Career Paths

Crafting Clear Communications

Lisa M. Balbes

Communication is vital. In fact, it’s what employers value second most, right after technical expertise. Whatever your current job, enhancing your communication skills can help you, and it may even turn sharing information effectively into a new career.

Almost every communication can be broken up into three parts: the sender, the message, and the receiver. Its effectiveness depends on whether the sender and receiver understand the message the same way.

Sender

You are the sender. Your reputation, expertise, and choices will determine how your message is received. You are responsible for determining the channel, viewpoint, tone, length, timing, and other details of presentation. Thinking about why you are sending this particular communication and the best way to do it, instead of just picking the method that is easiest for you, will go a long way toward enhancing the effectiveness of what you want to say. Consider your own background and biases and how they may influence your message.

Message

Everything about a communication sends a message. Furthermore, most things you send out are irretrievable. Even if you do succeed in retracting a particular item, the recipient will have seen it and will remember what it said. So be careful.

One of the first decisions you need to make is whether to choose written or oral delivery. Do you want a record or are you better off without one? E-mail chains can be great for seeing exactly who said what when, but some information is better kept “off the record” (in other words, no documentation).

Each decision will lead to others, including: Real-time or recorded? Formal or informal? How long? What would be the most timely? Making these determinations will help develop your outline. How will you tell a good story, paying special attention to order, transitions, and overarching themes? Once the structure is in place, you can start filling in the details.

Many forms of communication actually follow a style guide, such as the ACS Guide to Scholarly Communication, which details exactly what format a document should take. Some organizations provide “Instructions to Authors” or have an their own manuals so that all corporate communications have the same look and feel. Typical content would tell you whether “United States” should be abbreviated “US” or “U.S.” and whether table captions ought to go above or below the table, and so on.

Your choice of fonts, headers, and images can either enhance or detract from your message. Use bullet points, bold typefaces, and other visual elements to make important information more prominent and lead the reader’s eyes where you want them to go, but don’t make the overall impression busy or cluttered. For example, longer documents may need to be divided into sections with short, informative titles. Similarly, using numbered lists can make instructions much clearer. Be aware that some projects may require certain formats for text, footnotes, or endnotes. It’s wise to find out about this in advance and to familiarize yourself with any relevant software functions before you find yourself under a tight deadline.

If you include visual content such as charts, graphs, and photos, make sure they are clear, clean, and adding to your message. Always cite sources, especially for images used by creative commons copyright.

Plan to finish the document early and then set it aside. Build time for review and any necessary revisions into your schedule. When you go back for a final read-through, you will find errors you missed earlier. Reading a document aloud can also help you find awkward phrasing or mistakes. For a very long or important document, you may want to have a labmate read it and comment. Make sure the individual understands your intended audience.

Receiver: Who Is Your Audience?

The one thing that should guide all your decisions is your target audience. The more you know about them, the better you can tailor your message. Are they experts, knowledgeable, or beginners? If you’re writing for a sophisticated audience that is thoroughly familiar with the field, using specialized terminology can be great shorthand. But if your audience is made of novices, either use simpler terms or explain them clearly upon first use.

Another consideration is that, in most technical writing, you want to be as clear and succinct as possible. Providing references or resources for more information can be helpful to readers who want to learn more—either because they don’t understand, or because they are interested in the subject matter.

Real-world examples and analogies can make ideas clearer. For instance, the discussion of style guides above provides specific examples of snippets of information they might include. The idea was to make the abstract idea of these manuals more concrete.

Unless you are only talking to one person, your audience will be diverse. Each individual will bring different levels of familiarity, understanding, and interest to your subject. In addition, each will have come from a different background.

Especially in oral communication with those from other cultures, it is important to speak clearly and avoid slang. For example, if someone asked for a Captain Cook, you might not understand that they wanted to take a look around unless you had spent some time in Australia. Pay attention to phrases you use without thinking that might not make sense to someone from a different background and avoid or explain them in casual conversation.

What one person thinks is efficient, another may perceive as brusque, or even rude. What is friendly interest to one person may be intensely intrusive or needlessly time-wasting to another. What a message’s sender thinks was clearly implied by the context, the receiver may miss completely because it was not explicitly stated.

You are also addressing people who will receive your content from your initial recipients via sharing. Especially in industry, you will often find yourself writing an e-mail or short document to send to your supervisor, knowing full well the individual is going to forward it to someone higher-up. That person is also a part of the audience for whom you should be tailoring your message. An e-mail newsletter might be sent to subscribers and then go on to their friends. Keep them all in mind.

Moving Communication from a Task to a Career

Do others tell you that you write well? Do your labmates ask you to edit their documents before giving them to the PI? Do you often volunteer to write documentation just because you enjoy it?

If you answered, “Yes,” to all of these, especially if you have a strong opinion on the proper use of the Oxford comma, technical writing or editing might be a great career for you.

Technical writers plan, develop, create specifications for, write, and edit technical documents intended for other people who are knowledgeable about the technology. These items may include such things as:

  • Journal articles
  • Books and book chapters
  • White papers
  • Instruction manuals
  • Customer and user support guides
  • Policy documents
  • Educational materials
  • Poster presentations
  • Slide decks for conferences or educational purposes
  • Advertisements and marketing materials
  • Sales training materials
  • Grant proposals
  • Trade magazine articles
  • Video storyboards and scripts
  • Regulatory documentation

Competencies Required for Technical Writers

You may be asked to write about topics you’re unfamiliar with, so you will need to be able to research new topics and new communication channels quickly and independently.

You will need to manage multiple projects simultaneously, working on one piece while another is out for review and balancing long- and short-term pieces. Time management, prioritization, and planning abilities—including allowing time for review cycles—are crucial.

You must be able to write with different degrees of formality and accessibility to meet the needs of your audience, follow different style guides, and pay close attention to details.

Getting Started

Technical writers work for all sorts of scientific and technical organizations, including commercial, academic, start-up, and nonprofit. Many of them only occasionally need writers, so they hire them for specific projects or as freelancers.

You can use this situation to your advantage. Test the waters by accepting some projects on the side while still employed in a traditional job. As you complete them successfully, you will learn whether you enjoy the work and are good at it. You will also build up your portfolio and your network of satisfied customers. Eventually, you may have enough experience to go full-time as a freelancer or in a position as a technical writer or editor.

If you’re having trouble finding paying jobs, volunteer to write for a newsletter, blog, or other publication. You don’t want to do too much work for free—people will not value your expertise if you give it away—but it can be a way build your portfolio and enhance your reputation.

Improving your written communication skills, whether to advance in your current job or to build up to a completely new career, will only enhance your prospects.