Student Resources

Technical Writing Tips

Compiled by S. M. Specht
Lebanon Valley College

(Alumni of Oswego State University)

The following sections make some important suggestions for improving your writing. Please read these very carefully. Following these suggestions will likely improve your writing and subsequently your grade.

Structure

Make sure your verb "tenses" are correct and consistent. Most of the paper should be written using the past tense because most of what you are writing about has already been done. For example, "Cullari (1994) found (not "finds") that freshmen spend less time" . . . , or "the mean results were" (not "are"). Although the present tense is not used as frequently as the past tense, it is appropriate at times. For example, it can be used when you are giving your own ideas, when presenting statements that are well accepted, or when describing your results. For example, "I believe that self-disclosure is very useful in psychotherapy"; or "Freud believes that the unconscious determines our behavior"; or "Table 1 shows." Future tenses are used very sparingly in psychological writings but are appropriate when writing research proposals.

Sexist Language

Do not use the words "boys" or "girls" to refer to older men or women. "Girls" or "boys" is correct when the subjects are high school age or younger. Try to avoid terms like "man" or "mankind". Use "person", "people", "humanity", "human beings" and so on. Try to avoid the generic use of "he" or "his" to refer to both genders. For example, rather than saying "a therapist often uses his common sense", you might say "therapists often use their common sense." Rather than saying "a person should apply for his grant", you can say "a person should apply for the (or their) grant". Using terms such as "he/she" or "(s)he" tend to be distracting and should be avoided as well. The APA manual gives a number of suggestions for avoiding the terms "he" or "she", and the reader should review these (see pages 50-60 in the 4th edition of the APA Manual) for further information.

Common Mistakes

Use "all right" (two words) rather than "alright".

Use "a lot" (two words) rather than "alot". Alot is a verb meaning to distribute.

Advice is a noun meaning something that is given (to give advice). Advise is a verb meaning to counsel. "I would advise you to read your papers carefully."

Allude means "to refer". Elude means "to avoid " or "to escape." Illude is not a word.

Although means "whereas" or "but" ("Although Smith found significant results" rather than "while Smith found significant results).

All together means "all at once" (we did this all together). Altogether means "completely" (I am altogether puzzled).

Backward and backwards mean the same thing and either one can be used.

Bad is an adjective usually describing health or emotions (she felt bad this morning). Badly is an adverb describing actions (he pitches badly).

Compliment means to praise. Complement means to balance (our new worker complements our office very well).

Criteria is the plural of criterion just as phenomena is the plural of phenomenon.

Dessert is eaten after a meal. Desert can either be a noun (as in an arid land) or verb meaning to abandon.

Emigrate means to leave a country. Immigrate means to enter a country.

"Etc." is the abbreviation of et cetera. "Et al." is the abbreviation of et alia meaning "and others".

Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Good is an adjective (you look good today). Well can be used either as an adjective or adverb (you look well or you do things very well).

People get hanged and coats get hung.

To imply means to suggest. To infer means to deduce or interpret. A psychologist usually draws inferences from the data but the data may also have many implications.

Important relates to being meaningful or significant. However, when psychologists use the term "significant", they are usually referring to statistical significance, which means unlikely to be due to chance variation (for example, results may be statistically significant but not important).

Irregardless and regardless mean the same thing, but regardless is the preferred usage.

Loose is an adjective which is the opposite of tight. Lose means to misplace.

Media is plural, while medium is singular (a film is a medium, while TV, radio and film are media)

Ones is a plural noun (there are two ones in 1001). One's is possessive (one's work is a reflection of his or her skill) or the contraction of one is.

Stationary means "in one place". Stationery is what you write on.

While is typically used to connect events that occur simultaneously (we ate while she slept).

Who serves as the object of a verb (I want to know who did this).

Whom serves as the object of a preposition (whom do you prefer)

 

More Tips for Technical Writing

Compiled by S. M. Specht
Lebanon Valley College

(Alumni of Oswego State University)

 

COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS*

affect/effect affect: to influence
effect: the result of
accept/except accept: to take willingly
except: excluding
its/it's its: possessive pronoun
it's: contraction of 'it is'
few/little few: refers to numbers
little: refers to amount
datum/data datum: singular form
data: plural form
your/you're your: possessive pronoun
you're: contraction of 'you are'
among/between among: used when you refer to one of many
between: used when you refer to one of only two
much/many much: refers to quantity
many: refers to countable elements
analysis/analyses analysis: singular form
analyses: plural form
basis/bases basis: singular
bases: plural
every one/everyone every one: each one
everyone: everybody
elicit/illicit** elicit: evoke
illicit: unlawful
principle/principal principle: strongly held belief
principal: foremost
attain/obtain** attain: to accomplish
obtain: to acquire
there/their/they're there: refers to a place
their: possessive pronoun
they're: contraction 'they are'
do/due** do: to perform
due: owing
whose/who's whose: the possessive of 'who' due to: caused by
who's: contraction of 'who is'
than/then than: conunction used when making a comparison
then: refers to the past in time
that/which that: that is used when you are making a specific reference to a particular object (for example: "the report was submitted by Ulinski")
which: which is used when you make a nonspecific reference (for example: "the report which was submitted last week")
cite/site cite: make reference to
site: location

