Parts of a Technical Document

The standard model of technical writing is a style and structure that has been widely used for about fifty years. This documenting method, which is usually taught in schools, is how most professional scientists, engineers, and other technical writers choose to write. The main features of a document that follows the standard model include the following:

  • Abstract or summary: A brief overview of the document, including its conclusions and recommendations if there are any. An average length for an abstract is about 300 words; however, some scientific journals actually specify the required number of words. The abstract of a scientific paper or document should be capable of standing alone to be published separately.

  • Acknowledgments: A brief note of thanks to those people who directly helped in the work the document describes. In a novel or less formal technical documents, authors often thank their friends and family; many scientists and engineers consider it slightly pretentious to do this. Instead, research assistants and others who assisted with the preparation of the paper normally appear in this section. Also, if the document is destined for publication and describes work supported by a grant, the grant-awarding body may insist that it be acknowledged.

  • Introduction: The introduction explains what the document is about, and its role in relation to other work in the field. In most technical documents, the introduction will say something about the context of the document — how the work it describes forms part of the overall body of work in that subject area. When describing an investigation, the introduction will state explicitly what the investigators set out to find.

  • Objectives: This optional section states what the work being documented was expected to accomplish, why it was undertaken, and at whose instigation.

  • Theory: A description of any background theory needed to understand the document. For example, such a section might be used to describe a mathematical process that the lay reader may not know.

  • Method or methodology or procedures: A description of the way the work was carried out, what equipment was used, and any problems that had to be overcome. For example, if the document describes a survey, this section would explain how the subjects were selected and checked for bias, and how the results were analyzed.

  • Results: A brief explanation, sometimes accompanied by tables and graphs, that includes enough data to show that you have done what you said you would do, and that your conclusions are valid.

  • Discussion or interpretation: An interpretation of the results, sometimes including comparisons with other published findings and mention of any potential shortcomings in the work. The discussion section of a traditional document is the place where the author is allowed to be less objective than usual. It is acceptable to mention opinions, and to speculate about the significance of the work. In particular, if your findings are unusual or very different from other people's conclusions, you should explain why you think this might be.

  • Conclusion: The overall findings of the study. Conclusion does not just mean “summary.” In this case, your conclusions are statements that can be concluded from the rest of the work.

  • Recommendations: The author's advice to the reader. (If, for example, the document is about making some sort of business decision, the recommendation is usually what the author perceives as the appropriate course of action. The recommendations section can also include suggestions for further work.)

  • References and/or bibliography: The purpose of giving references is to allow the reader to follow up on your work. The bibliography is the set of publications referred to in a general sense during the writing of the document or in carrying out the work it describes. These publications will not usually be cited explicitly in the text. References, on the other hand, are given in support of some specific assertion, and are always mentioned explicitly in the text. Normally, this citation would be given after the statement the author wants to support.

  • Appendices: Additional supporting material, such as mathematical proofs, diagrams or style examples, troubleshooting information, listings of abbreviations and technical terms, and so forth.

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