Technical Definition and Description

Technical Definition and Description

Assignment Instructions


Technical communicators are often responsible for writing descriptive (technical definitions, technical descriptions) and prescriptive documents (instruction sets, Job Aids, Standard Operating Procedures).

Descriptive and prescriptive technical documents can be written for other technical communicators (specialists) or for the public (generalists). As such, it is important to carefully consider the audience and what they need from the document in order to help them solve a problem.

Descriptive and prescriptive technical documents also rely upon the coordination of text and images to convey meaning.


Technical professionals are often required to define or describe a technical process to fellow specialists or to generalists (someone who has little knowledge or experience with the subject at hand). For example, an engineering firm might write a proposal to bid on a contract to develop an experimental  helicopter rotor blade and mast for the Defense Department; one section of the proposal would be a detailed description of the process behind the new blade and mast technology.

Technical descriptions are used  before  products and processes are developed (as part of proposals and planning documents), during development (in progress reports, for instance), and  afterwards  (as part of marketing and promotional literature and technical support documents).  

This project asks you to select  a process  and write a description of it. A process description explains how a complex event occurs, typically mechanical, technological, or natural in  nature . Specifically, we will be researching and writing a scientific description related to one of the artifacts in  Fabric of Digital Life (FoDL) .

To reiterate: For this assignment we will write and design a process description. A process description explains how a complex event — typically scientific, natural, or mechanical/technical — occurs. It is a “teaching” and explanatory document. It is not a prescriptive, “how to” document. If you find yourself explaining how to do something you are likely writing an instruction set and not a technical description. For example, homebrewing beer, kombucha, and other beverages has increased in popularity recently. A descriptive document (technical description) explains the stages of the fermentation cycle, illustrating for the reader how the different ingredients and natural processes proceed stage by stage until fermentation is complete. In contrast, a prescriptive document (instruction set) would explain “how to” brew beer, ferment kombucha, etc. Our technical description here would focus on explaining and defining the process of fermentation.

Rhetorical Situation

Your project manager (me) has assigned each member of our team (you) the task of analyzing on of the artifacts from Fabric of Digital Life  and researching a technical process associated with the product.

 Audience and Purpose  

Your primary audience for this project is the general public . Consider this a teaching document on how something works (the process and stages “behind the scenes”). I usually imagine writing this for a family member who is not technologically savvy.

You should write this document as a specialist-generalist document, and with design components like paragraphing, partitioning, sentence length, definitions (sentence and extended), marginal gloss (or a glossary) and effective use of (and labeling of) visuals that show you understand and can apply the concepts covered so far in this course. I do not expect you to be an expert on the process you choose — only to have researched it well enough to explain it clearly to a general reader.

Gathering Information  

Set aside enough time to learn about the process you identify . This project will require you to read background information or otherwise inform yourself about the topic. You should credit and cite any sources you use in creating your technical description.

 Research process example (from Fabric)

When perusing  Fabric, I might become intrigued by an entry on ” Self-Healing Robots” Further research on Fabric and Google leads me to this article where I learn that “scientists have developed polymers that can heal themselves, creating new bonds after being damaged in as little as 40 minutes. Embedding functional material will soon let robots use artificial intelligence to sense and actuate the self-healing process without the need for human intervention.” I identify a few key terms in this article such as ” self-healing polymer” and continue my search. Gradually, I collect enough information in order to identify several applications for this process (Nash Industries can use some our research to begin developing self-healing materials and technologies for different fields.): medical, robotic, etc. My next step is to figure out each step of the process ) and identify visuals (and credit them)  that can compliment my written technical description.

 Content and Organization

The technical description should consist of and include:

  • A cover page with a clear and informative title, a clearly defined audience, your name, and the date
  • Audience and scope: Who is this document intended for and what is the focus — the range or constraints — that this document cover (and if pertinent, what it will not cover)
  • An introduction with (at least) a strong and effective sentence definition
  • The contents or parts involved in the process. This section will rely upon definition and it comes before the description of the process itself so that the reader can be familiar with certain terms and concepts that will be referenced later in the description.
  • A well-developed description of the process itself. Use headings and subheadings, definitions/glossing, and visuals as needed. Describe each stage of the process separately and in enough detail so that a generalist reader can understand.
  • A conclusion that summarizes the process and briefly explains (reiterates) one complete cycle of the process.The conclusion may also identify the result of the process and how it can be applied (e.g., what the end result of fermentation is and how it can commonly be applied).
  • A References page that identifies readings and images used and consulted.


  • Many of the technical communication strategies that we have learned so far will be applied in this document. Remember to design as well as write the document: headings, bulleted lists, visuals (figures and tables), conciseness, and chunking information will all be important components in creating an effective technical description.


  • At least 3 visuals are required, but you should use as many as you deem necessary. However, please do not use “filler” visuals — if the figure or table does not clearly define and clarify part of the description it should not be included. Some stock images, clip art, etc. are examples of how visuals can be used as filler rather than as definition. Remember to number, label, and refererence visuals.

