familiar with “netiquette,” or proper etiquette for using the internet. We have all heard the news stories about people who have been fired and companies that have been boycotted for making offensive or inappropriate social media posts. People have even gone to prison for illegal use of private messaging.  The digital world may seem like a free-for-all, “wild wild west” with no clear rules or regulations; however, this is clearly a dangerous perspective for a professional to take, as the consequences for breaking tacit rules, expectations, and guidelines for professional communications can be very costly.

The way you represent yourself in writing carries significant weight. Writing in an online environment requires tact, skill, and an awareness that what you write may be there for a very long time and may be seen by people you never considered as your intended audience. From text messages to memos to letters, from business proposals to press releases, your written business communication represents you and your company: Your goal is to make your messages clear, concise, constructive, and professional.

We create personal pages, post messages, and interact via online technologies as a normal part of our careers, but how we conduct ourselves can leave a lasting image, literally. The photograph you posted on your Instagram page or Twitter feed may have been seen by your potential employer, or that insensitive remark in a Facebook post may come back to haunt you later.

Guidelines for Communicating Online

Following several guidelines for online postings, as detailed below, can help you avoid embarrassment later:

  • Know your context
    • Carefully analyze the communication situation: audience, purpose, and environment.
    • Adapt the language and tone of the message accordingly.
    • Avoid assumptions about your readers; remember that culture influences communication style and practices.
    • Familiarize yourself with the Acceptable Use of IT Resources policy at your organization.
  • Remember the human aspect
    • Introduce yourself.
    • Remember there is a person behind the words; ask for clarification before making a judgement.
    • Check your tone before you publish; avoid jokes, sarcasm, and irony as these can often be misinterpreted and get “lost in translation” in the online environment.
    • Respond to people using their names.
    • Remember that culture, age, and gender can play a part in how people communicate.
    • Remain authentic and expect the same of others.
    • Remember that people may not reply immediately. People participate in different ways, some just by reading the communication rather than jumping into it.
  • Recognize that text is permanent

    • Be judicious and diplomatic; what you say online may be difficult or even impossible to retract later.

    • Think in terms of how you are representing your organization.

    • Agree on ground rules for text communication (formal or informal; seek clarification whenever needed) if you are working collaboratively.

  • Avoid flaming: Research before you react
    • Accept and forgive mistakes.
    • Consider your responsibility to the group and to the working environment.
    • Seek clarification before reacting; what you heard is not always what was said.
    • Ask your supervisor for guidance.*
  • Respect privacy and original ideas
    • Quote the original author if you are responding with a specific point made by someone else.
    • Ask the author of an email for permission before forwarding the communication or otherwise using their message content.
    • Familiarize yourself with the Copyright and Privacy policies at your organization.

* Sometimes, online behavior can appear so disrespectful and even hostile that it requires attention and follow up. In this case, let your supervisor know right away so that the right resources can be called upon to help.

For further information on netiquette, check out the following links:


image of person using cell phone to text message
[Texting Image] Source: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of brief messages or notes has become a common way to connect using short messaging service (SMS) also known as texting. It is useful for short exchanges and is a convenient way to stay connected with others when talking on the phone would be cumbersome. Texting is not useful for long or complicated messages, and careful consideration should be given to the audience. However, it has become a method for employees to keep in frequent communication regarding dynamic situations and ongoing projects.

When texting, always consider your audience and your company, and choose words, terms, or abbreviations that will deliver your message appropriately and effectively. Since not all employees are familiar with abbreviations and acronyms used in texting or comfortable with texting overall, always ask before beginning interactions using this method.

Guidelines for Effective Workplace Texting

If your work situation allows or requires you to communicate via text messages, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Know your recipient: “? % dsct” may be an understandable way to ask a close associate the correct discount amount that should be offered a certain customer, but if you are writing a text to your boss, it might be wiser to write, “what % discount does Murray get on $1K order?”
  • Anticipate unintentional misinterpretation: Texting often uses symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms to represent thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Given the complexity of communication, and the useful but limited capacity of texting, be aware of its limitation and prevent misinterpretation. Spell it out when in doubt.
  • Use appropriately: Contacting someone too frequently can border on harassment. Texting is a tool. Use it when appropriate, but don’t abuse it.
  • Don’t text and drive: Research shows that the likelihood of an accident increases dramatically if the driver is texting behind the wheel (Shapely, 2020). Being in an accident while conducting company business would reflect poorly on your judgment as well as on your employer.


email icon
[Email icon]. Source: Free for commercial use.

Email is familiar to most students and workers. It is used to send brief, routine communications and technical information electronically.  Over the years, it has become the primary form of communication for companies (Bovee, Thill, & Scribner, 2016, p.127) because it is rapid and inexpensive.  In fact, it has largely replaced print hard copy letters for external (outside the company) correspondence, and by-and-large has taken the place of memos for internal (within the company) communication (Guffey, 2008).

Email can be very useful for messages that have more content than a text message, but it is still best used for fairly brief messages or brief technical notices. It is used to send requests, confirm conversations (Writing and Communication Centre, n.d.), and to transmit documents in attachments. You may also use emails to request information about a company or organization, such as whether they anticipate job openings in the near future or whether they fund site redesign projects. In this case, you would send an email of inquiry, asking for information. Keep your request brief, introducing yourself in the opening paragraph and then clearly stating your purpose and/or request in the second paragraph. If you need very specific information, consider placing your request in list form for clarity. Conclude in a friendly way that shows appreciation for the help you will receive.

Many organizations use automated emails to acknowledge communications from the public or to remind associates that periodic reports or payments are due. You may also be assigned to “populate” a form email in which standard paragraphs are used but you choose from a menu of sentences to make the wording suitable for a particular transaction.

Emails may be informal in personal contexts, but technical and business communication requires attention to detail, awareness that your email reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it may be forwarded to any third party if necessary. Email often serves to exchange information within organizations. Although email may have an informal feel, remember that when used for business or technical purposes, it must convey professionalism and respect. Never write or send anything that you wouldn’t want read in public or in front of your company president.

As with all writing, professional communications require attention to the specific writing context, and it may surprise you that even elements of form can indicate a writer’s strong understanding of audience and purpose. The principles explained here apply to the educational context as well; use them when communicating with your instructors and classroom peers.

Guidelines for Effective Professional Emails

Open with a proper salutation:  Salutations demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. Be aware of their levels of formality. Consider, for example, the difference between a salutation like “Dear Ms. Abenaki,” (external and formal in tone) and “Hi Barry,” (internal and informal).

Include a clear, brief, and specific subject line: An effective subject line helps the recipient understand the essence of the message, so make it brief, concrete, and specific. For example, “EMS software proposal attached” or “Electrical specs for project Y” inform the reader of the subject of the message.  Avoid using a subject line that is too vague, like “Proposal.”

Ensure that the content is accurate: To avoid costly decisions based on inaccurate information, ensure that the technical and business content of the message is accurate. In critical communications, you should ask a colleague for a second look before sending the message.

Close with a signature: Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains your name and business contact information. You can do this using the settings in the email software.

Avoid abbreviations: An email is not a text message, and the audience may not find your wit cause to ROTFLOL (roll on the floor laughing out loud). Do not use abbreviations, acronyms, or symbols.

Be brief: Omit unnecessary words.

Use a readable structure and format: Divide your message into brief paragraphs for ease of reading. A readable email should get to the point and conclude in three small paragraphs or less. Use this basic structure for multi-paragraph messages: Open with the purpose statement and background, add details/explanation, end with a courteous close or an action request.

Reread, revise, and review: Catch and correct spelling and grammar mistakes before you press “send.” It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written email than to take the time to get it right the first time. Some email software makes this process easy by flagging errors.

Reply promptly: Watch out for your own emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of replying to all emails within twenty-four hours, even if only to say that you will provide the requested information in forty-eight or seventy-two hours.

Follow up: If you don’t get a response in twenty-four hours, email or call. Spam filters may have intercepted your message, so your recipient may never have received it.

Use “Reply All” sparingly: Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial email unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.

Avoid using all caps: Capital letters are used on the Internet to communicate emphatic emotion or yelling and are considered rude.

Test links: If you include a link, test it to make sure it is working. You can do this by sending yourself a test message.

Consider file size and options: Audio and visual files are often quite large; avoid exceeding the recipient’s mailbox limit or triggering the spam filter. If your file is of an excessive size, upload it to cloud storage and share the file using a link.

Tip: Add the address of the recipient last to avoid sending your message prematurely.  This will give you time to do a last review of what you’ve written, make sure links work, make sure you’ve added the attachment, etc., before adding the sender’s address and hitting Send.

Check out the University of Waterloo’s Writing Professional Emails in the Workplace for more information.

Email Format

Most people will recognize the similarity between memo and email formats since the email header has been modeled on the memo header.

The message is then inserted here using the document design characteristics discussed in previous chapters.
“From” has been removed from the fields because the email software automatically adds that information; it has been added to the sample “reader’s view” below. The same applies for the date, which is also added automatically. While you can add Cc. (or complementary copy) information to a memo, the field is available in the email software, as is the Bcc (blind copy) field. Use the complementary copy field to add the email addresses of those secondary recipients whom you wish to receive a copy of your message. Use the blind copy field to add the email addresses of readers whom you wish to receive a copy of your message without your original recipient knowing.

The sample email below demonstrates the principles listed above.

From: Steve Jansen <>

To: All Employees <>

Date: September 12, 20XX

Subject: Working at Heights Training


Dear Colleagues:

Please sign up for the next available Working At Heights training offered free of charge by the company. Working At Heights training is a program offered to all employees who must work on construction projects.

As you know, our company wants to ensure your safety when working at heights and abide by a recent Ontario occupational health and safety regulations that aim to protect the well being of workers.

If you are working at heights and have not as yet taken this training, please sign up for the next workshop scheduled for Friday, October 9 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information on the Working At Heights training program, please visit

Please let me know if you will attend by filling out the attached form.


Steve Jansen
CEO, APL Construction, Inc.


Memoranda, or memos, are one of the most versatile document forms used in professional settings.  Memos are “in house” documents (sent within an organization) to pass along or request information, outline policies, present short reports, and propose ideas.  While they are often used to inform, they can also be persuasive documents.  A company or institution typically has its own “in house” style or template that is used for documents such as letters and memos.

Memo Format

The Header Block appears at the top left side of your memo, directly underneath the word MEMO or MEMORANDUM in large, bold, capitalized letters. This section contains detailed information on the recipient, sender, and purpose.  It includes the following lines:

TO:        Give the recipient’s full name, and position or title within the organization

FROM:   Include the sender’s (your) full name and position or title

DATE:    Include the full date on which you sent the memo

SUBJECT or RE:  write a brief phrase that concisely describes the main content of your memo.

Place a horizontal line under your header block, and place your message below.

Memos look much like emails and are characterized by a simple header formatted as follows:




The message is then inserted here using the document design characteristics discussed in previous chapters.

In the “From:” field, handwrite your initials after your typed name to authenticate the document if you are to print the memo for distribution. “Re.” refers to “Regarding”. This term is used in technical workplaces instead of “Subject”, which we see in business memos. Having said this, some technical workplaces will replace “Re.” with “Subject”. You would include a concrete and specific Subject or Re. line. See the above Guidelines for Effective Professional Emails for more information about subject lines.

Figure 7.1.1 shows a sample of an “in house” memo style, with annotations pointing out various relevant features. The main formatted portions of a memo are the Logo or Letterhead (optional), the Header Block, and the Message.  The attached Memos PowerPoint reviews some of these features in detail.

An annotated memo. Image description available.
Figure 7.1.1 Sample Memo, annotated. [Image description]

Memo Message Structure

The length of a memo can range from a few short sentences to a multi-page report that includes figures, tables, and appendices.  Whatever the length, there is a straightforward organizational principal you should follow.  Organize the content of your memo so that it answers the following questions for the reader:

  1. Opening and background: Why do I have to read this and what are the circumstances leading to this message?
  2. Details: What do I need to know?
  3. Closing: What am I expected to do now?

Memos are generally very direct and concise. There is no need to start with general introductions before getting to your point. Your readers are colleagues within the same organization and are likely familiar with the context in which you are writing. Think of the message as building blocks:

Opening: The opening sentences of the memo’s message should make the purpose clear to the reader. Get to the point by stating your purpose. If necessary, include brief background information to clarify the context.
Details/Explanation: The middle section of the message should give all of the information needed to adequately inform the readers and fulfill the purpose of the memo. Start with the most general information, and then add the more specific facts and details. Include enough detail to support your purpose; omit the nice-to-know information. Doing a good audience analysis will help you determine what information should be included and what can be left out.
Action Close: The final part of the message indicates what, if any, action is required or requested of the reader(s).  If you are asking your reader(s) to do something, be as courteous as possible and indicate how this action will also benefit them. Include a deadline or due date so the reader knows when to get back to you–especially if the request is time-critical.

This structure applies to longer email messages as well as letters. For more information on writing memos, check out the memo page on the the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University: Parts of a Memo.


Letters are brief messages sent to recipients that are often outside the organization. They are often created using company letterhead templates and are generally limited to one or two pages. While email and text messages may be used more frequently today, the business letter remains a common form of written communication for formal, external matters. It can serve to introduce you to a potential employer, convey a project estimate to a client or partner, or announce or market a product or service, for example. Often, the letter format is used for short reports when more substantial information, like site observations, must be conveyed to an external party.

There are many types of letters, and many adaptations in terms of form and content, but this section covers the elements of a traditional block-style letter. Letters may serve to introduce your skills and qualifications to prospective employers (cover letter), deliver important or specific information, document an event or decision, or introduce an attached report or long document (letter of transmittal). Figure 7.1.2 shows a basic letter of transmittal meant to introduce a technical report to its recipient. Often, writers will include a paragraph acknowledging key individuals who have provided assistance.


A sample cover letter
Figure 7.1.2 Sample letter of transmittal (click image for an accessible PDF) (Hamlin, Rubio, & DeSilva, n.d. CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Characteristics of Effective Letters

A typical letter format has eight main parts:

  1. Letterhead/logo: Sender’s name and return address; often includes the company name and logo
  2. Date: Written in full
  3. The receiver’s block: Name, position, company, and address of the recipient
  4. Salutation:  “Dear ______: ” use the recipient’s name, if known; use a colon for punctuation (this differs from email salutations which require a less formal comma)
  5. The introduction: Establishes the overall purpose of the letter
  6. The body: Articulates the details of the message
  7. The conclusion: Restates the main point and may include a call to action
  8. The signature block: Includes a complimentary close like “Sincerely,” the sender’s name and role, along with company email address and phone extension


Keep in mind that letters represent you and your company in your absence. In order to communicate effectively and project a positive image, remember that

  • your language should be clear, concise, specific, and respectful,
  • each word should contribute to your purpose,
  • each paragraph should focus on one idea,
  • the parts of the letter should form a complete message, and
  • the letter should be free of errors.

Letters with Specific Purposes

In a professional context, you may write letters for any of many possible reasons. Below is a list of the most common kinds of letters:

Transmittal Letters:  When you send a report or some other document, such as a resumé, to an external audience, send it with a cover letter that contains a brief explanation of the purpose of the enclosed document and a summary of the document’s contents.  Click the link to download a Letter-of-Transmittal-Template.

Letters of Confirmation: In certain formal circumstances such as in the case of a job offer or a formal invitation, it is customary to follow up with a message of confirmation formatted as a letter. You may send the letter attached to a brief email transmittal message. Using a separate letter signals your awareness of the context and shows your ability to adapt messages for specific situations.

Follow-up Letters:  Any time you have asked someone to do something for you, write a follow-up letter expressing your appreciation for the time your letter-recipient has taken to respond to your needs. If you have had a job interview, the follow-up letter thanking the interviewer(s) for their time is especially important for demonstrating your professionalism and attention to detail.

Letters within the professional context may take on many other purposes, such as communicating with suppliers, contractors, partner organizations, clients, government agencies, and so on. For additional examples of professional letters, take a look at the sample letters provided by David McMurrey in his online textbook on technical writing: Online Technical Writing: Examples, Cases & Models.

