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Monday, August 01, 2011 - Page 4 of 6

How to write a technical report

Use active verbs rather than passive verbs.

Using active verbs is the first rule of good writing. All authorities on good writing, including scientific and technical bodies, recommend active verbs rather than passive verbs. Why? Passive verbs are longwinded, ambiguous and dull. Active verbs make your writing simpler, less awkward, clearer and more precise. Here's an example:

Passive Verbs

The QMS Magicolor 2 Printer is equipped with two interfaces, one is known as the parallel interface, the other is known as the Ethernet interface. Whatever interface connection is needed, you will find that MS Windows 98 has already been preinstalled and your software applications are based on this platform.
(50 words)

Active Verbs

The QMS Magicolor 2 Printer has Parallel and Ethernet interfaces. Whatever interface you need, you will find your software applications will work on the preinstalled MS Windows 98.
(28 words)

Technical writing is full of passive verbs because most people learn to in the third person because it is supposedly more objective. This is a false notion. In the next example, the passive and active are both objective—but the active sentences sounds more natural and are 29 words shorter.

Passive Verbs

The experiment was conducted so that the relationship between the two theories could be examined. First, the cultures were prepared and then were examined under the microscope to see if any impurities could be found. Once the purity of the samples could be established, they were used in six independent tests.
(51 words)

Active Verbs

The experiment examined the relationship between the two theories. First, microscopic examination for impurities isolated pure examples used in six independent tests.
(22 words)

In switching your style from passive verbs to active verbs throughout your writing, you face several problems.

  • You must accurately spot them. Often writers miss passive verbs or try to change verbs that are already active.
  • You need to measure your use of passive verbs. One or two passive verbs a page will not ruin your style, nine or ten will.
  • You need to know how to turn passive verbs to active verbs.
Keep your average sentence between 10 to 20 words.

Long sentences make any document hard to read. In technical documents keep your average sentence between 10 to 20. You may go down as low as 10 or 11 words if you're writing instructions with many short, sharp sentences telling the user what to do. However, if you get below 10 words, you're probably overdoing the technique of short sentences.

Compare these examples:

Long Sentence

A highlight of the web site is the development of two types of electronic advisory systems—Expert and Technical where both of the systems inform the user about standards by either asking a series of questions which determine whether, how, and which specific parts of the standard apply to the user's activities, or addressing complex standards by placing in one location a large amount of information about the standard.
(One Sentence—70 words)

Shorter Sentences

The web site offers both expert and technical advice sections. These explain standards by asking questions to find out if and how the standards apply to the user. They also address complex standards by placing all the relevant information in one place.
(Three sentences—Total 42 words)

Sometimes, it helps if you break long sentences into a list.

Long Sentence

Physical inventory records can be accurately kept for exchange transactions by reduction of the inventory from the receiving report and requiring customer services to prepare a production report on repaired items going back into the inventory as a replacement for items that have been sent to the customer in exchange.
(One Sentence—50 words)

Shorter Sentences

To keep inventory records accurately for exchange transactions:

1. Reduce the inventory from the receiving report.

2. Ask customer services to prepare a production report on repaired items and list the replaced items sent to the customer on the inventory.

(Three sentences—Total 40 words)

Edit wordy phrases.

Padding is the enemy of good writing. Unnecessary words and phrases clutter up sentences and obscure meaning. By comparison, economy of words is the mark of good writing. You have to learn to make every word count in technical documents. You must edit ruthlessly, cutting any word. Set yourself a target of cutting 10 to 20 percent of the words in your document.


To understand and interpret an applet, the browser must have a Java virtual machine at its disposal. This is the case, in particular with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, as well as Sun's HotJava. However, we have already mentioned several times that many Web surfers are attached to older browsers with which they feel comfortable. This being the case, if you use Java you will limit the number of visitors who will be able to wonder at what your applets do. In addition, browsers have a configuration option which allows (for security reasons, for example) the Java virtual machine to be turned off. Cautious people make frequent use of this option.
(111 words)


Browsers such as Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer and Sun's HotJava can only use applets with Java virtual machines. If Web surfers use older browsers, which do not understand Java, or switch the Java option off for security reasons, you will have fewer visitors to your site.
(46 words)




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