Technical Descriptions

Before you begin to write a technical description, consider carefully how the audience and the purpose of the document will affect what you write. Your sense of your audience will determine not only how technical your vocabulary should be but also how long your sentences and paragraphs should be.

Another audience-related factor is your use of graphics. Less knowledgeable readers may need simple graphics; they might have trouble understanding complicated schematics or charts. As you consider your audience, think about whether any of your readers are from other cultures and might therefore expect different topics, organization, or writing style in the description.

Consider your purpose: What are you trying to accomplish with this description? If you want your readers to understand how a personal computer works, write a general description that applies to several brands and sizes of computers. If you want your readers to understand how a specific computer works, write a description specific to that computer. Your purpose will determine every aspect of the description, including its length, the amount of detail, and the number and type of graphics.


There is no single organization or format used for descriptions. Because descriptions are written for different audiences and different purposes, they can take many shapes and forms. However, the following four suggestions will guide you in most situations:

  • Indicate clearly the nature and scope of the description
  • Introduce the description clearly
  • Provide appropriate detail
  • End the description with a brief conclusion


If the description is to be a separate document, give it a title. If the description is to be part of a longer document, give it a section heading. In either case, clearly state the subject and indicate whether the description is general or particular. For instance, a general description of an object might be titled “Description of a Minivan,” and a particular description, “Description of the 2015 Honda Odyssey.” A general description of a process might be called “Description of the Process of Designing a New Production Car,” and a particular description, “Description of the Process of Designing the Chevrolet Malibu.”


Start with a general overview: you want to give readers a broad understanding of the object, mechanism, or process. Consider adding a graphic that introduces the overall concept. For example, in describing a process, you might include a flowchart summarizing the steps in the body of the description; in describing an object, such as a bicycle, you might include a photograph or a drawing showing the major components you will describe in detail in the body.


In the body of the description, treat each major part or step as a separate item. In describing an object or a mechanism, define each part and then, if applicable, describe its function, operating principle, and appearance. In discussing the appearance, include shape, dimensions, material, and physical details such as texture and color (if essential). In describing a process, treat each major step as if it were a separate process.

A description can have not only parts or steps but also sub-parts or sub-steps. For example, a description of a computer system will include the keyboard as one of its main parts. The description of the keyboard will include the numeric keypad as one of its sub-parts, and a description of the numeric keypad will include the arrow keys as one of its sub-parts. The same principle applies in describing processes: if a step has sub-steps, you need to describe who or what performs each sub-step.


A typical description has a brief conclusion that provides an overall summary of the item. One  common technique for concluding descriptions of some mechanisms and objects is to state briefly how the parts function together. A professional description usually has a brief paragraph summarizing the principal steps or discussing the importance or implications of the process.


  • What is the item? You might start with a sentence definition.
  • What is the function of the item? If the function is not implicit in the sentence definition, state it: “Electron microscopes magnify objects that are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light.”
  • What does the item look like? Sometimes an object is best pictured with both graphics and words. Include a photograph or drawing if possible. *If you cannot use a graphic, use an analogy or comparison: “The USB drive is a plastic- or metal­ covered device, about the size of a pack of gum, with a removable cap that covers the type-A USB connection.” Mention the material, texture, color, and other physical characteristics, if relevant.
  • How does the item work? In a few sentences, define the operating principle. Sometimes objects do not work; they merely exist. For instance, a model has no operating principle.
  • What are the principal parts of the item? Limit your description to the principal parts. A description of a bicycle, for instance, would not mention the dozens of nuts and bolts that hold the mechanism together; it would focus on the chain, gears, pedals, wheels, and frame.


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Technical Writing for Technicians Copyright © 2019 by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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