Information in this chapter was adapted from the following source: 

Professional Communications” chapter in Technical Writing by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, Michele DeSilva. This source is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J.V., & Scribner, J.A. (2016). Business communication essentials. 4th Canadian Edition. Toronto: Pearson Education, p. 127.

[Email icon]. Free for commercial use.

Guffey, M. (2008).  Essentials of business communication (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Hamlin, A., Rubio, C., & DeSilva, M. Technical writing CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

Khan, Md. M. (2015, December 20). Email etiquette. LinkedIn.

McMurrey, D. (1997-2017). Examples, cases, models. Online Technical Writing.

Shapley, J. (2020, March 18). Distracted driving can be deadly. Put down the phone. The Houston Chronicle.

[Texting image]. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Writing and Communication Centre. (n.d.). Writing Professional emails in the workplace. University of Waterloo.

Image descriptions

Figure 7.1.1 image description:

Design features of a 1-page memorandum.

[Return to Figure 7.1.1]

7.3 Instructions


One of the most common and important uses of technical writing is to provide instructions, those step-by-step explanations of how to assemble, operate, repair, or do routine maintenance on equipment or other objects. Instructions come in many forms: short emails, standard operating procedures, manuals, user guides, pamphlets, along with webinars and video tutorials. Although they may seem intuitive and simple to write, instructions are some of the worst-written documents you can find. Most of us have probably had many infuriating experiences with badly written instructions. This chapter will show you what professionals consider the best techniques in providing instructions.

An effective set of instructions requires the following:

Preliminary Steps

At the beginning of a project to write a set of instructions, it is important to determine the structure or characteristics of the particular procedure you are going to write about. Here are some steps to follow:

1. Do a careful audience and task analysis

Early in the process, define the audience and situation for your instructions. Remember that defining an audience means defining the level of familiarity your readers have with the topic. So envision your real audience, not your ideal one. Doing so will help you focus on the content that a typical reader would need to perform a sequence of tasks.

2. Do a thorough task analysis

Let’s use the term procedure to refer to the whole set of activities your instructions are intended to discuss. A task is a semi-independent group of actions within the procedure: for example, setting the clock on a microwave oven is one task in the big overall procedure of operating a microwave oven.

What tasks are involved in the entire procedure?

• Complete a thorough task analysis by performing the task yourself, if possible

• Group related tasks together

• Determine the number of tasks and identify phases

3.  Determine the best approach to the step-by-step discussion

For most instructions, you can focus on tasks, or you can focus on tools (or features of tools).  In a task approach (also known as task orientation) for instructions on using a phone-answering service, for example, you would include these sections:

These are tasks—the typical things we’d want to do with the machine.

On the other hand, in a tools approach to instructions on using a photocopier, there likely would be sections on how to use specific features:

If you designed a set of instructions on this plan, you’d write steps for using each button or feature of the photocopier. Instructions using this tools approach are hard to make work. Sometimes, the name of the button doesn’t quite match the task it is associated with; sometimes you have to use more than just the one button to accomplish the task. Still, there can be times when the tools/feature approach may be preferable.

4.  Design groupings of tasks

Some instructions have only a single task, but have many steps within that single task. For example, imagine a set of instructions for assembling a kids’ swing set. In my own experience, there were more than a 130 steps! That can be a bit daunting. A good approach is to group similar and related steps into phases, and start renumbering the steps at each new phase. A phase then is a group of similar steps within a single-task procedure. In the swing-set example, setting up the frame would be a phase; anchoring the thing in the ground would be another; assembling the box swing would be still another.

Another example would group common technical tasks as follows:

  1. Unpacking and setup tasks
  2. Installing and customizing tasks
  3. Basic operating tasks
  4. Routine maintenance tasks
  5. Troubleshooting tasks

Common Sections in Instructions

The following is a review of the sections you’ll commonly find in instructions. Don’t assume that each one of them must be in the actual instructions you write, nor that they have to be in the order presented here, nor that these are the only sections possible in a set of instructions. Always consider your audience and context first, then adapt your document accordingly.

For alternative formats, check out the Sample Instructions.

A Set of Instructions Often Includes the Following

Introduction:  Plan the introduction to your instructions carefully. It might include any of the following (but not necessarily in this order):

  • Indicate the specific tasks or procedure to be explained as well as the scope (what will and will not be covered).
  • Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and background to understand the instructions.
  • Give a general idea of the procedure and what it accomplishes.
  • Indicate the conditions when these instructions should (or should not) be used.
  • Give an overview of the contents of the instructions.

General warning, caution, danger notices Instructions often must alert readers to the possibility of ruining their equipment, compromising the procedure, and hurting themselves. Also, instructions must often emphasize key points or exceptions. For these situations, you use special notices—general note, warning, caution, and danger notices. General warning, caution, and danger notes will appear following the Introduction, and specific notices will appear immediately before any relevant step. Keep in mind that when a procedure involves any hazard to humans or animals, or potential for damage, you have a legal and moral responsibility to include these special notices in the opening and in the discussion of steps in your document.

Technical background or theory:  At the beginning of certain kinds of instructions (after the introduction), you may need background information related to the procedure. For certain instructions, this background is critical—otherwise, the steps in the procedure make no sense.

• In technical contexts, reference to codes, regulations, manufacturer’s data sheets, and other technical documents are required.

• Background on specific knowledge or skills required to perform the tasks should also be included.

For example, you may have had some experience with those software applets in which you define your own colors by nudging red, green, and blue slider bars around. To really understand what you’re doing, you need to have some background on color. Similarly, you can imagine that, for certain instructions using cameras, some theory might be needed as well.

Equipment and supplies:  Notice that most instructions include a list of the things you need to gather before you start the procedure. This includes equipment, the tools you use in the procedure (such as mixing bowls, spoons, bread pans, hammers, drills, and saws) and supplies, the things that are consumed in the procedure (such as wood, paint, oil, flour, and nails). Be sure to include any personal protective equipment (PPE) (such as masks, steel-toed boots, gloves, and goggles), as this equipment is essential to protect readers when following instructions that may involve hazards. In instructions, these typically are listed either in a simple vertical list or in a two-column list. Use the two-column list if you need to add some specifications to some or all of the items—for example, brand names, sizes, amounts, types, model numbers, and so on.

Discussion of the steps:  When you get to the actual writing of the steps, keep in mind the following: 1) the structure and format of those steps, 2) supplementary information that might be needed, and 3) the point of view and general writing style.

Include specific note, caution, danger, and warning notices before each relevant step. Placement before the step is the most logical placement because you would not want someone to go ahead and perform a hazardous step without first reading the warning, caution, or danger note.  Notice how these special notices are used in the McMurrey sample instructions (see the link above).

Structure and format:  Normally, we imagine a set of instructions as being formatted as vertical numbered lists. And most are in fact. Normally, you format your actual step-by-step instructions this way. There are some variations, however, as well as some other considerations:

  • Fixed-order steps are steps that must be performed in the order presented. For example, if you are changing the oil in a car, draining the oil is a step that must come before putting in the new oil. These are numbered lists (usually, vertical numbered lists).
  • Variable-order steps are steps that can be performed in practically any order. Good examples are those troubleshooting guides that tell you to check this and check that when you are trying to fix something. You can do these kinds of steps in practically any order. With this type, the bulleted list is the appropriate format.
  • Alternate steps are those in which two or more ways to accomplish the same step are presented. Alternate steps are also used when various conditions might exist. Use nested bulleted lists with this type, with OR inserted between the alternatives, or include a lead-in indicating that alternatives are about to be presented.
  • Nested steps may be used in cases when individual steps within a procedure are rather complex in their own right and need to be broken down into sub-steps. In this case, you indent further and sequence the sub-steps as a, b, c, and so on.
  • “Step-less” instructions can be used when you really cannot use numbered vertical list or provide straightforward instructional-style directing of the reader. Some situations must be so generalized or so variable that steps cannot be stated.

Supplementary discussion: Often, it is not enough simply to tell readers to do this or to do that. They need additional explanatory information such as how the thing should look before and after the step; why they should care about doing this step; what mechanical principle is behind what they are doing; even more micro-level explanation of the step—discussion of the specific actions that make up the step.

The problem with supplementary discussion, however, is that it can hide the actual step. You want the actual step—the specific actions the reader is to take—to stand out. You don’t want it all buried in a heap of words. There are at least two techniques to avoid this problem: you can split the instruction from the supplement into separate paragraphs; or you can bold the instruction.

Writing Style

Avoid using the passive voice as the trend nowadays is to engage the reader using an active verb that is task-focused. Use of the passive voice in instructions can be problematic. For some strange reason, some instructions sound like this: “The Pause button should be depressed in order to stop the display temporarily.” Not only are we worried about the pause button’s mental health, but we wonder who’s supposed to depress the thing (ninjas?). It would be more helpful to indicate when the reader must “press the Pause button.”  Consider this example: “The Timer button is then set to 3:00.” Again, one might ask, “is set by whom?  Ninjas?” The person following these instructions might think it is simply a reference to some existing state, or she might wonder, “Are they talking to me?” Using the third person can also lead to awkwardness: “The user should then press the Pause button.”

Instructions should typically be written using command verb forms (also known as the imperative mood) and using “you” to make it perfectly clear what the reader should do. Here is an example:


Step 2: Inflating your automobile tires with air

2.1. After driving to the service station, locate the air compressor and park the car next to it.
2.2. Remove the valve stem caps on all four tires.
2.3. Check the PSI number for your vehicle’s tires.
2.4. Turn on the air compressor. (Insert sufficient coinage if necessary).
CAUTION: Do not over-inflate your tires. Doing so will result in faster tread wear and tear.
2.5. Inflate each tire with air from the compressor.
2.6. Check the tire pressure (or PSI) of each tire and adjust using the tire gauge.
2.7. Recap each valve with the valve stem caps.

Note: Each step (except for step 1) begins with a verb in the present tense–the imperative mood. Step 2.1, begins with a qualifier: “After driving to the service station. . .” The step then goes on to use a command style to explain the step.

Also note the numbering: in technical instructions, use this numerical method for indicating the section or phase each step belongs to: Step 2.1 belongs to Section 2.

Example created by Robin L. Potter

Illustrating Your Instructions

You may have noticed that many companies, like Canon and Ikea, now opt for pictorial formats for instructions. In so doing, they are attempting to minimize language barriers when offering their products in countries around the globe. They are also decreasing their costs for translating instructions and minimizing the potential for language errors and content inaccuracies that can occur through the translation process.

Text-based instructions, however, are still common. Perhaps more than in any other form of technical writing, visual aids or visual tutorials are crucial to text-based instructions. Sometimes, words simply cannot explain the step. Illustrations, photographs, screen shots, and the like are often critical to the readers’ ability to visualize what they are supposed to do.  Be sure that the visual aids represent the image from the reader’s perspective. Typically, the visual aids are placed immediately below the step described in the text. Adding visual aids to instructions is about the only time that it is acceptable to be redundant in a technical document. Be sure to include sources for the images if you have not created them yourself.

Formatting Your Instructions

Since people rarely want to read instructions, but often have to, format your instructions for reluctant readers. Try to make your reader want to read them, or at least not resistant to the idea of consulting them.  A highly readable format using headings, listing, passive space, and visual aids will allow readers who have figured out some of the instructions on their own to skip to the section where they are stuck.  Use what you have learned about headings, lists, visuals, and passive space to create effective and readable instructions:

Headings: Normally, you’d want headings for any background section you might have, the equipment and supplies section, a general heading for the actual instructions section, and subheadings for the individual tasks or phases within that section.

Lists: Similarly, instructions typically make extensive use of lists, particularly numbered vertical lists for the actual step-by-step explanations. Simple vertical lists or two-column lists are usually good for the equipment and supplies section. In-sentence lists are good whenever you give an overview of things to come.

Special Notices: You may have to alert readers to possibilities in which they may damage their equipment, waste supplies, cause the entire procedure to fail, injure themselves or others—even seriously or fatally. Companies have been sued for lack of these special notices, for poorly written special notices, or for special notices that were out of place. See special notices for a complete discussion of the proper use of these special notices as well as their format and placement within instructions.

Revision Checklist for Written Instructions

As you reread and revise your instructions, check that they do the following:

  • Provide an overview of content
  • Indicate audience requirements
  • Clearly describe the exact procedure to be explained
  • Include a section listing equipment and supplies if necessary
  • Include exact measurements and other values when required; for example, “a few drops” is far less specific than “.25 ml”
  • Use various types of lists wherever appropriate; in particular, use numbered lists for sequential steps
  • Use headings and subheadings to divide the main sections and subsections in a logical, coherent order
  • Use special notices as appropriate
  • Use visual aids to illustrate key actions, objects, and locations
  • Provide additional supplementary explanation of the steps as necessary

This chapter was adapted from Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey, which is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Examples, cases, and models. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Special notices. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

7.4 Technical Descriptions and Definitions

Descriptive technical writing uses a combination of visuals and text to both “show” and “tell” the reader about the information being conveyed. Like more creative descriptions, technical descriptions sometimes draw on the “five senses” and metaphorical comparisons (analogies) to allow the reader to fully conceptualize what is being described. More often, however, they rely on concrete, measurable descriptors. Technical descriptions can take many forms, depending on purpose and audience. Descriptions can range from a brief sentence, to a paragraph, a whole section of a report, or an entire manual.  Poorly written technical descriptions can cause confusion, waste time, and even result in catastrophe!  Technical product descriptions are often legally required to ensure safety and compliance. Attention to detail is critical.

Product specifications require detailed descriptions of design features; instructions often require specific descriptive detail to “show” the reader what to do. Some general categories of technical descriptions include the following:

Definitions in Technical Writing – Student Presentation

Technical Description of a Mechanism

Mechanism descriptions should provide a clear understanding of the object being described, including

The reader should be able to clearly picture, and therefore understand, the nature of the object being described, what it does, and how it works.

In order to achieve this clarity for the reader, the writer must choose significant details and organize information logically. Select details that can be described precisely and measurably, such as

color materials texture, smell, taste
shape component parts finish
size properties patterns, designs
dimensions principles at work interactions

Depending on the reader’s need, the description may range from a general overview requiring only a few sentences to a multi-chapter manual detailing every aspect of the mechanism’s parts and functions in order to troubleshoot technical problems and complete repairs. For a fun example of the latter, see the Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual (cover depicted in Figure 7.4.1), which provides detailed descriptions of all equipment and technology used aboard the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise-D.

Cover of manual
Figure 7.4.1 Cover Page of “Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual” (Sturnback & Okuna, 1991).

Before you begin to draft your description, you must consider your purpose and audience: Why does your audience need this description? What will they use it for? For example, are you describing different types of solar panels for the average consumers to help them choose the one that best fits their needs? Are you giving schematics to technicians and installers?

Once you have your purpose and audience clearly in focus, draft a description that includes the following elements:

  1. Definition: What is it, and what is its main purpose?
  2. Overview: Describe the mechanism’s overall appearance (“big picture”).
  3. Components: Describe the main component parts in labeled sections; consider the order of information carefully here. Create a logical connection between each component described.
  4. Explanation: How do the parts work together to fulfill its function? What key principles govern its functioning? Consider how much detail is necessary here for your intended audience.
  5. Visuals: Include graphics that clearly illustrate the mechanism and/or its parts. Show the device as a whole; consider showing specific details in expanded views, cut-aways, or labeled diagrams. You may even embed or link to videos showing the device in action.
  6. Conclusion: Depending on the purpose, you might review product’s availability, manufacturing, costs, warnings, etc.)
  7. References: Include sources you have used in your description, or additional sources of information available (if relevant), including specifications, codes, regulations, and manufacturer’s data sheets.

You might consider using a template, like the Technical Description Template below, keeping in mind that while templates can be helpful guides, they do not provide much flexibility and may not work for all situations.

Technical Description Template
Audience and Purpose Who will read this description and why?
Definition and Function What is it? What does it do? What is its purpose?
Overview Describe its overall appearance (shape, size, color, texture, etc.)
Components and Explanations Describe the component parts (chose most relevant features) and explain how they work together. Use descriptive detail related to physical features, like size, weight, colour, texture, materials, composition, etc.
Visuals What kind of illustrative graphics will you use? Where?
  • Diagrams

  • Photographs

  • Cut-away views

  • Exploded views

Conclusion Do you need to offer any further information? History? Warnings? Context? Costs? etc.
References Any sources used, or supplemental sources to suggest.


