susan smith nash, ph.d.

Technical English

Online Course

Planning Your Task

Write a plan for a potential document.

Planning Your Document
Even if the kind of document you are writing is a fairly standard form, like a lab report, that has already provided a plan for you to follow, the "discussion" and "conclusion" sections of your lab report still require independent planning.
Sitting down to write a document without a clear idea of where you want to go can be disastrous. You risk writing an introduction that sounds good but adds nothing to your technical document (for example, "Throughout the ages, mankind has looked up at the stars and wondered..."). Such sentences are the written equivalent of saying "umm..." or chatting about the weather.
In order to avoid being defeated by a false start -- or a series of false starts the night before the assignment is due -- you should carefully consider your title, your headings, and your outline before you begin writing. In order to consider these elements, you must first come up with some good ideas.
A large number of students do serious damage to themselves by skimping on this stage, or on the related process of outlining. Nobody would ever begin to build a bridge, factory or even a single gear without a detailed plan. You should approach your writing task in the same manner. Once you know your general topic (which your instructor will probably give you), you can begin to brainstorm. Brainstorming is a strategy for exploring ideas that relies upon the free expression of thoughts. During your brainstorm, you may end up rejecting certain lines of thought; if you can see clearly enough to reject an idea this early, you have invested your time well. It would be much worse if you had not realized you were on the wrong track until after you had sweated your way through several paragraphs or pages.
Open a new word-processing file, type the paper topic on the first line, and then simply write out -- as quickly as possible, paying no attention to grammar, punctuation, or spelling -- all your thoughts. The complete brainstorming exercise might be half as long as the whole document is supposed to be; the real test is not length, but content. At some point, you can print out your brainstorm and underline the main points, making notes in the margins where you need to develop your ideas further.
Another method of brainstorming may be more attractive to people who think visually. Take a fresh sheet of paper, and write the topic in the middle of the page. Draw lines from the central topic to any other ideas that may come to you; by continuing this process, you can create a web-like structure to help you organize your thoughts.
A topic is the general subject or theme of a work. A title, on the other hand, is a more specific, informative statement of the contents of a work. Before you actually begin writing, you should have a clear idea of what title you will give your work. Even if your document is something with a predetermined title, such as a lab report, you may still wish to focus your attention by thinking up a title for your discussion and conclusion sections -- even though that title may not actually appear on paper.

  • Topic: "Nuclear Power Plants in Canada"
  • Title: "Why Canada Should Expand Its Nuclear Power Programs"
  • Title: "A Disaster Waiting to Happen: Canada's Nuclear Power Safety Regulations"
  • Topic: "NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) Cooperation"
  • Title: "An Analysis of Failed NASA and ESA Telecommunications Ventures"
  • Title: "A Promising Future for a Successful Partnership: NASA and ESA in the Year 2000"
Keep your title in mind as you write every section of your document. If, by the time you finish writing your draft, you feel your document does not reflect your title, you have two options: revise the whole document to do better justice to the title, or change the title to make it match the document.
Before you actually begin writing your document, you should have a clear idea of how you want to organize your ideas. Most kinds of technical writing documents have somewhat standardized formats, although your professor or TA may have a specific variation in mind. You may wish to start afresh word processing document, and type all the subheadings. For instance, if you are writing a memo, you might type:
       Using much the same strategy as you did in your brainstorming session, begin to fill in the information under its proper subheading; do not worry about complete sentences or paragraph structure at this stage. Draw whatever information you can from the textbook or handout that describes your assignment. Begin to place the best, most important ideas from your brainstorming session under their proper headings. Obviously, you cannot begin to write an abstract, summary, or conclusion until you have written the rest of your document; but some sections will virtually write themselves.
Once you have brainstormed for ideas, come up with a title, and filled information into your headings (if your document requires them), you should develop an outline.
An outline is a hierarchical structure (ordered by level of importance) that illustrates the relationship of ideas. Like nested subroutines in a computer program or the pairs of parentheses in an equation, each point on an outline can contain smaller sub-points. Make sure that you order your points logically by forcing yourself to come up with headings that group several ideas together. It is much easier to shift one- or two-word points around on an outline than it is to shift sentences and paragraphs around in your rough draft, so now is the best time to make major organizational changes.
For instance, consider the following outline for an object description:
Personal Computer
I.  Hardware
     A. CPU
          1.  Memory
     B.  Monitor
     C.  Printer
     D.  Keyboard
     E.  Mouse
     F.  Disk Drives
II.  Software
     A.  Programs
     B.  Data
III.  Platforms
     A.  IBM
     B.  Mac
The above outline falls short in several areas. In the first place, a CPU is far more important to the computer than a printer is -- a computer without a printer is still a computer, while a computer without a CPU is just a bunch of add-ons. On a similar note, not every computer will have a mouse. In the second place, no point should have only one sub-point, so "Memory" should find a partner or move somewhere else. Finally, the topic "Platforms" is much broader than either "Hardware" or "Software." Clearly this outline needs adjustment.
The following outline addresses these problems:
Personal Computer
I.  Components
     A.  Hardware
          1.  CPU
          2.  Interface
               a.  Input
               b.  Output
          3.  Storage
               a.  Drives
               b.  Memory
     B.  Software
          1.  Programs
          2.  Data
II.  Platforms
     A.  IBM
     B.  Mac
Note that the second outline places "Hardware" and "Software" under the broader title, "Components." The item "Memory," which had been listed under "CPU," has been grouped with "Drives" under the new heading "Storage." The specific item "CPU" now seems more important, since it is on the same level with the general topics "Interface" and "Storage." The variable items, such as the mouse and printer, have disappeared from this outline, but will be dealt with under the headings "input" and "output."
Once the outline is complete, you can begin to develop your one- or two-word points into complete sentences or whole paragraphs.

Technical English Menu

Home Page & Overview
Required Work
Audience Analysis
Writing for a Variety of Audiences
Planning your Task
Editing, Part II
Technical Report
Technical Report, Part II
Progress Report, Choice I
Progress Report, Choice 2
Progress Report, Choice 3
Progress Report, Choice 4
Other Resources