Putting Heart Into Your Technical Writing

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Rhys Wilson

Urban Planner

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David Jones

Urban Planner

Are you pouring yourself and your expertise into your reports — for officials, decision makers, members of the public, your supervisors and others — only to learn that they aren’t getting read?

Putting the heart of the story front and center — concisely and creatively — can get even non-experts wanting to learn more.

Remember that whatever your field or level of expertise, how you communicate is as important as your technical knowledge. Most of our work as urban planners involves at least some written component. And key lessons we’ve learned apply to many other areas: If you don’t master the writing, your audience may not understand or be convinced of what you have to say.

Know Your Audience — And Engage Them

Some of people we deal with directly on our projects are technical experts — but even those who understand the complexities prefer writing that isn’t daunting to decipher. And often our written work needs to be accessible to broad audiences that include decision makers such as elected officials, residents in the communities we serve and other members of the public. The audience that can truly appreciate technically accurate writing might be limited, but almost everyone can appreciate a document that’s engaging, piques their curiosity and captures the human side of the story.

Here are some guidelines for getting your message across more effectively:


Start with a concise, compelling summary. Capture your most interesting and significant elements in a nutshell to get the reader’s attention early. Think drama, emotion or wonder. Whose life was changed by what happened? If a reader stops reading after a few sentences, you want them to go away having learned something lasting about your subject. Save “in the beginning” or “how we got here” material for later in a background/history section.

Help the reader understand the impact on them. Let your audience know how and why this matters so they’ll want to know more. Why should they care? Also consider what you want your audience to feel compelled to do. Are you trying to generate support or create advocates for your project? Your writing has the potential to reach thousands of people, who in turn have the potential to tell thousands more. Make your story their story.

Remember less is more. Abandon the notion that using more words makes you sound smarter. Tighten your writing so your reader doesn’t have to work hard to get the point. Challenge yourself to reduce the number of words you write by 20% without losing the main idea. You may be surprised at how little substance you sacrifice and how much better your writing sounds.

Strengthen your narrative with active voice. Use strong verbs whenever possible: “The team designed the bridge …” rather than “Reconstruction was undertaken by the team …” Active voice is more compelling and keeps the reader engaged, with the added benefit of not sounding like legalese! Understand when passive voice is appropriate and when it’s your client’s preference.

Tell a coherent story. Organize the material to flow naturally, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion, so the reader can see where they’re going. If the reader has to go back to the beginning to find out how they got to the end, your writing hasn’t achieved its purpose.

Use straightforward sentences. Too many clauses can cause confusion. Vary your sentence lengths to avoid intimidating text blocks or choppiness. Be direct when summarizing a point so your reader can’t miss what you mean.

Avoid technical jargon. Technical language might be essential sometimes, and minimizing risk of misinterpretation is valuable. But even readers who are professionals might need to explain what you’re saying to others who aren’t familiar with your field. If your audience is (or might be) nontechnical, and your writing requires a glossary to be fully understood, lean in the direction of Michael Scott from “The Office,” who said, “explain it to me like I’m 5.”

Use subheads and graphics. Multiple entry points make navigating a lot of material easier. And illustrating complex concepts with simple graphs, charts and images helps with understanding and digestibility. Just remember to keep them simple, as visual “aids” that are overly complex, technical or hard to read can do more harm than not using visual aids at all.


Many of the same rules apply:

  • Start with a concise, compelling summary.
  • Tell a coherent story.
  • Help the audience understand the impact on them.
  • Avoid technical jargon.

But also remember that you want the audience to focus on what you’re saying, not your slides:

  • Take your audience on a journey. Catch and keep their interest with elements that are meaningful to them. Provide clear guideposts. And use techniques that can keep things moving, including humor, your personality and good navigation.
  • Keep a well-stocked toolbox. Use headlines, small amounts of text, images and graphics to quickly illustrate your points. No big chunks of text! Don’t accidentally turn yourself into an overqualified slide reader.
  • Stay in active voice. Strong verbs that indicate action are dynamic and engaging. If you’re trying to persuade your audience or making a recommendation to them, direct language will also make you sound more credible and convincing.
  • Simpler is better. Rely on your mental mastery of the subject more than your slides. When in doubt, simplify! Few good ideas require more than one or two sentences of explanation.
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Rhys Wilson is a member of the Urban Planning + Design group with expertise in zoning analysis, land use code drafting and urban design. He is based in Dallas.

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David Jones, AICP, is a member of the Urban Planning + Design group with experience as a municipal planner for small historic communities and large suburban cities. He is based in Dallas.