Physical characteristics, such as temperature, dimensions, weight, and distance are customarily noted with numerical information that must be written with consistency and accuracy. Learning about technical notations will help you answer questions like: “When do a spell out a number and when do I use a numeral?” “Do a place a space between a numeral and the value?” “Do I add an ‘s’ for multiples of any value; for example, do I add an ‘s’ to ‘cm’ for centimeters over one?” For a primer on technical notations, see the IEEE article: Using Numbers in Technical Documents (Elliott, 2016). Also check out the APA Style section: Numbers (2019).

Sample Descriptions

Examine the description of the “Up Goer Five” in Figure 7.4.2 (click on image for larger version). Who might the intended audience be?

Blueprint of rocket, labeled using silly-sounding simplistic language such as "fire comes out here"
Figure 7.4.2 A description of the blueprints for NASA’s Saturn Five rocket using only the 1000 most commonly-used English words (Munroe, n.d.).

Compare the description in Figure 7.4.2 to the information given on the NASA website about the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Note the differences in the level of detail, vocabulary, and overall purpose of the descriptions.  If you used the information on the NASA site to fill in the Technical Description Template, you might end up with something like the following chart. Objectives

Template for Description of Mars Curiosity Rover
Definition Curiosity Rover – a NASA robot designed to explore Mars
Function Travels around the Gale Crater on Mars, collecting data to send back to Earth. Its mission is to see if Mars could ever have supported life and if humans could survive there someday
Overview Car-sized, 6-wheel robot, about 7′ tall, with a roughly square chassis that has several appendages connected to it that house sensors of various types
  • Main body protects the computer, electronics and instrument systems

  • “Neck and head” section is like a mast coming out of the centre of the chassis; this houses many of the rover’s cameras

  • Six legs – “rocker bogie” design – wide apart– allows all wheels to remain on uneven terrain

  • Arm – roughly 7’ long, (with “shoulder, elbow and wrist” joints), with a “hand” at the end, extends out of the front of the chassis. This contains many tools for drilling, collecting samples, etc.

  • “Tail” – contains radio-isotopic power source that powers the rover

  • Overall view (front and sides; top view, bottom view)

  • View of arm with labeled components

  • View of head and neck with labeled components

Conclusion/Supplemental Information about lifespan? Travel speed? Energy use?
References NASA website – Mars Curiosity Rover page

You may find that some of these elements are not necessary; again, consider what your target audience already knows. Strike a balance between unnecessarily stating the obvious and incorrectly assuming your readers have knowledge that they lack.

In refining the details of your description and its component parts, consider the following:

EXERCISE 7.2 Practice technical description

Choose a common, everyday object (such as one of the objects in Figure 7.4.3) and draft a technical description for an audience unfamiliar with the object. Start by imagining a target audience and purpose, and then try filling in the Technical Description Template with detailed information. Using the information in your template, draft a short description of 1-2 paragraphs, and add properly-captioned visuals.

Figure 7.4.3 Common objects for practice description. Sources: Corkscrew and bicycle images: and CC BY 2.0.


American Psychological Association. (2019, September). Numbers. APA Style.

[Corkscrew and bicycle images]. and CC BY 2.0.

Elliott, C. M. (2016, March 16). Using numbers in technical documents. IEEE PRO COM.

Morton, Isaac. (n.d.). Definitions in technical writing. PPT.

Munroe, R. (n.d.). “Up Goer Five”. Also see “1133 Up Goer Five – explained.” Explain xkcd wiki. . CC-BY-NC 2.5.

NASA. (n.d.). Spacecraft. Mars Curiosity Rover.

NASA. (2020). Spacecraft. Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover.

Sturnback, R. & Okuna, M. (1991). Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical manual. New York: Pocket Books.




Sometimes, more complex information including some findings based on observations, inspections, and/or research must be conveyed in longer documents, called reports. Since reports are decision-making documents, it is critical that the information conveyed in such documents is supported by evidence and delivered with precision. Reports are often categorized as internal or external as well as informal or formal. You will format your report accordingly depending on the writing context and your audience. This section of the text will inform you on the different types of reports and the purposes each type serves within technical contexts.


Chapter 8 Learning Objectives

This unit will cover different report types. You will learn about their purposes, typical components and content, along with context when they are most useful.

8.1 Incident and Inspection Reports

8.2 Proposals

8.3 Feasibility and Recommendation Reports

8.4 Progress Reports

8.5 Lab Reports


8.1 Incident and Inspection Reports


This chapter has been adapted by Robin L Potter from Will Fleming’s Technical writing for technicians (2020). CC 4.0.

Incident and inspection reports are used routinely in technical workplaces to respond to occurrences or report observations that may have an impact on decision making. More specifically, incident reports are used to report on unusual occurrences or events, such as accidents, thefts, broken or malfunctioning equipment, and human resources issues. Inspection reports, on the other hand, are used to report on observations, such as site conditions, installations, and the like.


Accident and Incident Reports

What are accident and incident reports? An accident or incident report documents an injury, accident, work stoppage, equipment failure, worker illness, or personal problem.

You might write an accident/incident report for any of the following situations:

  • someone was injured at work
  • machinery or other equipment malfunctioned or broke
  • work stopped for a significant period of time
  • an employee complained of harassment, violence, or bullying
  • an employee came to work intoxicated

Why are these reports important? Accident and incident reports can be used in insurance claims, workers’ compensation awards, and even lawsuits. When writing such reports, it is important to document events accurately to avoid attributing blame or identifying causes incorrectly. The stakes are high when writing these reports, so it is important to follow the instructions provided in this unit carefully.

What goes in an accident/incident report? Accident/incident reports document the who, what, where, when, and how of occurrences. They sometimes also identify why something may have occurred when it is possible. Key components of accident/incident reports are the corrective and preventive actions sections. The corrective actions section describes actions which have been taken to restore the situation; the preventive actions section would include suggestions to prevent the occurrence from happening again.

How do I format an accident/incident report? In many companies, accident/incident reports are completed using a prepared form. The form would ask much of the information listed in the below “Checklist for Accident/Incident Reports.” If the company you work for does not have a form, you can either create a form and use it as a template for such reporting in the future, or you can document the incident in an incident report–usually formatted as a short memo report.

Checklist for Accident/Incident Reports – Include key details about the incident in your report. Such detail should include the following:

  • Date of the event
  • Location
  • Full names of the people involved
  • Names of witnesses
  • Events leading up to the accident
  • Environmental conditions if applicable (slippery floors, poor lighting, hazardous materials, etc.)
  • Description of the task that was being performed at the time of the incident/accident
  • Detailed description of the event
  • Parts of body injured (if an injury occurred) and/or parts of equipment damaged
  • Description of employee’s response immediately after the event (grabbing injured arm, running from room, etc.)
  • Extent of damage
  • Treatment of injury or course of action taken

Some employers ask for an analysis of why the event took place and a recommendation for future prevention.

Who is the audience of accident/incident reports? Since these reports have legal ramifications, the writer should consider the audience to be anyone from the people involved in the incident to your manager, insurance agents, investigators, and/or law enforcement to judges.

Other Considerations:

  • Witnesses: Unless you are working alone, you should always seek as many perspectives as is reasonable and possible when writing an accident/incident report. Different people may see different things or remember the situation differently.
  • Neutral Language: Because these documents may be used in court or in other legal proceedings, it is important to use objective language consisting of specific facts and neutral statements instead of impressions or emotional statements.


Poor Example (too biased/emotional):  John was just doing his job, working hard like he always does, and being a great team player when Mark rammed into him with the forklift like he was some hit man from an action movie.

Good Example (neutral and specific):  John Smith was loading boxes on shelf B2 when Mark Peterson backed into him with the forklift, causing John to fall backwards and hit a stack of boxes on the floor.

Poor Example (based on impressions):  It just seemed like Gus was always kind of sweet on Tanya, but he was kind of creepy at the same time. He just made everyone feel uncomfortable. He was too touchy-feely.

Good Example (neutral and specific):  On March 13, 2014, three employees (Margo Swinton, Barb Gell, and Tom Haven) heard Gus Broler say he had a crush on Tanya Vincent (another employee).  On March 14, 23, and 29, Tanya reported to her supervisor that Gus Broler made her feel uncomfortable because he continued to give her a back rub after she said she did not want him to touch her.

Inspection Reports

What are inspection reports? An inspection report documents objective observations made regarding the conditions of a site, property, equipment, and installations.

You might write an inspection report for any of the following situations:

Why are these reports important? Inspection reports can be used for a variety of reasons: for determining the suitability of a building for a specific use; for assessing the quality and accuracy of an equipment installation; to determine compliance to regulations or code. These reports are used for decision making purposes, insurance claims, and even lawsuits. When writing such reports, it is important to document observations accurately and objectively.

What goes in an inspection report? Inspection reports document what the writer has observed based on a physical inspection. They also document deficiencies and required corrective measures. The corrective actions section describes actions that must be taken to correct or improve the conditions.

How do I format an inspection report? In many companies, routine inspections are documented using a checklist. This is common in fire protection, for example. If the company you work for does not have a routine checklist, you can either create one for routine inspections and use it as a template for such reporting in the future, or you can document an inspection in an inspection report–usually formatted as a short memo report.

Checklist for Inspection Reports – Include key details about your observations in your report. Such detail should include the following:

Who is the audience of inspection reports? Since these reports may have financial and/or legal ramifications, the writer should consider the audience to be anyone from your manager, property owners, sales agents, government regulators, insurance agents, investigators, and/or law enforcement and judges.

Language Use:


Poor Example (non-specific): The shingles on the roof were poorly installed, with some of them missing from having been blown away by the wind.

Good Example (neutral and specific): Shingles on the upper front left side of the roof of 19 Cosborne Ave. in Toronto were blown off by the wind storm of February 15, 20XX. The exposed patch of roof is measured at 5 feet by 6 feet. No water-resistant sheeting is visible; exposed wood must be covered to prevent water damage while repairs are pending.


Contents of this section have been adapted from Will Fleming’s Technical Writing for Technicians, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License



Fleming, W. (2020). Technical writing for technicians. Open Oregon Educational Resources. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


8.2 Proposals

The Life Cycle of a Project Idea

A great idea does not usually go straight from proposal to implementation. You may think it would be a great idea to construct a green roof on top of the CITE building, but before anyone gives you the go ahead for such an expensive and time-consuming project, they will need to know that you have done research to ensure the idea is cost effective and will actually work.  Figure 8.2.1 breaks down the various stages a project might go through, and identifies some of the typical communication tasks that might be required at each stage.

Most ideas start out as a proposal to determine if the idea is really feasible, or to find out which of several options will be most advantageous. So before you propose the actual green roof, you propose to study whether or not it is a feasible idea. Before you recommend a data storage system, you should propose to study three different systems to find out which is the best one for this particular situation. Your proposal assumes the idea is worth looking into, convinces the reader that it is worth spending the time and resources to look into, and gives detailed information on how you propose to do the “finding out.”

The four phases of a project and associated communications tasks. Image description available.
Figure 8.2.1 Phases of a project and some accompanying communication tasks (Last, 2019). [Lightbulb image]. Source: Free for commercial use.

Once a project is in the implementation phase, the people who are responsible for the project will likely want regular status updates and/or progress reports to make sure that the project is proceeding on time and on budget, or to get a clear, rational explanation for why it is not. To learn more about Progress Reports, go to 7.3 Progress Reports.


Proposals are some of the most common types of reports you will likely find yourself writing in the workplace. A proposal, in the technical sense, is a document that tries to persuade the reader to implement a proposed plan or approve a proposed project. Most companies and organizations rely on effective proposal writing to ensure successful continuation of their business and to get new contracts. With an effective proposal, the writer convinces the reader that the proposed plan or project is worth doing (worth the time, energy, and expense necessary to implement), that the author is the best candidate for implementing the idea, that the proposed plan is realistic and feasible, and that the proposed course of action will result in tangible benefits.

A man holds a woman's hand and offers her flowers
Not that kind of proposal. Source: Pixabay License.

Proposals are often written in response to a Request For Proposals (RFP) by a government agency, organization, or company. The requesting body receives multiple proposals responding to their request, reviews the submitted proposals, and chooses the best one(s) to go forward. Thus, your proposal must persuade the reader that your idea is the one most worth pursuing. Proposals are persuasive documents intended to initiate a project often in response to a challenge and get the reader to authorize a course of action proposed in the document. These might include proposals to

Proposals can have various purposes and thus take many forms; they are usually adapted to the situation at hand. They may include sections such as the following:

Four Kinds of Proposals

  1. Solicited Proposals: An organization identifies a situation or problem that it wants to improve or solve and issues an RFP (Request for Proposals) asking for proposals on how to address it. The requesting organization will vet proposals and choose the most convincing one, often using a detailed scoring rubric or weighted objectives chart to determine which proposal best responds to the request.
  2. Unsolicited Proposals: A writer perceives a problem or an opportunity and takes the initiative to propose a way to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity (without being requested to do so). This can often be the most difficult kind of proposal to get approved and so should include a persuasive rationale for the proposed course of action.
  3. Internal Proposals:  These are written for someone within the same organization as the writer’s. Since both the writer and reader share the same workplace context, these proposals are generally shorter than external proposals and usually address some way to improve a work-related situation (productivity, efficiency, profit, etc.). As internal documents, they are often sent as memo reports, or introduced with a memo transmittal document if the proposal is lengthy.
  4. External Proposals: These are sent outside of the writer’s organization to a separate entity (usually to solicit business). Since these are external documents, they are usually sent as a formal report (if long) and introduced by a letter of transmittal. External proposals are usually sent in response to a Request for Proposals, but not always.

EXERCISE 8.1 Task Analysis

Identify the kinds of proposals you would be likely to write within the industry you will be joining upon graduation. Place them within the grid below. Given the kinds of proposals you would write, what forms would you use (memo report, letter report, or formal report)?

Solicited Unsolicited
Proposals written in a technical writing course generally do the following:
  1. Identify and define the problem that needs to be solved or the opportunity that could be seized. You must show that you clearly understand the problem/situation if you are to convince the reader that you can solve it.  Rubrics that assess proposals generally place significant weight (~20%) on clarity and accuracy of the problem definition.
  2. Describe your proposed project, clearly defining the scope of what you propose to do. Often, it is best to give a general overview of your idea, and then break it down into more detailed sub-sections.
  3. Indicate how your proposed solution will solve the problem and provide tangible benefits. Specifically, indicate how it will meet the objectives and abide by the constraints outlined in the problem definition. Give specific examples. Show the specific differences between “how things are now” and “how they could be.” Be as empirical as possible, but appeal to all appropriate persuasive strategies. Emphasize results, benefits, and feasibility of your proposed idea.
  4. Include the practical details: Propose a budget and a timeline for completing your project. Represent these graphically (budget table, and Gantt chart). Your timeline should include the major milestones or deliverables for the project, as well as dates or time frames for the completion of each step.
  5. Conclude with a final pitch that summarizes and emphasizes the benefits of implementing your proposed idea – but without sounding like an advertisement. Ask for authorization to proceed.

Additional Proposal Elements

All proposals must be convincing, logical, and credible, and to do this, they must consider audience, purpose and tone. They are persuasive documents, so all components must be carefully considered as you integrate them into the document. You should also do the following:

  1. Describe your qualifications to take on and/or lead this project; persuade the reader that you have the required skills, experience, and expertise to complete this job.
  2. Include graphics to illustrate your ideas, present data, and enhance your pitch.
  3. Include secondary research to support your claims and to enhance your credibility and the strength of your proposal.
  4. Choose format according to the context; is this a memo report to an internal audience or a formal report to an external audience? Does it require a letter of transmittal?

Irish and Weiss (2013) urge readers to keep the following in mind:

An engineering proposal is not an advertisement. It must show, with objective language, clarity, and thoroughness, that the writers know what they are doing and will successfully complete the project.

Sample Proposal Organization

Each proposal will be unique in that it must address a particular audience, in a particular context, for a specific purpose. To read sample proposals, visit David McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing # Proposals for examples. However, the following offers a fairly standard organization for many types of proposals:


Clearly and fully defines the problem or opportunity addressed by the proposal, and briefly presents the solution idea; convinces the reader that there is a clear need, and a clear benefit to the proposed idea.