For the visuals:

  • All visuals will be listed in APA format in the References page
  • You may design your own visuals if you are so inclined (and skilled).
  • You may use an already-existing visual (a “reference visual). However, if you do so you must identify where the original visual was published and whether any modifications were made to it.
  • You may use images with a Creative Commons designation (when searching, be certain to de-select the “commercial uses” box) and provide the appropriate attribution.


  • The technical description should be 3-5 pages (excluding the cover page and the References).


Technical Descriptions and Definitions

Descriptive technical writing uses a combination of visuals and text to both “show” and “tell” the reader about the information being conveyed. Like more creative descriptions, technical descriptions sometimes draw on the “five senses” and metaphorical comparisons (analogies) to allow the reader to fully conceptualize what is being described. More often, however, they rely on concrete, measurable descriptors. Technical descriptions can take many forms, depending on purpose and audience. Descriptions can range from a brief sentence, to a paragraph, a whole section of a report, or an entire manual.  Poorly written technical descriptions can cause confusion, waste time, and even result in catastrophe!  Technical product descriptions are often legally required to ensure safety and compliance.  Attention to detail is critical.

Product specifications require detailed descriptions of design features; instructions often require specific descriptive detail to “show” the reader what to do. Some general categories of technical descriptions include the following:

  • Mechanism Descriptions:  provide a detailed overview the physical aspects of a tool, machine or other mechanical device that has moving parts and is designed to perform a specific function. These could be product descriptions for sales or manufacturing, documentation of design specifications, info-graphics, etc.  This chapter focuses in detail on this kind of description.
  • Process Descriptions:  detail a series of events (natural/biological/ecological, mechanical, social, or psychological phenomenon) that happen in particular sequence in order to achieve a specific outcome. These can be categorized into non-instructional processes (such as a process analyses of how an internal combustion engine works, or natural processes like photosynthesis) and instructional process (such as recommended/required procedures and explicit step-by-step instructions to be followed). (See Section 7.7 for detailed information on Writing Instructions).
  • Definitions:  clarify the specific meaning, often related to a specific context, or express the essential nature of the terms being defined. These can range in length from a simple clarifying phrase to an extended document of several pages. Definitions will often include detailed descriptions and visuals to illustrate ideas. Click on the link below to view a student PowerPoint presentation on how to write effective definitions for technical purposes. This presentation is included with express permission of the student.

Definitions in Technical Writing – Sample student presentation (.pdf)

Technical Description of a Mechanism

Mechanism descriptions should provide a clear understanding of the object being described, including

  • General appearance and physical properties
  • Overall function/purpose
  • Component parts
  • How the parts interact to create a functioning whole.

The reader should be able to clearly picture, and therefore understand, the nature of the object being described, what it does, and how it works.

In order to achieve this clarity for the reader, the writer must choose significant details and organize information logically. Select details that can be described precisely and measurably, such as

colormaterialstexture, smell, taste
shapecomponent partsfinish
sizepropertiespatterns, designs
dimensionsprinciples at workinteractions

Depending on the reader’s need, the description may range from a general overview requiring only a few sentences to a multi-chapter manual detailing every aspect of the mechanism’s parts and functions in order to troubleshoot technical problems and complete repairs. For a fun example of the latter, see the  Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual (cover depicted in  Figure 7.4.1), which provides detailed descriptions of all equipment and technology used aboard the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise-D.

Figure 7.4.1 Cover Page of “Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual”. [1]

Before you begin to draft your description, you must consider your  purpose and  audience: Why does your audience need this description? What will they use it for? Are you describing different types of solar panels for the average consumers to help them choose the one that best fits their needs? Are you giving schematics to technicians and installers?

Once you have your purpose and audience clearly in focus, draft a description that includes the following elements:

  1. Definition: What is it, and what is its main purpose?
  2. Overview: Describe the mechanism’s overall appearance (“big picture”).
  3. Components: Describe the main component parts in labeled sections; consider the order of information carefully here. Create a logical connection between each component described.
  4. Explanation: how do the parts work together to fulfill its function? What key principles govern its functioning? Consider how much detail is necessary here for your intended audience.
  5. Visuals: include graphics that clearly illustrate the mechanism and/or its parts. Show the device as a whole; consider showing specific details in expanded views, cut-aways, or labeled diagrams. You may even embed or link to videos showing the device in action.
  6. Conclusion: depending on the purpose, you might review product’s history, availability, manufacturing, costs, warnings, etc.)
  7. References: Sources you have used in your description, or additional sources of information available (if relevant).

You might consider using a template, like the Technical Description Template below, keeping in mind that while templates can be helpful guides, they do not provide much flexibility and may not work for all situations.

