A sample of traditional documents includes letters, memos, reports, and manuals. These kinds of documents are central to a company's mode of communication and are important not just to the high tech fields, but to education and service providers, as well.

As John M. Lannon, author of Technical Communication, makes clear, letters are primarily for external communication. This being the case, it's important that the letter is professional, both in its format and content (365).

The basic kinds of letters include: good news messages, bad news messages, informative messages, requests for action, and letters of transmittal (a part of a formal report) (Woolever, 159). Each of these letters has the same components: heading and date, inside address, salutation, text, closing, and signature (Lannon 365-368).

While letters typically deal with external communication, memos stay within the company. They are sent to keep co-workers and management up-to-date with projects, inform them of potential problems, and suggest solutions. Author Kristin Woolever describes memos as an "ongoing conversation" (158).

Memos are added to a project's file and are generally less formal than letters (Woolever 158). The typical format includes: heading and date, subject line, topic headings, visuals, memo verification, and copy notation (Lannon 346).

You may think that all companies have dropped the memo in favor of emails. But, as Lannon points out, some bosses still want the structure of the memo. And while saving print and paper is a goal for most companies, formal hard copies may be needed for legal and ethical reasons, depending on the project (Lannon 385-386).

Charles H. Sides, How to Write and Present Technical Information, states that manuals are "the principal means of communication for teaching and learning"; they explain "how to assemble, use, maintain, and repair all sorts of products" (xiv).

For engineers, technicians, programmers, and architects, specifications (specs) are the most important documents tech writers create (Sides 91). Written for highly technical readers, specs thoroughly cover professional standards and safety issues, function, and design (Sides 91). Lannon describes specs as "a way to insure compliance with an authority's rules" (452).

Author Charles Sides points out that formal definitions can be found in any document that explains new concepts to its readers, including manuals, proposals, and booklets. The length of a definition, whether it be a sentence or five pages, depends on the audience and the purpose (Lannon 424). Every field has specialized terms, or jargon, that need to be clarified for readers to grasp the meaning (Lannon 424). Tech writers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide an accurate and useful definition.

Summaries are designed for executives who want to be informed but don't have time to read a report in its entirety. Summaries should be written at the lowest level of technicality, allowing the reader to quickly grasp the information (Lannon 175). Author Kristin Woolever writes, "Technical communicators spend most of their time writing technical descriptions and summaries—sections within documents that describe what has been done, how something looks, or how something works" (202).

Technical descriptions are common whenever readers need information about a product's design, function, and components (Lay et al. 419). Tech writers can describe a product or a process. The length and depth of such descriptions depend on the needs of the audience and how they will use the information.

Progress Reports
Progress reports cross all boundaries, from technology to finance, the reason being employees need to justify the work they are doing and keep management informed (Lay et al. 470). When writing a progress report, tech writers include what has been accomplished, what still needs to be accomplished, what problems have arisen and possible solutions, and what the next step will be (Lay et al. 478). Not surprisingly, Lay and co-authors state that this form of writing is the most common (470).

Proposals are always written in response to something, for example, funding for new equipment. Kristin Woolever, Writing for Technical Professions, explains that all proposals attempt to market ideas, goods, or services, giving them a highly persuasive quality (269). Proposal writers, competing for funds, are pressured to grab readers' attention with a logical, clear, comprehensive, and feasible plan.

Analytical Reports
Analytical reports are composed of two elements: research and analysis. A tech writer working on this kind of document formulates a research question, such as "Is it feasible to hire four more computer programmers?" then proceeds to gather information and interview experts. This process of collecting primary and secondary sources ends with the writer analyzing the information and making recommendations.

Learn More!

Technical Writing: Memos, Letters, Emails
Professor James Lipuma from New Jersey Institute of Technology provides this 15-minute video, which covers how to format these types of common documents.

Technical Writing: Proposals
In this video, Prof. Lipuma explains the kind of information that you need to include in a proposals,
the different types of proposals, and the ways that you can "make your case."

Technical Writing Skills: How to Write a Project Description for a Proposal
This is is a brief video, highlighting what to include in your project description.

Works Cited

Lannon, John M. Technical Communication. 8th ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Print.

Lay, Mary M.; Billie J. Wahlstrom; Stephen Doheny-Farina; Ann Hill Duin; Sherry Burgus Little; Carolyn D. Rude; Cynthia L. Selfe; & Jack Selzer. Technical Communication. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 1995. Print.

Sides, Charles H. How to Write and Present Technical Information. 3rd ed. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1999. Print.

Woolever, Kristin R. Writing for Technical Professions. New York: Longman, 1999.



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