Project Description

Detailed description of solution idea and detailed explanation of how the proposed idea will improve the situation:

  1. Confirm the feasibility (is it do-able?) How will you find out?

  2. Explain the specific benefits of implementing the idea and the consequences of not doing it

  3. Give a detailed description or explanation of your proposed idea or methodology, and the resources needed to achieve goals.

  4. Address the potential obstacles or objections; concede where appropriate.


Establish the writer’s qualifications and experience to lead this project.

Timeline and Budget

Provide a detailed timeline for completion of project (use a Gantt chart to indicate when each stage of the project will be complete).

Provide an itemized budget for completing the proposed project.


This is your last chance to convince the reader; be persuasive! And ask for authorization to proceed.


List your research sources.

Language Considerations

Proposals are fundamentally persuasive documents, so paying attention to the rhetorical situation—position of the reader (upward, lateral, downward or outward communication), the purpose of the proposal, the form, and the tone—is paramount.

As always, adhere to the 7 Cs by making sure that your writing is

Why Project Proposals Might be Rejected

A proposal or recommendation needs research to convince the reader that the idea is worth pursuing or implementing. A project proposal could be rejected for any of the of following reasons related to insufficient research:


Irish, R. & Weiss, P. (2013).  Engineering communication: From principle to practice, 2nd Ed. Don Mill, ON:  Oxford UP.

[Lightbulb image]. Free for commercial use.

McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Examples, cases, and models.  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

[Proposal image]. [Online]. Available: Pixabay License.

Image descriptions

Figure 7.2.1 image description:

Once there is an idea, a project goes through a design process made up of four stages.

  1. Pre-project planning.
    • Problem Definition – identifying needs, goals, objectives, and constraints.
    • Define context and do research.
    • Identify potential projects.
    • Public engagement projects; Stakeholder consultation.
  2. Project Development.
    • Propose a project (budget, timeline, etc.).
    • Create or respond to a request for proposals, evaluate proposals.
    • Develop or design solution concepts.
    • Project management plan.
    • Feasibility Studies, Recommendation Reports).
  3. Project Implementation.
    • Write contracts and apply for permits for construction and building sites.
    • Progress reports, status updates.
    • Documentation of project.
    • Continued research and design improvements.
  4. Project completion.
    • Final reports and documentation.
    • Close contracts.
    • Ongoing Support: User Guides, Troubleshooting, FAQs.

[Return to Figure 7.2.1]

8.3 Recommendation Reports and Feasibility Studies

Feasibility and recommendation reports, are most often the final step in a series of documents, often beginning with a proposal and perhaps a series of progress reports, or they can be created in response to a smaller challenge. Feasibility, recommendation, evaluation, and assessment reports, are analytic reports that all do roughly the same thing—provide a careful study of a situation or problem, and often recommend what should be done to improve a situation. There are some subtle differences among these types, and names for them can vary. They can be written as long reports in response to complex situations as well as shorter reports for less complex ones.

This chapter will discuss what feasibility and recommendation reports consist of and how to create and organize their contents. To view examples of feasibility and recommendation reports, please visit David McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing: Examples, Cases, and Models.

Feasibility Reports

A feasibility report presents an opinion about a situation (for example, a problem or opportunity) and a plan for doing something about it. The report then discusses whether that plan is “feasible”—whether it is practical in terms of current technology, economics, time frame, social needs and preferences, and so on. The feasibility report answers the question “Should we implement Plan X?” by stating “yes,” “no,” or sometimes a “maybe” or “under certain conditions.” Not only does it indicate whether the idea is feasible, it also provides the data and the reasoning behind that determination; conversely, it might outline the reasons why the idea cannot or should not be implemented, or what obstacles must be overcome before the idea can become feasible. Typical questions addressed in these reports include

Recommendation Reports

A recommendation report starts from a stated need; it outlines criteria for assessing the options, it offers a selection of solution options, presents a detailed comparative analysis of the options, and then recommends one, some, or none. For example, a company might be looking at grammar-checking software and want a recommendation on which product is the best fit for them. Criteria for selection might be cost, installation, training, and privacy. As the report writer on this project, you could study the market for this type of application and recommend one particular product, two-to-three possible products (differing perhaps in their strengths and their weaknesses), or none (maybe none of them are appropriate for the client’s specific needs) after comparing each using the criteria for selection. The recommendation report answers the question “Which option should we choose?” (or in some cases “Which are the best options?) by recommending Product B, or maybe both Products B and C, or none of the products. These recommendations might arise from questions such as

Typical Contents of Recommendation and Feasibility Reports

Whatever variety of feasibility or recommendation report you write, whatever name people call it—most of the sections and the organization of those sections are roughly the same.

The structural principle fundamental to this type of report is this: You provide not only your recommendation, choice, or judgment, but also the data, analysis, discussion, and the conclusions leading to it. That way, readers can check your findings, your logic, and your conclusions to make sure your methodology was sound and that they can agree with your recommendation. Your goal is to convince the reader to agree with you by using your careful research, detailed analysis, rhetorical style, and documentation.

The general problem-solving approach for a recommendation report entails the steps shown in the example below.

Typical Recommendation Report Elements
1. Identify the need What is the “unsatisfactory situation” that needs to be improved or addressed?
2. Identify the criteria for responding to the need

What is the overall goal?

What are the specific, measurable objectives any solution should achieve?

What constraints must any solution adhere to?

3. Determine the solution options you will examine

Define the scope of your approach to the problem.

Identify the possible courses of action that you will examine in your report. You might include the consequences of simply doing nothing.

4. Study how well each option meets the criteria

Systematically study each option, and compare how well they meet each of the objectives you have set.

Provide a systematic and quantifiable way to compare how well the solution options meet the objectives (weighted objectives chart).

5. Draw conclusions based on your analysis Based on the research presented in your discussion section, sum up your findings and give a comparative evaluation of how well each of the options meets the criteria and addresses the need.
6. Formulate recommendations based on your conclusion Indicate which course of action the reader should take to address the problem, based on your analysis of the data presented in the report.

These steps generally coincide with how you will organize your information. Your report will be divided into several sections that will likely include most or all of the following elements:

  1. INTRODUCTION: The introduction should clearly state the document’s purpose. Your introduction will include the problem definition, which discusses the “unsatisfactory situation” or opportunity that has given rise to this report and the requirements that must be met. You should also include some background information to describe the circumstances leading up to the situation and your report. Finally, provide an overview of the contents of the report.
  2. TECHNICAL BACKGROUND:  Some recommendation or feasibility reports may require a technical discussion in order to make the rest of the report meaningful. The question is whether to put it in a section of its own or to fit it into the comparison sections where it is relevant. For example, a discussion of the power and speed of tablets is going to necessitate some discussion of RAM, megahertz, and processors. Should you put that in a section that compares the tablets according to power and speed? Should you keep the comparison neat and clean, limited strictly to the comparison and the conclusion? Maybe all the technical background can be pitched in its own section—either toward the front of the report or in an appendix.
  3. REQUIREMENTS AND CRITERIA:  A critical part of feasibility and recommendation reports is the discussion of the requirements (objectives and constraints) you’ll use to reach the final decision or recommendation. Here are some examples:
    • If you’re trying to recommend a tablet for use by employees, your requirements are likely to involve size, cost, hard-disk storage, display quality, durability, and battery function.
    • If you’re looking into the feasibility of providing every student at Austin Community College with an ID on the ACC computer network, you’d need to define the basic requirements of such a program—what it would be expected to accomplish, problems that it would have to avoid, and so on.
    • If you’re evaluating the recent program of free bus transportation in Austin, you’d need to know what was expected of the program and then compare its actual results to those requirements.

Requirements can be defined in several ways:

Numerical Values: Many requirements are stated as maximum or minimum numerical values. For example, there may be a cost requirement—the tablet should cost no more than $900.

Yes/no Values:  Some requirements are simply a yes-no question. Does the tablet come equipped with Bluetooth? Is the car equipped with voice recognition?

Ratings Values In some cases, key considerations cannot be handled either with numerical values or yes/no values. For example, your organization might want a tablet that has an ease-of-use rating of at least “good” by some nationally accepted ratings group. Or you may have to assign ratings yourself.

The requirements section should also discuss how important the individual requirements are in relation to each other. Picture the typical situation where no one option is best in all categories of comparison. One option is cheaper; another has more functions; one has better ease-of-use ratings; another is known to be more durable. Set up your requirements so that they dictate a “winner” from a situation where there is no obvious winner. A “weighted objectives chart” or “Decision Matrix” is often used in these cases.

4. DISCUSSION OF SOLUTION OPTIONS:  In certain kinds of feasibility or recommendation reports, you’ll need to explain how you narrowed the field of choices down to the ones your report focuses on. Often, this follows right after the discussion of the requirements. Your basic requirements may well narrow the field down for you. But other considerations may disqualify other options—explain these as well.

Additionally, you may need to provide brief technical descriptions of the options themselves. Don’t get this mixed up with the comparison that comes up in the next section. In this description section, you provide a general discussion of the options so that readers will know something about them. The discussion at this stage is not comparative. It’s just a general orientation to the options. In the tablets example, you might want to give some brief, general specifications on each model about to be compared.

5. COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS: One of the most important parts of a feasibility or recommendation report is the comparison of the options. Remember that you include this section so that readers can follow the logic of your analysis and come up with different conclusions if they desire. This comparison can be structured using a “block” (whole-to-whole) approach, or an “alternating” (point-by-point) approach.

Block Approach Alternating (Point-by-Point) Approach

All the information about Option 1

Compare all Options according to Criteria A (cost)

All the information about Option 2

Compare all Options according to Criteria B (functionality)

All the information about Option 3

Compare all options according to Criteria C (ease of use)

Direct Comparative Analysis of all three options and Summary of Results

Summary of Results

You might compare three options (1, 2, and 3) using three criteria for comparison (A, B, and C).  If you were comparing tablets, you’d likely use the point-by-point approach, having a section that compared all three options based on cost (criteria A), another section that compared them on battery function, and so on. You wouldn’t have a section that discussed everything about option 1, another that discussed everything about option 2, and so on. That would not be effective or efficient because you still have to make direct comparisons somewhere near the end of your discussion (such as in a weighted objectives chart).

Each of these comparative sections should end with a conclusion that sums up the relative strengths and weaknesses of each option and indicates which option is the best choice in that particular category of comparison. Of course, it won’t always be easy to state a clear winner—you may have to qualify the conclusions in various ways, providing multiple conclusions for different conditions.

If you were writing an evaluation report, you wouldn’t be comparing options. Instead, you’d be comparing the thing being evaluated against the requirements placed upon it, or the expectations people had of it. For example, Capital Metro had a program of more than a year of free bus transportation.  What was expected of that program? Did the program meet those expectations?

6. SUMMARY TABLE: After the individual comparisons, include a summary table (such as a weighted objectives chart) that summarizes the conclusions from the comparative analysis section. Given the trend to increasing use of visual narrative in reports, some readers are more likely to expect and pay attention to details in a table; however, you still have to write up a clear summary paragraph of your findings.

7. CONCLUSIONS:  The conclusions section of a feasibility or recommendation report amalgamates all of the conclusions you have already reached in each of the comparison sections. In this section, you restate the individual conclusions, for example, which model had the best price, which had the best battery function, and so on. You could give a summary of the relative strengths and weakness of each option based on how well they meet the criteria.

This section has to go further. It must untangle all the conflicting conclusions and somehow reach the final conclusion, which is the one that states which is the best choice. Thus, the conclusion section first lists the primary conclusions—the simple, single-category ones. Then it must state secondary conclusions—the ones that balance conflicting primary conclusions. For example, if one tablet is the least inexpensive but has poor battery function, but another is the most expensive but has good battery function, which do you choose and why? The secondary conclusion would state the answer to this dilemma.

8. RECOMMENDATIONS: The final section of feasibility and recommendation reports states the recommendations which flow directly from your conclusions and directly address the problem outlined in the introduction. These may sometimes be repetitive, but remember that some readers may skip right to the recommendation section. Also, in some cases where there may be a best choice, you may not want to recommend it. For example, early in their history, laptop computers were heavy and unreliable—one model may have been better than the rest, but even so it may not have been worth having. You may want to recommend further research, a pilot project, or a re-design of one of the options discussed.

The recommendation section should outline what further work needs to be done, based solidly on the information presented previously in the report and responding directly to the needs outlined in the beginning. In some cases, you may need to recommend several ranked options based on different possibilities.

Revision Checklist for Feasibility and Recommendation Reports

As you reread and revise your feasibility or recommendation report, ensure that you have included all of the sections and elements described below.

Revision Checklist for Recommendation Reports
Document Section Key Content Elements Check
Introductory Sections Indicate the situation and the audience.
Discuss the background of the problem or opportunity—what brought about the need for the report? Give technical background if necessary.
State requirements—those factors that influence the decision on the choice of options (objectives and constraints).
Indicate how the field of options was narrowed to the ones being compared (if relevant).
Provide an overview of the contents.
Discussion Sections Organize the comparative analysis/discussion of the options using the point-by-point  or whole-to-whole approach. Choose the structure that best matches your content and purpose.
At the end of each comparative section, state the best choice in terms that point of comparison.
Include a table, if possible, in which you summarize all the key data.
Conclusion Restate all the key conclusions from the Discussion sections.
State secondary conclusions, and base them on requirements established at the beginning.
State a final conclusion (about the overall feasibility of the idea or about the overall strengths and weaknesses of each option compared).
Recommendations Make recommendations for future actions; include actionable steps.
References Fully document any sources used in the report in a list of references.
Appendices Add any additional information that has been referred to but not included in the body of the report.
This chapter was adapted from David Murrey’s “Recommendation and Feasibility Reports,” in Online technical writing, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Examples, cases, and models. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

8.4 Progress Reports

You write a progress report to inform a supervisor, associate, or client about progress you have made on a project over a specific period of time. Periodic progress reports are common on projects that go on for several months (or more). Whoever is paying for this project wants to know whether tasks are being completed on schedule and on budget.  If the project is not on schedule or on budget, they want to know why and what additional costs and time will be needed.

Progress reports answer the following questions for the reader:

Purpose of a Progress Report

The main function of a progress report is persuasive: to reassure clients and supervisors that you are making progress, that the project is going smoothly, and that it will be completed by the expected date — or to give reasons why any of those might not be the case. They also do the following:

Format of a Progress Report

Depending on the size of the progress report, the length and importance of the project, and the recipient, a progress report can take forms ranging from a short informal conversation to a detailed, multi-paged report. Most commonly, progress reports are delivered in following forms:

Organizational Patterns for Progress Reports

The recipient of a progress report wants to see what you’ve accomplished on the project, what you are working on now, what you plan to work on next, and how the project is going in general. The information is usually arranged with a focus either on time or on task, or a combination of the two:

Information can also be arranged by report topic. You should refer to established milestones or deliverables outlined in your original proposal or job specifications. Whichever organizational strategy you choose, your report will likely contain the elements described below. To view examples of progress reports, visit David McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing.

Progress Reports – Structural Overview

1. Introduction

Review the details of your project’s purpose, scope, and activities. The introduction may also contain the following:

  • date the project began; date the project is scheduled to be completed
  • people or organization working on the project
  • people or organization for whom the project is being done
  • overview of the contents of the progress report

2. Project status

This section (which could have sub-sections) should give the reader a clear idea of the current status of your project.  It should review the work completed, work in progress, and work remaining to be done on the project, organized into sub-sections by time, task, or topic. These sections might include the following:

  • direct reference to milestones or deliverables established in previous documents related to the project
  • timeline for when remaining work will be completed
  • Any problems encountered or issues that have arisen that might affect completion, direction, requirements, or scope.

3.  Conclusion

The final section provides an overall assessment of the current state of the project and its expected completion, usually reassuring the reader that work will progress (even if you have encountered some challenges). It can also alert recipients to unexpected changes in direction or scope, or problems in the project that may require intervention.