* taken from Bordens, K. S. & Abbot, B. B. (1988). Research design and methods.
Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company

** added to the original Bordens & Abbot (1988) list by Specht(1994).

 

IMPROVING YOUR USE OF SCIENTIFIC WORDS AND PHRASES
When you are writing about science, you should never misspell the following words:

experimentor should be experimenter
independant should be independent
dependant should be dependent
preform should be perform

Sometimes the way we speak misleads us to write words improperly. For example:

"could of" should be could have
"would of" should be would have
"should of" should be should have
"might of" should be might have
"once and a while" should be once in a while

+Listed below are some awkward phrases which should be avoided:

AWKWARD BETTER
"the experiment was done"
"the experiment was run"
"the experiment was conducted (or performed)"
"questionnaires were handed-out"
"questionnaires were given-out"
"questionnaires were passed-out"
"questionnaires were distributed"
"questionnaires were filled-out" "questionnaires were completed"
"figure out/find out" "solve; determine"
"found out" "determined"
"take a test" "complete a test"
"take a seat" "subjects were asked to be seated"
"paired up" "paired"
"to see if..." "to determine/assess/reveal"
"looked at" "examined" or "investigated"
"came up with" "developed/designed/formulated"
"made up of" "consists"
"time was up" "time had expired/elapsed"
"did a study on" "studied/investigated/examined"
"as far as goes" "with regard to..." or "concerning..."
"besides" "in addition to"
"does, in fact/does, indeed" "does"
"set up" "arrange; establish; develop"
"results agree(d) with" "results were consistent with/support"
"our data coincides with..." "our data are consistent with..."
"the study concluded..." "based on the findings of the study, it can be concluded that..."
"An experiment on the Stroop effect..." "An experiment examining the Stroop effect"
"The experiment tested..." "The experiment was conducted to examine..."
  It is obvious that you should not use the word "obvious" in technical writing (isn't it?). If something is "obvious", then it need not be stated. If something is not "obvious", then by saying it is "obvious", you run the risk of "offending" the reader.
  Do not use the words "prove", "proof", "proved" or "proven". You will learn through the course of your education that the logic of determination of cause and effect in science does not allow scientists to prove anything. When we collect data we may say that the data are consistent with or support our hypothesis.
  Do not begin a sentence with any of these words: "this", "that", "it", "they", "these" or "he/she". By using these words at the beginning of a sentence, you run the risk of confusing the reader with a vague referent.
For example: "This explains the subject's failure to recall the word list."
Better: "The absence of a retrieval cue explains the subject's failure to recall the
word list"
  In the methods section of a technical research report, you may find yourself listing the procedures of an experiment in chronological order. Avoid using the following words to begin a sentence: "next", "then" or "also".
  For example: "Then, subjects were asked to recall the words from the list."
Better: "Subjects were then asked to recall the words from the list."
  Avoid terms such as "the article 'said', 'deals with', 'looks at', 'takes into account'.
  CITATION TIPS
  Don't start a sentence with "In 1978, ..." Place the year of the publication within the citation.
  Make certain that you retain the order of authors in your citation
(e.g., Smith and Jones, 1978 = Jones and Smith, 1978).
  Don't use author's first name.
 

You don't need to explicitly state that a particular author 'wrote' the article (e.g., "Smith wrote an article entitled ...")

 
 

MORE TIPS FOR TECHNICAL WRITING

 

Write for 'The Reader'

 
  Communicate 'cleanly', concisely and completely
  Explicitly identify the main point early in your writing
  Avoid vague referents (for example, beginning a sentence with "it" or "that")
  Avoid run-on sentences (avoid using many commas in one sentence)
  Specify the origin of data and information used from other sources
  Use a dictionary
 
  Proof-read and REVISE
  There is no such thing as good writing, only good revising
 

 

REDUNDANT PHRASES IN TECHNICAL WRITING*

the phrase:

can be written more simply as:

red in color

red

aluminum metal

aluminum

few in number

few

completely eliminated

eliminated

past history

history

true facts

facts

absolutely essential

essential

actual experince

experience

at the present time

at present; now; presently

collaborate together

collaborate

connect together

connect

cooperate together

cooperate

in many cases

often

in most cases

usually

in this case

here

in all cases

always

during the time that

while

involve the necessity of

necessitates; requires

in connection with

about; regarding

in the event of

if

in the neighborhood of

about

make application

to apply

make contact with

see; meet; call

maintain cost control

control costs

make a purchase

buy

on the part of

by

provide a continuous indication of

continuously indicate

range all the way from

range from

subsequent to

after

through the use of

by; with

until such time

until

*taken from: Mills, G.H. and Walter, J.A. (1986). Technical writting (5th Ed.) New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Wilson.