How to Describe Difficult Technical Concepts


Rule #1!

You can’t describe what you don’t understand.

We agree?

You can try and fudge it, but the people reviewing the document will see through it.

I will. You would.

Maybe you can try and cheat by cobbling together material that others have written, but it doesn’t work.

Anyway, that’s not writing. It’s just camouflaging what others have written and trying to pass it off as your own material. We can do better than that, right?

How to understand and write technical concepts

As a business or technical writer, you’ll often have to describe difficult, technical concepts to your readers.

How can you develop enough understanding of the concept to write about it with confidence?

Let’s take it one step at a time.

#1. Research the topic in depth.

Look on the wiki, in the pdfs, in the business analyst’s pages, and in training pages. The more information you can gather, the better placed you are to ask more informed questions.

Learning is incremental. Expose yourself to the business, technical, and software sides of the application. By degrees, these will begin to ‘gel’ and start to make more sense.

#2. Look at it from different angles

See where the issue can originate. The issue could be in different places.

  • How can you develop a better understanding of the subject?
  • What caused the issue to occur?
  • What contributing factors were involved?
  • Did it occur only under specific circumstances?

Looking at the issue from different angles helps you identify any underlying information that may not have been obvious at first.

#3. Discuss it with others

See if DEV, QA, and BAs have others way to look at this.

Can they give you an insight you haven’t already thought of? Again, your aim is to develop a more nuanced view of the topic.

Discussions with others, in particular if you use open ended questions that prompt or evoke more dialogue, will help unearth nuggets of information you may have overlooked.

#4. Let it ‘rest’ mentally

Leave the topic alone for a while. Giving yourself distance from the problem helps you gain perspective.

Transcribe what you understand.

When I read something, I can tell if the person knows what they’re writing about (or not) almost immediately. It comes from years of reviewing, writing, and re-writing.

Before you try to document very thorny technical subjects, make sure you understand it first. Once you understand it, you can write it.

One last thing.

Understanding grows. Keep chipping away. Eventually, it’ll click!

PSHow to Think Clearly: A Guide to Critical Thinking