4.  References section if required.



Note: Some contents of this chapter have been adapted from McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online Technical Writing: Progress Reports.  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


McMurrey, David. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Examples, cases, and models.  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

8.5 Lab Reports


Whether your research takes place in a university lab or on some remote work site, you will often have to write up the results of your work in a lab report. Most basically, this report will describe the original hypothesis your work attempts to test, the methodology you used to test it, your observations and results of your testing, your analysis and discussion of what this data means, and your conclusions.

In an academic context, especially in early courses, you are often asked to replicate the results of others rather than conduct your own original research. This is usually meant to instill an understanding of the scientific method into students, and teach students the proper use of instruments, techniques, processes, data analysis, and documentation. Once you demonstrate your ability to understand and apply the scientific method in these contexts, you will be able to design your own research studies and develop new knowledge. Your reports then become the way you pass on this new knowledge to the field and to society at large.

For scientists and engineers to make valuable contributions to the sum of human knowledge, they must be able to convince readers that their findings are valid (can be replicated) and valuable. Thus, the way that you write these reports can impact the credibility and authority of your work; people will judge your work partly on how you present it. Yes, even lab reports have a persuasive edge and must make careful use of rhetorical strategies. Careless writing, poor organization, ineffective document design, and lack of attention to convention may cast doubt on your authority and expertise, and thus on the value of your work.

Science and Rhetoric

Some aspects of your report that might require you to think rhetorically are exemplified in how you approach the following questions:

Writing a Lab Report

Your report will be based on the work you have done in the lab. Therefore, you must have a plan for keeping careful notes on what you have done, how you have done it, and what you observed. Researchers often keep a notebook with them in the lab, sometimes with pre-designed tables or charts for recording the data they know they will be observing (you might be given a lab manual to use while completing a particular experiment to record your observations and data in a pre-organized format). Try to plan ahead so that you can capture as much information as possible during your research; don’t try to rely only on memory to record these important details.

How you choose the content and format for your report will depend on your audience and purpose. Students must make sure to read lab manuals and instructions carefully to determine what is required; if writing for publication, make sure to follow the submission guidelines of the publication you are sending it to. Lab reports typically contain the elements outlined below.

Typical Elements of a Lab Report

Title:  Craft a descriptive and informative title that will enable readers to decide if this interests them and will allow key words to be abstracted in indexing services. Ask your instructor about specific formatting requirements regarding title pages, etc.

Abstract:  Write a summary of your report that mirrors your report structure (Hypothesis, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion) in condensed form—roughly one sentence per section. Ideally, sum up your important findings.

Introduction:  Establish the context and significance of your work, its relevance in the field, and the hypothesis or question your study addresses in the Introduction. Give a brief overview of your methodology for testing your hypothesis and why it is appropriate. If necessary for your readers, provide a specialized theoretical framework, background or technical knowledge to help them understand your focus and how it contributes to the field. Your instructor may describe a target audience for you; pay attention to that and write for that audience.  More detailed reports may require a literature review section.

Materials and Methods:  This section has two key purposes. First, it must allow any reader to perfectly replicate your method; therefore, you must provide a thorough description of what you used and how you conducted your experiment. Second, you must persuade your reader that your chosen methodology and the materials are appropriate and valid for testing your hypothesis and will lead to credible and valid results. This section will generally include 1) a list of all materials needed (which may include sub-lists, diagrams, and other graphics), and 2) a detailed description of your procedure, presented chronologically. Traditionally, the Sciences have required writers to describe what they did using the passive voice, as passive mode emphasizes the materials and actions taken and de-emphasizes the role of the scientist in the process. This is slowly changing, as the use of active voice is more concise; however, you should consult your instructor about which is preferred in your context.

Results: The Results section presents the raw data that you generated in your experiment and provides the evidence you will need to form conclusions about your hypothesis. Present only the data that is relevant to your results (but if you omit data, you may have to explain why it is not relevant). You can organize this section based on chronology (following your methodology) or on the importance of data in proving (or negating) the hypothesis (most important to least important). Present data visually whenever possible (in tables, graphs, flowcharts, etc.), and help readers understand the context of your data. Make sure you present the data honestly and ethically; do not distort or obscure data to make it better fit your hypothesis. If data is inconclusive or contradictory, be honest about that. In the Results section, you should avoid interpreting or explaining your data, as this belongs in your Discussion section.

Discussion: The Discussion section includes your analysis and interpretation of the data you presented in the Results section in terms of how well it supports your original hypothesis. Start with the most important findings. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge that the data you have generated is problematic or fails to support the hypothesis. This points the way for further research. If your findings are inconsistent, try to suggest possible reasons for this.

Conclusion:  In one or two short paragraphs, create the Conclusion to review the overall purpose of your study and the hypothesis you tested; then summarize your key findings and the important implications. This is your opportunity to persuade the audience of the significance of your work.

Acknowledgements:  In a brief Acknowledgements paragraph, formally express appreciation for any assistance you have received while preparing the report (financial/funding support, help from colleagues or your institution, etc.).

References:  In References, list all references you have cited in your report (such as those you may have included in a literature review in your introduction, or sources that help justify your methodology). Check with your instructor or publication guidelines for which citation style to use.

Appendices:  Any information that does not fit within the body sections, but still adds valuable information to your report, can be placed in an appendix. Whereas your Results section may present summarized data, the full data tables may appear in an appendix. You may also include logs, calculations, or notes on analytical methods. Be sure to refer to your appendices in the body of your report to signal where readers can find additional information. You may include more than one appendix: Appendix A, Appendix B, etc. They are not numbered.

How you write up the results of a scientific experiment will generally follow the formulaic pattern described above, but this may vary depending on audience and purpose. As a student, you are often writing to demonstrate to your instructor that you have mastered the knowledge and skills required in a particular course. But remember that science writing generally focuses on the observable results, not on your “learning experience.” Your report should include what anyone doing this experiment might observe and conclude; these do not typically include personal reflections. In the professional academic world, your report may have to pass through a rigorous peer review process before being published in a scholarly journal. As a professional, your work may result in the development of products and services that will be used by the public, so documenting your process and findings has financial, safety, and legal implications. It is therefore critical that your writing is accurate and ethical.

A Note on Scientific Writing Style

Lab reports are often written using past tense, 3rd person, and passive verb constructions when describing what was done and what was observed. Why do you suppose that is?

Strict adherence to this style has in recent years been relaxed somewhat, and you might find more science writing that uses first person and active rather than passive verb constructions. Can you think of reasons why this is changing?

Additional Resources

For a fun example of process report that is similar in many ways to a lab report, see Drafting Behind Big Rigs – Mythbusters Report (.pdf)

When evaluating scientific literature that you read, you might find the the following TED-Ed video by David H. Schwartz helpful: Not all Scientific Studies are Created Equal.



Oral presentations may be one of the most anxiety-inducing prospects for many students and professionals alike. Yet the ability to plan your presentation, use available technologies, and speak clearly and confidently in public is an important competency in the workplace.

Since there is an enormous amount of information on this topic available on the internet, and since “showing” is often more effective than “telling,” links to several online resources are included to help you sort through and find credible and authoritative sources of information and sample presentations to help you learn more and develop your own presentations.

Chapter 8 Learning Objectives

This chapter will help you develop confidence and skills in presenting information orally, both individually and as a team, and in designing visually effective presentations in person and virtually by focusing on the following areas:

9.1 Applying skills and techniques that will help build your confidence as a presenter

9.2 Developing presentation skills by using a systematic process to practice delivery and use visual rhetoric

9.3 Using software features and slide tools to design your presentation

9.4 Using collaboration skills to effectively present as a team

9.5 Extending and applying your skills to present virtually

9.1 Building Confidence as a Presenter


Monika Smith and Suzan Last

“Even the greatest was once a beginner.”

Muhammad Ali

“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In this section, you will find some practical steps for becoming an effective public speaker, based on the principle that no matter how much of a novice or an expert you are, there’s always something to learn and room to improve. If you feel anxious about speaking in front of others—and, admittedly, most people do—then the steps, information, and additional resources provided here will help build your confidence, give you some stage tools to work with, and direct you to resources to further solidify your learning.

Before you begin the process of building skills, watch How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking (2017) by Danish Dhamani, then consider these preliminary steps.

Preliminary Steps

1. Acknowledge the Challenge:  The first thing to acknowledge up front is that, aside from extroverts (a minority of the population), most people dislike, if not actively shudder at, the idea of public speaking. For many people, even those who have to speak as part of their job, the mere thought of speaking in front of a crowd can evoke feelings of doom and gloom: furrowed brows, shaking hands, trembling voice, and palpitations.

Figures from a range of sources show you’re in good company:

  • From a 2015 Canadian Cancer Society survey: 33% of the 1500 people surveyed feared public speaking the most.
  • From a Statistic Brain survey quoted in Forbes: 74% of people suffer from a fear of public speaking (Zimmerman, 2017).

Hence, if you’d like to become an effective public speaker but feel anxious at the prospect of actually doing public speaking, you’re not alone. Your fear of public speaking isn’t a personal failing; it’s a common human response.

The good news, of course, is that fear of public speaking can be overcome. Some of the most famous voices we know initially struggled as speakers: James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, overcame tremendous personal and social anxieties to “find his voice” and in doing so, got to the point where he could comfortably and confidently speak up and speak out (Jones & Niven, 1993). You can too.

 2. Recognize the Costs and Benefits:  Acknowledge the personal and professional costs of remaining stuck and not tackling the challenge that speaking before others can pose. Unfortunately, even if employees have strong technical skills, an admirable work ethic, and intelligent, innovative ideas, if they struggle to speak confidently and coherently in a public or workplace setting, they may find it difficult to make a strong positive impact. For example, fear of public speaking can

  • lead people to believe they’re less competent and worthy than they are,
  • keep their ideas from being heard and acted on, and
  • become a glass ceiling in a their own career and thwarting advancement.

Being unable to persuasively communicate your ideas in front of a group or audience means that, more likely than not, your ideas, skills, and potential—qualities that could have helped solve a problem and made a positive impact—don’t get heard.

All these negatives stand in sharp contrast to what can be achieved with a strong, persuasive, confident voice. Once you commit to developing your voice as a presenter, you’ll find that speaking up is both liberating and empowering: It not only allows your ideas to be heard, it enables you to accomplish the goals you set. Putting effort into developing your professional speaking skills will pay off in the long run, maximizing your potential as a professional.

3.  Commit to Learning: Whether public speaking makes you anxious or whether you enjoy taking center stage, everyone can learn how to become a better public speaker. Regardless of where you are on the public speaking spectrum, you can always develop your skills by learning about and practicing the tips, techniques, and strategies that successful public speakers use to inform, persuade, and even inspire their audiences.

4. Commit to Thorough Preparation: Whether you are presenting to a small group at a workplace meeting or to a larger crowd at a conference, completing a thorough preparation will help to build your confidence in the material you will be presenting. Knowing your materials will help to lessen your anxiety and allow you to take some pleasure in the speaking experience.

You may be interested in reading more about overcoming presentation anxiety. Michael J. Gelb, in Mastering the Art of Public Speaking (2020), offers a lively, straightforward “how to” approach to public speaking, paying special attention to how to overcome your fears and feel more confident. In short, it’s all about preparation.


Canadian Cancer Society. (2015, June 8). Snakes and ladders top list of Canadians’ fears, just don’t ask them to speak publicly about it.

Dhamani, D. (2017, December 15).  How I overcame my fear of public speaking. [Video]. YouTube.

Gelb, M.J. (2020).  Mastering the art of public speaking: 8 secrets to transform fear and supercharge your career.  Novato, CA: New World Library.

Jones, J. E. & Niven, P. (1993). James Earl Jones: Voices of silence. New York: Scribner Book Co.

Zimmerman, K. (2017, February 8). 4 reasons all millennials should develop their public speaking skills. Forbes.

9.2 Developing Presentation Skills


Suzan Last, Monika Smith, and Robin L. Potter

Like any kind of advanced communication skill, the art of giving effective presentations is not in-born; it requires deliberate practice. An excellent way to learn more about delivering effective presentations is to follow a systematic process:

  1. Observe others.
  2. Study their strategies and reflect on their effectiveness.
  3. Select and practice strategies that will work for you; reflect and get feedback from others.

Step 1: Observation

You can learn a lot simply by observing how successful public speakers “work the room” and engage their audience. Observe what they do. How do they use their voice to make it work as a tool of communication? How do they deploy tone, pausing, pacing, and projection? What do they do with their hands? How do they make use of the physical space around them? Take note of how speakers physically operate, either in person or in media: Identify what they do, make note of what you feel works well and what doesn’t, then put what you’ve learned into practice.

As a student, you might start by observing your professors. Aim to identify what makes one professor a great lecturer and another less engaging. Compare what they do with their voice, their hands, their gestures, their movements. Pay attention to how they pace their talk to draw you in and create emphasis. Reflect on what they do to convey a sense of enthusiasm for what they’re talking about—or fail to do so. You want to know what kinds of things to avoid—a dull monotonous tone, for example—as well as what kinds of things to adopt to ensure your voice comes across as a powerful tool for communicating your ideas clearly and emphatically.

EXERCISE 9.1: Observation in Action

Whether observing your favourite professor give a lecture; watching your favourite podcaster, TV or YouTube presenter; or viewing the videos linked below, turn your observations into an active learning experience: Create a list of what the speakers do well as speakers, and then use them as role models. The goal is to create a toolkit of practical tips, approaches, and ideas for building confidence, developing your own “spark” as public speaker, and engaging your audience. In short, watch, observe, and learn.

Here are some public speakers on film that you may enjoy watching and learning from:

As you are watching these presentations, take note of the following characteristics to build a short inventory of elements you would like to emulate in your own presentations:

  1. Openings: How do the presenters open their speeches? How do they introduce the topic? Do they straight-away announce their main point, or do they engage the audience first and lead in to their thesis?
  2. Transitions: How do the presenters move from one idea to the next? Do they pause and announce the next topic, or do they smooth the flow of ideas by using transition devices and thematic content?
  3. Tone and style: What tone is used to present the information? Super serious? Humorous? A balance of both? Is the content high-information focused, or does it consist of a balance of high information and story-telling?
  4. Voice and facial expression: How is voice used to support the tone and the content? Is the speaker using a mono-tone or is the speaker modulating voice for emphasis and engagement? Do you feel the ideas as well as hear them? Is the speaker smiling and showing enjoyment in the speaking process? Is the speaker looking down and reading text, or is the speaker looking outwards and making eye contact with the audience?
  5. Gestures: How is the speaker making use of the body and gestures to emphasize ideas and engage the audience?
  6. Closing: How does the speaker close the presentation? Are you left with a memorable statement that will help you remember the key point?

Step 2: Study and Reflect

Learning from experts who lay out a set of simple techniques is a confidence builder because it shows that great speakers are made, not born. With deliberate practice, anyone can do this. There are no mysteries, just specific, applicable strategies that anyone can adopt to establish rapport with an audience and make a meaningful impact.

Here are some more great online resources to help you develop your presentation skills further:

Videos are helpful because they not only provide information, but visually demonstrate the ideas (both showing and telling); however, you can also learn from many books on the subject. Check out Lee LeFever’s, The Art of Explanation: Making your Ideas, Products, and Services Easier to Understand (2012), which invites you to become an “explanation specialist” by using simple elements to motivate your audience and inspire them to say “yes!” to your designs and ideas.


Take notes from the sources while you study them.  Making written notes about points you want to remember is an effective way to promote deep learning. As you watch each of the videos, identify two-to-three key tips. If you are doing this activity in class, share your “top two” tips with classmates and make note of their “top two” tips in turn.

Then consider the value of the tips and strategies you’ve compiled. What makes them seem to work so well and, equally important, how could you feasibly incorporate them into your presentations to make them your own?

Step 3: Practice and Assess your Progress

Now that you have identified strategies that you find effective and think might work for you, try putting them into practice. See if the strategies you have learned add some extra “oomph” to your presentation style. Try creating videos of your own practice sessions. Use them to observe your technique and to improve on your delivery. Either by engaging in self-reflection, or by asking for feedback, consider how well these strategies worked for you and whether you need to further hone, adapt, or change the way you used them. These “draft” videos allow you to focusing on aspects such as voice, volume, pace, and gestures. Reviewing these will help you build confidence, speak fluently, and hold an audience’s attention.

EXERCISE 9.3 Build your repertoire

Just as you did when watching your videos, make a list of key tips that you want adopt as a presenter. Select a “top three” strategies, reflect on those three, rehearse them and put them in practice when you get a chance. Going through these steps will get you primed and ready to put the tips into play when time comes to actually deliver your talk. Keep adding tips to your repertoire until you’ve got a good, well-rounded set of strategies designed to keep your audience alert, engaged, and wanting to hear more!

Gault, Terry. (2016, April 29). 10 most common rookie mistakes in public speaking.  Prezi Blog.

LeFever, L. (2012).  The art of explanation: Making your ideas, products, and services easier to understand. New York: Wiley.

MindTools. Better public speaking.

Pausch, R. (2007, September 18). The last lecture: Achieving your childhood dreams. [Video]. Youtube.

Pease, A.  (2013, November 17). Body language, the power is in the palm of your hands. [Video]. YouTube.

Rigsby, R. (2017, October). The wisdom of a third grade dropout will change your life. [Video]. Youtube.

Rosling, H. (2010, November, 26). The joy of stats. [Video]. YouTube.

Stephen, Will. (2015, January 15). How to sound smart in your TEDx talk. [Video]. YouTube.

Toastmasters International. (2012, May 7). Five basic public speaking skills. [Video]. YouTube.

9.3 Designing Your Presentation


Suzan Last and Robin L. Potter

Many books by public speaking experts are designed to help you develop your own strong presentation skills. As important as delivery methods is how you design your presentation–from the inside out. How you organize the contents of your presentation and how you design your slide deck will help to determine whether or not your message is conveyed in its most powerful form. This chapter will focus on speech structure and on slide design.

Speech Structure

You are by now familiar with the conventions of technical correspondence and report structure: introduction, background, details, conclusion. This structure forms the backbone for most messaging in technical fields. Many presentations are created using this simple structure as well, often melding the introduction and background together to save on time. The key message would constitute the high point of the presentation, followed by information that supports that point. This “triangle-shaped” structure is used commonly.

To determine how your presentation should be constructed, consider your purpose. In technology, the purpose often falls within the following, according to David McMurrey (1997-2017):

When creating a presentation that has a persuasive message, you have structural options. You can organize your content using the traditional “triangle” method, or you can use the “what is, what can be” comparative method shared by Nancy Duarte in her presentation The Secret Structure of Great Talks (2011). In this presentation, which offers a great example of effective persuasive presentation structure and design, Duarte reveals that speeches that have changed society make use of this “what is, what can be” structure, which compares what the current situation is to what the situation can be in its improved form after your great idea is implemented. Keep this structure in your toolbox for times when you want to persuade the reader to implement a new procedure, accept a proposed project, or sell a new product, for example.

A Brief Overview of PowerPoint

Even the most dynamic speakers often make use of visual aids to accompany their presentation and help illustrate their ideas. Having well designed visuals as part of your presentation is one way for presenters to add interest and audience engagement to their talks. Despite much discussion on the pros and cons of this medium, PowerPoint is probably the most common software used to create presentations using visual aids. While many other presentation tools are worthy of your consideration, PowerPoint is a standard, versatile workplace tool, so it would be wise to gain proficiency with it. The key concept to remember is that your visual aids should supplement and illustrate what you want to say to your audience.

When designing a PowerPoint presentation, it is helpful to be familiar with key terminology used to discuss the various elements.

A screenshot of a 30-slide PowerPoint deck
Figure 9.2.1  PowerPoint Deck
A sample PowerPoint slide with a title, some text, and an exhibit, which is an image.
Figure 9.2.2 PowerPoint slide (Keithonearth, n.d.). CC BY-SA 3.0.

You may want to view sample presentations: Click on the presentations listed below or take a look at the PowerPoint decks that accompany this textbook to see detailed examples of effective presentation decks.

Sample PowerPoint Presentations Using Traditional Structure

Designing Slides for Technical Information

You will probably be most familiar with the slide design illustrated above, with each slide containing a title and content consisting of bullet points. You will see this design in most of your professors’ lectures. Though it is the most commonly used slide design, it has also been criticized as being too rigid and resulting in poor long-term information retention. When this traditional slide design was compared to the assertion-evidence slide design discussed below, researchers discovered that using assertion-evidence slide structure resulted in deeper learning and understanding (Garner, et al. 2011).

Assertion-evidence slide structure, pioneered by Michael Alley at Penn State University, consists of a statement, or assertion, usually placed where the slide title would normally be placed. Among other types of content, the body of the slide would then include (excerpted from McMurrey, 1997-2017):

Below is a video by Robert Yale (2013) that reviews conventional PowerPoint disadvantages, studies in information retention, and the assertion-evidence structure. If you want to learn how to create slides using this method and see examples, please view this video as it is a good primer.


Thumbnail for the embedded element "The Assertion-Evidence Structure for PowerPoint Slide Design"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Visual Rhetoric

PowerPoint is not the only visual medium you might use. Posters, infographics, and other kinds of displays can also work to effectively convey your message if they are well designed. Considering how to present ideas visually can be as important as determining what to say. Here are some resources to help you design visual information in a rhetorically effective way:

Visual Rhetoric page from the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University

Rule of Thirds (Wikipedia)

Color theory (Tiger Color)

Psychology of Font Choices (The Daily Egg)

Putting It All Together

As you deepen your knowledge of general slide deck design, check out these two texts, which are considered key primers on the topic of presentation design.



Note: Some of the contents of this chapter have been adapted from David McMurrey (1997-2017), Online Technical Writing: Oral Presentations. CC by Attribution 4.0



Ally, M. (n.d.). Rethinking presentations in science and engineering. Penn State University Park.

Duarte, N. (2008). Slide:ology: The art and science of creating great presentations.

Duarte, N. (2011, November.) The secret structure of great talks. TEDxEast.

Garner, J.K., Alley, M., Sawarynski, L.E., Wolfe, K.L., & Zappe, S.E. (2011). Assertion-evidence slides appear to lead to better comprehension and recall of more complex concepts.  American Society of Engineers. PDF.

Garr, R. (2011). PresentationZen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. Toronto: Pearson.

Hunt, Ted. (2013, July 5).  A pro designer shares the psychology of font choices. [Infographic]. The Daily Egg.

Keithonearth, [Bicycle image embedded in slide]. CC BY-SA 3.0.

McMurrey, D. (1997-2017). Online technical writing: Oral presentations.

Online Writing Lab (OWL). Visual rhetoric. University of Purdue.

Tiger Color. (n.d.). Basic color schemes.

Wikipedia. (2021, February 9 edited). Rule of Thirds.

Yale, R. (2013). The Assertion-evidence structure for PowerPoint slide design. YouTube.

9.4 Presenting as a Team


Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

Since many projects are undertaken in teams, presentations related to those projects are also often given as a team.  Presenting coherent and engaging information as a team takes practice and coordination, and while different team members may share the work by being responsible for different elements of the preparation and delivery, sometimes giving a presentation as a team can entail more work than doing a solo talk.  Below are some useful resources that provide information on things to consider when presenting as a team.

Resources on Presenting as a Team

How to Coordinate a Team Presentation (Coursera: Oral Communication for Engineering Leaders)  (4:45 min.)

This video resource is presented by two professors who teach at Rice University in Engineering Leadership. They model and discuss how to coordinate a team presentation.

20 Things that Great Presenting Teams Ask Before They Open Their Mouths (Inc. com)

In this article, communications expert Deborah Grayson Riegel poses 20 questions that you should consider as a team in preparing for your presentation. This is a great list and would help your team consider perhaps the less obvious things.

Ask the Experts: Presentation Strategy for Team and Group Presentations (Total Communicator e-zine)

Peter Guiliano, communications consultant and Chairman of Executive Communications Group, provides tips on preparing and delivering successful team presentations.

10 Rules for Presenting as a Team (Public Words)

Nick Morgan PhD, a communications professor and coach, offers some advice for team presentations. While some information overlaps with the sources above, he does offer some additional tips and suggestions that may be of interest such as ways to handle a discussion.

9.5 Presenting Virtually


Robin L. Potter

The global pandemic of 2020-2021 gave companies, organizations, institutions, and their employees a time to pause and assess how they can use their time and resources to advantage. Telecommuting in many cases was the only way that businesses and industries could continue to operate amid pandemic shut-downs and restrictions. These organizations discovered that they could operate effectively, while lowering overhead costs, even when employees worked from home. The big shift to the “work from home” (WFH) model required that companies ramp up digital communication strategies and that employees quickly learn them so that businesses could survive. Now, especially since the WFH model appears to be a lasting change in the way businesses operate, virtual meeting tools have become a routine part of daily workplace communication.

Using communication technologies effectively is a necessity if businesses and industry are to thrive. While many are familiar with email and text messaging, not everyone is comfortable with software that enables face-to-face, or virtual, meetings. Yet such software enables businesses to conduct meetings when employees and other relevant parties are not in the same location. And with global business on the rise, this software can help to facilitate international communication and information sharing while reducing travel and other costs.

At these virtual meetings, you may be asked to deliver some information or even a more formal presentation. Drawing on experience, this chapter will focus on key principles to assist you in delivering an effective presentation using virtual meeting software. Most meeting software contains the same basic tools, but these tools may be built into the interface quite differently. Given the zooming popularity of Zoom Video and Web Conferencing during the pandemic, we will use Zoom as a model when referring to specific functionalities.

Preparing for Your Virtual Presentation

While previous chapters addressed the planning process that goes into creating any presentation, when delivering a presentation virtually it is good practice to develop some key habits to ensure that the presentation goes smoothly. Presenting from home can have certain challenges, so being prepared will go a long way to creating a polished and professional image.

  1. Invitation Link: Ensure that you have the invitation link for the scheduled presentation. If you are not the one who is organizing the meeting at which you will be presenting, make sure that the person who is has sent you the invitation with the link. When the meeting is set to begin, click on the link to join the virtual meeting. If you are organizing the meeting, ensure that you have shared the link with invitees. On the day of the meeting, resend the link to attendees so it is at hand. Launch the meeting software about 30 minutes before the meeting begins so you can ensure that the software is working as expected.
  2. Attire: Wear professional clothing to convey a professional workplace image, even if you are delivering your presentation from the comfort of your home.
  3. Presentation Slide Deck: If you are using a slide deck, open it and keep it at the ready in the bottom toolbar of your screen if you are using a laptop or desktop. During your presentation, you will be asked to share your presentation deck so attendees can view the slides as you are presenting. Keeping it at the ready will help you find it quickly when it is time for you to present and will prevent attendees from seeing your computer files.
  4. Mute and Video Buttons: In Zoom, as in many other video conferencing software, you can mute yourself and pause video while you listen to other speakers. Often, these settings are preset by the meeting organizer, so you will not have control over them. If you do have control, you can use the mute tool while others are speaking to avoid noise from your environs from being heard by everyone at the meeting. Gauge the context: In many businesses and industries it is expected that you do not pause your video so that everyone can see each other during the meeting.
  5. Chat Tool: Most video conferencing software also includes a chat tool. When you arrive in the virtual meeting room, use it to type a greeting if everyone is muted. You can also use it to post questions when someone else is presenting. When you are presenting, it is likely that others will also post their questions to the chat. Sometimes, presenters prefer to field questions during the presentation, others prefer to address all questions at the end. You should come to an agreement with the moderator at the start of the presentation as to when you would like to field the questions and comments. The chat can also be used by the moderator to post links and other bits of information as needed during both text and verbal conversations. In any meeting, it is good practice to have a moderator who will respond to chat comments and relay questions to the presenter.
  6. Connect with Two Devices: For technical demonstrations and training connect to the meeting with two devices: The first device will focus on your face or presentation deck, while the second device can focus on your demonstration and materials. Viewers can select which video they would like to view at any given time.

Delivering Your Virtual Presentation

Delivering a virtual presentation is luckily quite similar to delivering one in person. You will most likely use a slide deck, and you will also attend to the same elements of delivery, such as pace, tone, voice, gestures, and the like. The technology, however, offers some unique challenges; being aware of these and adapting your delivery will allow you to present more effectively.

  1. Interactive Tools: Be prepared to use interactive tools like the chat, poll, reactions, and other tools to get the audience engaged and interacting during your presentation. In order for the audience to know what to expect and what to do, inform them about the use of these tools before you begin your presentation.
  2. Camera Angle: Ensure that your laptop or desktop camera is at eye level. Too often, the camera is situated below eye level resulting in an unflattering view of the speaker’s chin or nose.
  3. Posture: Stand up. Deliver your presentation standing up. You will discover that you have more confidence and will have a more professional attitude than if you are seated.
  4. Lighting: Ensure that you have sufficient lighting. You want the audience to see you well. Dim lighting can result in a poor image quality.
  5. Background: When meeting virtually from your home, ensure that you use a background that is suitable for a workplace video call. While a home office would be ideal, not all homes have such a space. In this case, choose a location that is suited for a business call. You can also opt to use a virtual background offered on some virtual conferencing platforms. Some also allow you to post your own virtual background. Avoid uploading a beach photo; rather, use an image depicting a more professional context.
  6. Distractions: Ensure that you have taken the necessary steps to avoid distractions during your meeting and especially during your presentations. We have seen televised clips of children and pets deciding to make entrances during virtual meetings. While charming, you want to avoid any interruptions while you present.
  7. Presentation Share: Most video conferencing software will have the capability to share your slide deck to the screen so that the audience can view your slides as you deliver your presentation. With your slide deck at the ready on the bottom tool bar, simply click on the Share button in the video conferencing software then click on your slide deck to make it visible to the audience. Your host will have to make the sharing option available for all this to work.

Wrapping Up

When you have completed your presentation, a few wrap up activities typically occur, so be prepared for them.

  1. Questions From the Chat: An engaged audience will post questions and comments to the chat tool. The meeting organizer or moderator will keep an eye on the chat comments and questions and will choose the appropriate time at the end of the presentation to convey them to you if you have not agreed to field the questions and comments earlier during the presentation.
  2. Break Out Rooms: Advanced features in video conferencing software will include break out rooms where attendees can be divided into smaller groups for discussions. If you are the guest speaker and break out rooms are used, you will most likely be asked to visit each room to check in on the discussions and add your commentary. These break out rooms help to create a more personal approach to meetings.
  3. Sharing the Slide Deck: Often presenters are asked to share the slide deck with the audience or with organizers of the meeting. If you agree, save your slide deck to a cloud storage file so that you can easily share the link to the slide deck.
  4. Sharing the Presentation Recording: Zoom and other video conferencing tools enable recording of meetings and presentations. It is common courtesy for meeting organizers to ask for permission before recording any presentation. If you agree, the presentation will be recorded, downloaded, and saved in a file. This file may be too large to be attached to an email message. Save the recording file to a cloud storage, then share the link via email or post it in a shared file that attendees can access.

For additional tips on how to run effective virtual meetings, read How to Run Effective Virtual Meetings on MindTools.

APPENDICES: Writing Fundamentals


Technical Writing Essentials is designed to follow up on the skills learned in a first year college writing course. You learned many of these skills in the context of transferable writing in COM101 and COM111, so you are well under way to realizing the importance of these writing abilities in workplace writing. For a review of basic sentence skills and paragraph development, see Tara Horkoff’s Writing for Success (2013/2019).

The following appendices provide a review of some of the basic conventions and expectations of writing fundamentals that you should be familiar with and that are relevant to technical writing:

Appendix A:  Transitional Words and Phrases for University Writing

Appendix B:  Sentence Structure

Appendix C:  Punctuation Matters

Appendix D:  Writing Comparisons

Appendix E:  Peer Review Essentials



Horkoff, T. & McLean, S. (2013/2019). Writing for success. eCampus Ontario Open Library. This text is a derivative of Scott McLean’s original 2013 version of Writing for Success. CC-BY-NC-SA



Appendix A: Transitional Words and Phrases for College Writing


In previous English classes, you may have learned the basic transitional words or phrases in Table A.1. These can be effective when writing simple information in a structure where you simply add one idea after another, or want to show the order of events.

TABLE A.1 Basic beginner-level transitions








last but not least,


first of all





However, more complex college-level and technical writing requires more sophisticated transitions. It requires you to connect ideas in ways that show the logic of why one idea comes after another in a complex argument or analysis. For example, you might be comparing/contrasting ideas, or showing a cause and effect relationship, providing detailed examples to illustrate an idea, or presenting a conclusion to an argument. When expressing these complex ideas, the simple transitions you’ve learned earlier will not always be effective – indeed, they may even confuse the reader.

Consider the transitions in Table A.2, and how they are categorized. While this is not an exhaustive list, it will give you a sense of the many transitional words and phrases that you can choose from and demonstrate the need to choose the one that most effectively conveys your meaning.

TABLE A.2 Sophisticated university-level transitions
Addition Comparison Contrast Cause and Effect


in addition

in fact


so too

as well as



along the same lines

in the same way






in contrast



even though






on the other hand


as a result



it follows, then






Conclusion Example Concession Elaboration
as a result



in conclusion

in short

in sum

it follows, then




as an illustration


for example

for instance


a case in point



of course


to be sure

conceding that

although it is true that…

by extension

in short

that is to say

in other words

to put it another way

to put it bluntly

to put it succinctly


Transitional words and phrases show the connection between ideas and how one idea relates to and builds upon another. They help create coherence. When transitions are missing or inappropriate, the reader has a hard time following the logic and development of ideas. The most effective transitions are sometimes invisible; they rely on the vocabulary and logic of your sentence to allow the reader to “connect the dots” and see the logical flow of your discussion.

For a discussion on the use of transitions in technical writing, see Marcia Riefer Johnston’s Word Wise: Our Transitions, Ourselves

Common Transitional Strategies to Link Ideas
  • Repeat a word or phrase from the previous sentence (or use a synonym, related word, or antonym) to show that the same idea is still being discussed, but is being developed further.
  • Use the pronoun “this + noun” to show continued discussion of the idea.
  • Use one of the above transitional words or phrases to show HOW you are developing your idea (are you showing contrast? Are you using an example to develop your idea? Are you showing a cause and effect relationship? Are you concluding? Are you conceding a point?).

Exercise A-1 Transition Exercises:  Place the transitional words below the paragraph into the blanks where they work most logically into the paragraphs.

Exercise 1

A vegan can be defined as someone who does not eat meat, fish, or other animal products, such as eggs or cheese; ________, he or she eats vegetables, fruits, grains, and seeds.  __________ this diet consists of non-meat food sources, a vegan typically consumes less fat and cholesterol than an individual who consumes meat.   __________, raising animals for food uses valuable land, water, and energy.    __________, adopting a vegetarian diet helps conserve the valuable resources that our future depends on.

  • Consequently
  • Because
  • Furthermore
  • Instead
  • For example

Exercise 2

__________ many educators and parents have praised the Harry Potter series, some Christian parents have called for a ban on the books in their schools and libraries. Some churches have even gone as far as burning the books, citing biblical injunctions against witchcraft, __________ those in Exodus and Leviticus.    __________, some Christians believe the books are compatible with Christianity, __________, that they embody basic Christian beliefs.

  • However
  • Although
  • In addition
  • Such as
  • Indeed



Johnston, M.R. (n.d.). Word wise: Our transitions, ourselves. TechWhirl.

Appendix B: Sentence Structure


When building anything, it is important to be familiar with the tools you are using.  Grammatical elements are the main “tools” you use when when building sentences and longer written works.  Thus, it is critical to have some understanding of grammatical terminology in order to construct effective sentences. If you would like to a review some basic parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, conjunctions, prepositions, etc), see the Parts of Speech Overview at the OWL.

The two essential parts of a sentence are the subject and the predicate (verb portion). The subject refers to the topic being discussed while the verb conveys the action or state of being expressed in the sentence. All clauses must contain both a subject and a verb; phrases, on the other hand, lack one or both a subject and a verb, so they need to relate to or modify other parts of the sentence. Main clauses, also called independent clauses, can stand on their own and convey an idea. Dependent clauses, also called subordinate clauses, rely on another part of the sentence for meaning and can’t stand on their own.

Consider the following examples:

The engineers stood around the table looking at the schematics for the machine.

Sentence 1 is a simple sentence. It has one clause, with one subject (The engineers) and one verb (stood). These are followed by 3 modifying phrases (“around the table” “looking at the schematics” and “for the machine”).

After they discussed different options, they decided to redesign the components.

Sentence 2 is a complex sentence, with one dependent and one independent clause, each with its own subject-verb combination (“they discussed” and “they decided”). The two clauses are joined by the subordinate conjunction, “after,” which makes the first clause subordinate to (or dependent upon) the second one.

Being able to identify the critical parts of the sentence will help you design sentences that have a clear and effective subject-verb relationship. Knowing the components will also help you improve your punctuation. If you would like a more detailed review of sentence structure, visit Purdue’s  OWL (Online Writing Lab) Mechanics page.

Sentence Structures

There are four main types of sentence structures: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. In the examples above, Sentence 1 is a simple sentence, while Sentence 2 is complex.

SIMPLE SENTENCES have one main clause (one subject + one verb) and any number of phrases. The following are all simple sentences:

  • A simple sentence can be very effective.
  • It makes one direct point.
  • It is good for creating emphasis and clarity.
  • Too many in a row can sound repetitive and choppy.
  • Varied sentence structure sounds more natural.

COMPOUND SENTENCES have two or more main clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions (CC) such as and, but, for, yet, nor, or, so (FANBOYS). You can also connect them using punctuation such as a semi-colon or a colon. By coordinating the ideas, you are giving them roughly equal weight and importance.

Subject + verb,    CC    Subject + verb

E.g., The tires had to be changed, and the rotors had to be greased.

The following sentences are all compound:
  • A compound sentence coordinates two ideas, and each idea is given roughly equal weight.
  • The two ideas are closely related, so you don’t want to separate them with a period.
  • The two clauses make up part of the same idea; thus, they should be part of the same sentence.
  • The two clauses may express a parallel idea; they might also have a parallel structure.
  • You must remember to include the coordinate conjunction, or you may commit a comma splice.

Coordinate conjunctions consist of the following words (FANBOYS):

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So

COMPLEX SENTENCES express complex and usually unequal relationships between ideas. One idea is “subordinated” to the main idea by using a “subordinate conjunction” (like “while” or “although”); one idea is “dependent” upon the other one for logic and completeness. Complex sentences include one main clause and at least one dependent clause (see Example 2 above). Often, it is stylistically effective to begin your sentence with the dependent clause, and place the main clause at the end for emphasis, especially when the main clause contains information that would not be favorable to the reader such as in negative news messages.

Subord. Conjunction + subject + verb (this is the dependent clause),    Subject + verb (this is the main clause)

E.g., After the wheels were removed, the rotors were greased.
Negative news e.g., After the wheels were removed, the damage to the rear drums was obvious.

The following are all examples of complex sentences:

  • When you make a complex sentence, you subordinate one idea to another.
  • If you place the subordinate clause first, you give added emphasis to the main clause at the end.
  • Subordinate clauses cannot stand on their own. Despite the fact that many students try to use them that way. x (fragment – replace the period with a comma to fix this error)

COMPOUND-COMPLEX SENTENCES have at least two main clauses and at least one dependent clause. Because a compound-complex sentence is usually quite long, you must be careful that it makes sense; it is easy for the reader to get lost in a long sentence.


Using a variety of sentence types as well as using these types strategically to convey your ideas will strengthen your style.  Keep the following in mind:

  • Simple sentences are great for emphasis. They make great topic sentences.
  • Compound sentences balance ideas; they are great for conveying the equal importance of related ideas.
  • Complex sentences, when you use them effectively, show complicated relationships between ideas by subordinating one idea to another.

EXERCISE B-1 Combining sentences

Combine the following pairs of sentences to make one idea subordinate to the other. Notice the impression you convey by how you subordinate one idea to another. If your combined sentence was a topic sentence for a paragraph, what idea would the reader expect that paragraph to emphasize?

  1. Pair 1.
    • Energy drinks enhance awareness and energy level.
    • Energy drinks have negative health impacts.
  2. Pair 2.
    • Smith’s study found that energy drinks can increase athletic endurance.
    • The study also found that energy drinks can cause negative side effects such as headaches and “energy crashes”, and can possibly lead to caffeine addiction.
  3. Pair 3.
    • The rates of adolescent male violence has dropped by 20% over the last decade.
    • The rates of female adolescent violence has increased by 50% over the last decade.
  4. Pair 4.
    • Nuclear power plants can pose significant dangers.
    • Nuclear energy is a clean and efficient way to generate power and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Mechanics. University of Purdue.

Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Parts of speech overview. University of Purdue.

Appendix C: Punctuation Matters


“Punctuation marks are the road signs placed along the highway of our communication, to control speeds, provide directions and prevent head-on collisions.” 

Pico Iyer, “In praise of the humble comma” (2001).

Punctuation Really Matters!

Consider how punctuation can change the meaning of the following run-on sentence:

I have two hours to kill someone come see me. 

The main function of punctuation is to separate phrases and clauses into meaningful units of information. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the basic structure of sentences—phrases and clauses—to understand the proper uses of punctuation. When punctuation is missing or incorrectly used, the reader may get a completely different message than the one intended. This can not only confuse readers and waste time, but can have disastrous results in cases where the writing has legal, economic, or safety implications–such as in technical workplaces.

"Let's eat grandma!" vs "Let's eat, grandma!" PUNCTUATION SAVES LIVES!
[Grandma image]. CC-BY 2.0.

An example of how a punctuation error can have real world costs and consequences is reported in “Comma Quirk Irks Rogers”:  one comma error in a 10-page contract cost Rogers $2 million (Robertson, 2006). If you need further evidence, read about the case of the trucker’s comma that went all the way to the supreme court, resulting in a $10 million dollar payout (Norris, 2017)!

Several helpful rules will help you determine where and how to use punctuation, but first, it might be helpful to understand the origins. Punctuation was initially developed to help people who were giving speeches or reading aloud. Various kinds of punctuation indicated when and for how long the reader should pause between phrases, clauses, and sentences:

Comma = 1 second pause

Semicolon = 2 second pause

Colon = 3 second pause

Period = 4 second pause

These “pause rules” can still offer some guidance, but they are not foolproof, as someone might pause while speaking for many reasons, including that they simply ran out of breath, got distracted, or need time to think of a word. Below are some more consistent rules that you should follow to properly punctuate your sentences. These are presented in a numerical order to help you remember the rules more easily.

COMMA RULE 1 – Introduce the subject
If the subject is not the first word/phrase in the sentence, place a comma before it to separate it clearly from the introductory element and indicate clearly what the subject of the sentence is.

As we have discussed before, sentences are most often strongest when the subject is the first element of the sentence:  S →  V →  O

Occasionally, however, we might want to place a word or phrase before the subject. In cases where you want to do this, it can be helpful, and often necessary, to place a comma after that word or phrase to clearly indicate the subject of the sentence. In the following sentence, see if you can determine what the subject is without a comma to help you:

Based on that initial design concepts will be generated.

The subject—and therefore the meaning of the sentence—depends on where you place the comma. If the initial phrase is “Based on that,” and “that” refers to some previously stated idea, then the sentence indicates that the subject is “initial design concepts,” and the verb is “will be generated.” However, if the initial phrase is “Based on that initial design,” then we already have an initial design to work from and do not have to generate one. We are now focusing on creating more advanced “concepts,” that will be “based on that initial design.”

So if the subject is not the #1 word in your sentence, place a comma before it to clearly show what the subject is (hence “comma rule #1”). In each of the following examples, the subject of the main clause is bolded.

After an introductory word Finally, the design must consider all constraints.
After an introductory phrase In the initial phase, the design must meet early objectives.

Meeting all the client’s needs, this design has the potential to be very successful.

Unlike Emma, Karla loves mechatronics.

After a subordinate clause If the design meets all the objectives, we will get a get a raise.

Although we are slightly over budget, the design will be  cost effective overall.

While he interviews the client, she will do a site survey.

COMMA RULE 2 – Interrupt the subject and verb
Never place a single comma between the subject and verb of the sentence; you need either two commas (like brackets) or no commas between the subject and verb.

When you place an interrupting word, phrase, or clause between the subject and verb, if that phrase is a non-essential element, you must enclose that phrase in commas (use the “bracket test”: if you could enclose it in brackets, then you can use commas).  If the phrase is essential to the meaning, omit the commas. The words interrupting the subject and verb are bolded in the examples below.

Interrupting word Communication errors, unfortunately, can lead to disastrous design flaws.

The rules, however, are quite easy to learn.

Interrupting Non-Essential Phrase or Relative Clause

(These could be bracketed, and even omitted, without changing the meaning of the sentence)

The Johnson street bridge, commonly known as the “Blue Bridge,” had to be replaced.

The new bridge, completed last year, has a rolling bascule design.

The new bridge, which has a rolling bascule design, was completed last year.

Interrupting essential phrases or clauses

Do not use commas; these are essential to the meaning of the sentence

The objective that is most critical to our success is the first one.

That bridge that needed replacing was the Blue Bridge.

The man with the yellow hat belongs to Curious George.

The student who has the best design will get an innovator’s award.

If you would like more information on Essential vs Non-Essential elements, and when to use “that” vs “which,”  check out this Grammar Girl link: Which versus That

Beware the “Pause Rule”—many comma rule 2 errors occur when a sentence has a long subject phrase followed by the verb “is.” People have the tendency to want to place a comma here, even though it is incorrect, simply because they would normally pause here when speaking:

The main thing that you must be sure to remember about the magnificent Chinese pandas of the southwest, x  is that they can be dangerous. 

COMMA RULE 3 – The serial comma
When listing a series of 3 or more items, separate the items with commas.

Whether you are listing 3 or more nouns, verb, adjectives, phrases, or even clauses, use commas to separate them. In general, do not place a comma before the first item or after the last item. If you are only listing two items, do not separate them with commas:

“I love cooking for my family and my friends.”

Only use the commas if there are three or more elements being listed. Make sure to list the elements in a consistent grammatical form (all nouns, or all verbs, or all using parallel phrasing).

2 listed elements

(no commas needed)

All initial designs must incorporate mechanical structures and electrical systems. (2 nouns)

Squirrels eat acorns and sleep in trees.  (1 subject + compound verb (2 verbs)

3 listed elements–parallel structure
The final design must incorporate mechanical, electrical, and software subsystems.  (3 adjectives describing different subsystems)

Squirrels eat acorns, sleep in trees, and dig holes in the garden.  (3 verbs)

The proposed designs must not go over budget, use more than the allotted equipment, or take longer than one week to construct.   (3 verbs:  go, use, and take)

Faulty parallel phrasing

(one of these things is not like the others…)

Proposed design concepts must adhere to all constraints, meet all objectives, and the components x must be on the approved list.  (2 verbs and a 1 noun)

The new bridge is aesthetically pleasing, structurally sound, and has x a pedestrian walkway.  (2 adjectives and 1 verb)

For more information about parallel listing, visit Parallel Structure at the OWL.

There is some debate about whether to place a comma before the “and” used before the final listed item. This comma, referred to as the Oxford Comma as it is required by Oxford University Press, is optional in many situations. For an optional piece of punctuation, it has stirred up a surprising amount of controversy! As with most grammatical rules, they can be broken when it is prudent and effective to do so; use your judgment, and choose the option that achieves the most clarity for your reader.

Review Comma Rules 1-3
Punctuate my imaginary award acceptance speech below, indicating where you would put commas and which rules you are following:
For their guidance and inspiration throughout my life I with all humility would like to thank my parents Lady Gaga and Ghandi.

COMMA RULE 4 – Joining clauses
Separate independent clauses by placing a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

While you might occasionally omit commas if the two clauses you want to join are very short (“She drove and he navigated.”), it is a good habit to separate them with a comma for the sake of clarity. The mnemonic device for remembering the coordinating conjunctions that can link two independent clauses together is FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). When you have two complete sentences, but you want to join them together to make one larger idea, use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

FANBOYS Two clauses joined by a comma and coordinating conjunction
, for We must all wear masks, for we want to protect our friends from COVID-19 infection.
, and You should wash your hands, and you should wear a mask.
, nor You should not make unnecessary outings, nor should you hang out with friends during COVID-19 lock down.
, but Multi-layer masks offer effective protection, but kerchief masks do not.
, or You can simply avoid going out, or you can take risks.
, yet Some stay-at-home rules are clear, yet some are not.
, so I think you understand my concerns, so I will leave it at that.

Use commas to indicate that a non-essential sentence element (a word, phrase, or clause) follows the comma, or to signal an abrupt shift in thought.
Meme: seals on a club dance floor: "Stop clubbing, baby seals"
[Baby seals image]. Source: CC-BY 2.0.

Learning comma rules takes practice, of course.

Practice makes perfect, in the long run.

Vampires make everyone nervous, even the bravest slayers.

I told you I need it by Wednesday, not Thursday.

Consider the difference between “It’s raining cats and dogs” and “It’s raining, cats and dogs.”

Use semicolons to link ideas when something stronger than a comma is needed.

A semicolon has three main functions:

1. Join closely related independent sentences into one sentence:

Scott was impatient to get married; Sharon wanted to wait until they were financially secure.

(Subject are strongly related — indeed, in this case, they are engaged!)

2. Link two sentences joined by a transitional phrase/conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, finally, moreover, etc.):

Canadian History is a rather dull class; however, it is a requirement for the elementary education program.

3. Separate items in a complex list where one or more of the items have internal punctuation:

The role of the vice-president will be to enhance the university’s external relations; strengthen its relationship with alumni, donors, and community leaders; and implement fundraising programs.

In the first two cases, a semicolon works the same way a period does; if you could put a period there, then you can put a semicolon there. The semicolon simply connects the ideas more closely as part of one key idea, and makes the pause between them a little shorter.Picture of bifold doors showing hinges holding the two separate pieces together

The main rule you must remember is that if you use a semicolon in this way, the clauses on either side of the semicolon must be complete sentences. You cannot use a semicolon to introduce a phrase or fragment.

Complete sentence; complete sentence.

Think of the semicolon as working like a hinge in a bi-fold door; it joins two complete door panels that each have their own frame together as one.

Also remember that you cannot simply use a comma instead of a semicolon to link the two clauses; that would result in a comma splice error.

The 3rd case–using semicolons to separate long, complex list items that contain commas within them–can result in complicated sentences that are difficult to read. You might consider using a bullet list instead of an in-sentence list in these cases.

How would you punctuate the following to clearly show how many courses Makiko is taking?

Makiko is taking Classics, a course on the drama of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Fine Arts, a course on Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism, Literature, a course on Satire, Pastiche, Burlesque, and Science, a new course for Arts students.

EXERCISE C-1 Punctuation Practice : Add commas and/or semicolons as needed in the following sentences
  1. Many companies make sugar-free soft drinks that are flavored by synthetic chemicals the drinks usually contain only one or two calories per serving.
  2. The crab grass was flourishing but the rest of the lawn unfortunately was dying.
  3. The hill was covered with wildflowers it was a beautiful sight.
  4. The artist preferred to paint in oils he did not like watercolors.
  5. The house was clean the table set and the porch light on everything was ready for the guests’ arrival.
  6. The computer could perform millions of operations in a split second however it could not think spontaneously.
  7. The snowstorm dumped twelve inches of snow on the interstate subsequently the state police closed the road.
  8. We invited a number of senior managers including Ann Kung senior vice-president Lionel Tiger director of information technology and Marty Sells manager of marketing.

Use a colon to introduce amplification in the form of an example, explanation, quotation, summary, or list.

Keep in mind that when correctly used, colons are only placed where the sentence could come to a complete stop (i.e., you could put a period there instead). Note that in APA Style, you should capitalize the first letter of the word following the colon if what follows is a complete sentence.

Amplification The hurricane lashed the coastal community: Within two hours, every tree on the waterfront had been blown down.
Example The tour guide quoted Gerald Durrell’s opinion of pandas: “They are vile beasts who eat far too many leaves.”
List Today we examined two geographical areas: the Nile and the Amazon.

Remember that when introducing a list, example, or quotation with a colon, whatever comes before the colon should be a complete sentence.  You should not write something like this:

Today we examined:  x

Three important objectives we must consider are: x

If these cannot end in a period, they should not end in a colon. Whatever comes after the colon can be a fragment or list; it does not have to be a complete sentence.

EXERCISE C-2 Punctuation Exercises
  1. Download the attached Punctuation Exercise document and compete the exercises with a classmate.
  2. Choose a paragraph from the Pico Iyer’s Time Magazine article, “In praise of the humble comma,” and examine how he has used punctuation to demonstrate his point in that paragraph.  In particular, note how he not only explains the importance of punctuation, but also shows its use in action.

[Baby seals image]. CC-BY 2.0.

Fogarty, M. (2008, March 21). Which vs that. Grammar Girl.

[Grandma image]. CC-BY 2.0.

Iyer, P. (2001, June 24). In praise of the humble comma. Time.,9171,149453,00.html

Norris, M. (2017, March 17). A few words about that ten-million-dollar serial comma. The New Yorker.

Online Writing Lab. (n.d). Parallel structure. University of Purdue.

Robertson, G. (2006, August 6). Comma quirk irks Rogers. The Globe and Mail.


Appendix D: Writing Comparisons


College classes often ask you to write comparative analyses in which you compare two or more items in a way that offers some meaningful conclusions.  You can compare almost anything – even porcupine and mushrooms – as long as you have a clear reason for your comparison (a thesis) and logical criteria for comparing the items.  For example, although porcupines and mushrooms seem to have very little in common (different life forms) you might compare how both porcupines and mushrooms have developed similar self-preservation methods to avoid predators.  In order to compare two items, they must have obvious differences, but interesting similarities – or, conversely, obvious similarities, but interesting differences.  Your reason for comparing can often be expressed by clearly articulating these interesting similarities or differences.

In technical communication, comparisons are helpful when discussing options, such as in recommendation or problem-solving reports, with a goal of recommending the option that best meets the criteria for resolving a matter. In such documents, options would be compared using the criteria as the basis for comparison with the goal of convincing the reader of the best solution.

This chapter will review

  1. the basic grammar of comparative sentence structure, and
  2. the overall comparative structures.

1. Comparative Grammar

We frequently engage in making comparisons in daily life. This leads to a sort of “short hand” in the way we express comparisons. This shorthand might be understood in a conversational way, but in formal writing, we must adhere to certain grammatical standards. A correct comparative sentence should adhere to the following rules:

  1. Clearly identify the things being compared.
  2. Ensure the compared items are equivalent and comparable.
  3. State the specific criteria for comparison.

These rules might seem obvious, but we often break them in our informal conversational comparisons. For example, the following sentence wants to compare the difficulty of dealing with the peels of apples and oranges, but grammatically compares apple peels to “my lab group,” which are not equivalently comparable.

Compared with apple peels, my lab group found orange peels more difficult to deal with.

How would you fix this sentence to correctly express the comparison of apple peels to orange peels?

They say you can’t compare apples and oranges, but you actually can as long as you have established their equivalence, have stated a purpose, and defined clear criteria for comparison.  For example, you CAN compare apples to oranges, but you cannot compare apples to fruit.  You can compare fruit to vegetables, but you cannot compare fruit to carrots.  These are non-equivalent.  Non-equivalent comparisons are often a result of faulty sentence structure.

Here is an example of effective comparative topic sentence:

There are significant differences between apples and oranges, in terms of their culinary uses, nutritional content, and growing needs. 

Comparative sentences can fail for several reasons:

  1. They are incomplete (do not clearly identify the two items being compared):
    • Apples grow better in northern climates.
    • Oranges have twice the vitamin C content.
    • Apples are considered more effective “comfort food.”
    • This design is better.
  2. They are too vague (they don’t provide enough meaningful information about the items):
    • There were some differences in the characteristics of apples and oranges.
    • There were some similarities in the teamwork between the two labs.
    • Lab 2 was better than lab 1.
  3. The comparisons are faulty (often missing information, a sentence structure error, or idiom error):

Exercise D-1

Try writing 2 or 3 comparative sentences, making sure you follow all three rules, and watching out for incorrect vernacular phrasing.



2. Comparative Structure:  Alternating vs Block Structures

Comparisons are used to compare options in recommendation and other technical reports. Just as there are rules at the sentence level, there are also guidelines for comparative paragraph and report structure. Alternating (also called Point-by-point) and Block (also called Whole-to-whole) structures are common ways of organizing a comparative analysis, and the structure you use will depend on what, how, and why you are comparing.  Let’s say you are writing a comparative analysis of two types of wind turbines. Your overall purpose might be to analyze them to determine which is most economical to operate.

  1. Alternating Style arranges the structure based on the criteria for comparison. One criteria might focus on characteristics; the second criteria might focus on performance, while a third might focus on maintenance.
  2. Block Style arranges the structure based on the items being compared (each turbine).  Each paragraph will focus on one of the turbine types, and may discuss more than one criteria for comparison.  For example, the first section might focus on one turbine in detail, and might discuss performance and maintenance. The next section would focus on the other turbine, using the same criteria for comparison: performance and maintenance.

Often, Alternating structures work well for this kind of comparison, as you can structure your analysis based on a discussion of each factor in turn. You might choose to organize your analysis in a Block style, if the turbines are quite different and you are focusing on different criteria for comparison for each turbine. The table below shows simplified outlines for each structure:


Table D-1 Simple Outlines of Block and Point-by-Point Structures

Block Style Alternating Style

Introduce the turbines being compared and state the purpose of your comparison (purpose statement)

Item 1 (Turbine A)

  • In-depth analysis of item 1, focusing on several criteria (may need more than 1 paragraph)

Item 2 (Turbine B)

  • all the things you want to say about item 2
  • you may compare a bit to item 1

Direct Comparison

You will likely need an extra paragraph here for direct comparative analysis based on the discussions in the previous sections.



Introduce the turbines being compared and state the purpose of your comparison (purpose statement).

Criteria 1 (Characteristics)

  • Article A directly compared to Article B in terms of criteria 1

Criteria 2 (Performance)

  • Article A directly compared to Article B in terms of criteria 2

Criteria 3 (Maintenance)

  • Article A directly compared to Article B in terms of criteria 3



PROs and CONs

If  your items are different enough that you aren’t using the same criteria for comparison, use Block style.  But this can end up being a bit repetitive in that you have to remind your reader of your analysis when you get to the direct comparison part at the end.

PROs and CONs

If you have the same criteria for each item, this is the most economical way to organize your report.  But it can sound a bit “ping-pong” like if you are not careful with transitional words and phrases.



Block and Point-by-point structures are helpful principles for organizing your ideas, but keep in mind that you do not have to rigidly follow these outlines. You can mix these up a bit and use hybrid methods.  Examine the excerpt below, from Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2011).  Identify where the author has used block style, point-by-point style, and a mixture of the two. Also note the use of comparative transitional words and phrases (highlighted for emphasis).

Sample Comparative Passage – by Douglas Rushkoff

The difference between an analog record and a digital CD is really quite simple. The record is the artifact of a real event that happened in a particular time and place. A musician plays an instrument while, nearby, a needle cuts a groove in a wax disk….  The sound vibrates the needle, leaving a physical record of the noise that can be turned into a mold and copied. When someone else passes a needle over the jagged groove over one of the copies, the original sound emerges. No one has to really know anything about the sound for this to work. It’s just a physical event — an impression left in matter.

A CD, on the other hand, is not a physical artifact but a symbolic representation. It’s more like a text than it is like a sound. A computer is programmed to measure various parameters of the sound coming from a musician’s instrument. The computer assigns numerical values, many times a second to the sound in an effort to represent it mathematically. Once the numerical – or  “digital – equivalent of the recording is quantified, it can be transferred to another computer, which then synthesizes the music from scratch based on those numbers.

The analog recording is a physical impression, while the digital recording is a series of choices. The former is as smooth and continuous as real time; the latter is a series of numerical snapshots. The record has as much fidelity as the materials will allow. The CD has as much fidelity as the people programming its creation thought to allow.  The [configuration of] numbers used to represent the song – the digital file – is perfect, at least on its own terms.  It can be copied exactly, and infinitely.

In the digital recording, however, only the dimensions of the sound that can be measured and represented in numbers are taken into account. Any dimensions that the recording engineers haven’t taken into consideration are lost. They are simply not measured, written down, stored, and reproduced. It’s not as if they can be rediscovered later on some upgraded playback device. They are gone.

Given how convincingly real a digital recording can seem — especially in comparison with a scratchy record – this loss may seem trivial. After all, if we can’t hear it, how important could it be? Most of us have decided it’s not so important at all. But early tests of analog recording compared to digital ones revealed that music played back on a CD format had much less of a positive impact on depressed patients than the same recording played back on a record. Other tests showed that digitally recorded sound moved the air in a room significantly differently than analog recordings played through the same speakers. The bodies in that room would, presumably, also experience that difference – even if we humans can’t immediately put a name or metric on exactly what that difference is.

Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, pp. 52-54




Rushkoff, D. (2011). Program or be programmed: Ten commands for a digital age. Soft Skull Press, pp. 52-54.

Appendix E: Peer Review Essentials


Peer review entails having a peer — a fellow student who is familiar with your assignment, or a colleague who understands your purpose in writing — read and offer feedback on the effectiveness of your document and how it might be improved.  While peer review ultimately benefits the reader as a form of “quality control” ensuring an effective final product, it also has clear benefits for both the author and the reviewer. In the process of peer review, authors can get helpful feedback on how they can improve their drafts, and reviewers can learn from the document they are reviewing, reinforce the assignment and grading criteria, and come back to their own draft with a fresh perspective. For both it is a helpful way to review content, structure, style and formatting before submitting your final document to its intended reader. Building in time for peer review also helps with time management, as you have a completed final draft well before the due date.

It is common in technical workplaces for peer review to occur, especially when complex documents that have safety, technical, and financial implications are created. Asking a co-worker, manager, subject matter or technical expert review your document demonstrates due diligence and a commitment to quality work.


Keep the following strategies in mind to attain the maximum benefits of peer review:

Author Strategies

  • Be prepared: Submit the most polished and complete draft possible in order to fully benefit from peer review.  A partial or very rough draft can benefit from some preliminary review, but a completed draft can elicit more helpful feedback.
  • Give the reviewer some guidance: Describe the concerns you have about your document at this point. Alert your reviewer to areas where you would particularly like some feedback. If the reviewer is not familiar with your purpose and audience, fill them in.
  • Be open to new ideas: Avoid becoming defensive about the feedback; remember, your reviewer is trying help you improve your draft. Consider alternative viewpoints you may not have thought of before; listen before deciding what you will do.
  • Consider advice carefully: Think critically about whether the reviewer’s suggestions will help you to improve your draft and if they are appropriate for your purpose and audience. What and how you revise is ultimately up to you; seek additional advice if you are unsure what to do.

Reviewer Strategies

  • Know the document’s purpose: If the document is created for a college course, review the project or assignment description and/or grading rubric before reviewing the draft; know what the paper is trying to achieve before you assess whether it needs revision to achieve it.
  • Focus on the positive: Be honest and critical, but also point out strong areas within the writing where things are working well. Use positive, constructive tone to discuss areas that could use improvement. Don’t gush (“your paper is so awesome!”) and don’t trash (“This totally sucks! Rewrite the whole thing!”).  Remember your purpose is to help the author find ways to improve the draft; recognize what is already good, and suggest what needs further work.
  • Be specific: Explain why a sentence, paragraph, or image needs improvement; explain why you as the reader are confused or bothered by a specific phrase or passage, or why the logic does not flow for you (be “reader centred”).
  • Be courteous: Be aware of your language use and tone when addressing peers. Avoid patronizing or “talking down” to your peers when giving advice.
  • Don’t edit: Your job is reviewer, not editor. Don’t fix errors or phrasing problems; just point out areas that need improvement. You might offer ONE sample correction to demonstrate what you mean, but do not engage in wholesale editing. The purpose of peer review is for each person to learn how to edit their own document based on reviewer feedback.
  • Be efficient: Don’t overwhelm your author with too much detailed feedback. A page that has more feedback notes than content will be very difficult to process. Focus on a handful (three-to-six?) of the most important revisions that are needed to help improve the draft. For example, if there are numerous spelling errors, don’t point them all out; highlight one or two and then comment that the draft contains numerous spelling errors that will need fixing before it can be submitted.