Technical Description Template

Audience and PurposeWho will read this description and why?
Definition and FunctionWhat is it? What does it do? What is its purpose?
OverviewDescribe its overall appearance (shape, size, color, etc)
Components and ExplanationsDescribe the component parts (chose most relevant features) and explain how they work together
VisualsWhat kind of illustrative graphics will you use? Where?

·               Diagrams

·               Photographs

·               Cut-away views

·               Exploded views

ConclusionDo you need to offer any further information? History? Warnings? Context? Costs? etc.
ReferencesAny sources used, or supplemental sources to suggest

Sample Descriptions

Examine the description of the “Up Goer Five” in  Figure 7.4.2 (click on image for larger version). Who might the intended audience be?

Figure 7.4.2 A description of the blueprints for NASA’s Saturn Five rocket using only the 1000 most commonly-used English words  [2]

Compare the description in  Figure 7.4.2 to the information given on the NASA website about the  Mars Curiosity Rover.

Note the differences in the level of detail, vocabulary, and overall purpose of the descriptions.  If you used the information on the NASA site to fill in the  Technical Description Template, you might end up with something like the following chart. Objectives

Template for Description of Mars Curiosity Rover

DefinitionCuriosity Rover – a NASA robot designed to explore Mars
FunctionTravels around the Gale Crater on Mars, collecting data to send back to Earth. Its mission is to see if Mars could ever have supported life, and if humans could survive there someday
OverviewCar-sized, 6 wheel robot, about 7’ tall, with a roughly square chassis that has several appendages connected to it that house sensors of various types
Components·               Main body protects the computer, electronics and instrument systems

·               “Neck and head” like a mast coming out of the centre of the chassis, this houses many of the rover’s cameras

·               Six legs – “rocker bogie” design – wide apart, allows all wheels to remain on uneven terrain

·               Arm – roughly 7 ’ long, (with “shoulder, elbow and wrist” joints), with a “hand” at the end, extends out of the front of the chassis. This contains many tools for drilling, collecting samples, etc.

·               “Tail” – contains radio-isotopic power source that powers the rover

Visuals·               Overall view (front and side? Top view?)

·               View of arm with labeled components

·               View of head and neck with labeled components

Conclusion/SupplementalInformation about lifespan? Travel speed? Energy use?
ReferencesNASA website – Mars Curiosity Rover page

You may find that some of these elements are not necessary; again, consider what your target audience already knows. Strike a balance between unnecessarily stating the obvious and incorrectly assuming your readers have knowledge that they lack.

In refining the details of your description and its component parts, consider the following:

  • Organization: Use a logical principle to organize your description
    • Top to bottom (or foundation upward)
    • Left to right (or right to left)
    • Inside to outside (or outside to inside)
    • Most important to least important features
    • Central component to peripherals
    • Material properties, etc.
  • Language:  Use specific, precise, concrete terms – avoid vague or overly-general terms
    • Use correct terminology – define terms as necessary for your audience
    • Use analogy to describe an unfamiliar thing in terms of a familiar thing
    • Use objective language – no “ad speak” or subjective terms
    • Use present tense, active verbs to describe how the device appears and what it does
    • Use words that create vivid and specific pictures in the reader’s mind.

EXERCISE 7.2 Practice technical description

Choose a common, everyday object (such as one of the objects in  Figure 7.4.3) and draft a technical description for an audience unfamiliar with the object. Start by imagining a target audience and purpose, and then try filling in the Technical Description Template with detailed information. Using the information in your template, draft a short description of 1-2 paragraphs, and add properly-captioned visuals.

Figure 7.4.3 Common objects for practice description. [3]

Technical Definitions

A technical definition helps a reader understand items such as an object or process. It can be short and embedded in a document, or it can be its own document. The purpose of a definition is to provide clarity to the reader. The extent of the definition depends on your audience’s background knowledge in regards to what you are writing about. For example, it could be a parenthetical definition that follows a potentially unknown term, a full sentence used after a term to further define it, or it may be an extended definition, or larger definition. In fact, a writer may use many methods within the definition to help the reader better understand it.  Some methods that can be used include visuals, examples, comparisons, and contrasts.

Sentence Definitions

Sentence definitions help classify and then differentiate an object or a process.

Think of a sentence definition as an “equation” or sorts: X (the object or process) = Y (classifying it according to the larger “group” to which it belongs) + differentiating it from others in that group by identifying its distinguishing characteristics.

For example, a sentence definition of a Wankel engine could look like this:

  • A Wankel engine (also known as a rotary engine) is an internal combustion engine that utilizes a triangular rotor inside of an oval housing as an alternative to the reciprocating piston engine.
    • A Wankel engine (X) = an internal combustion engine (Y) + utilizes a triangular rotor inside of an oval housing as an alternative to the reciprocating piston engine (the characteristics that differentiate the Wankel engine for other internal combustion engines.

Sentence definitions are extremely important in that they immediately contextualize the description through classification and differentiation. Sentence definitions are typically placed in the first sentence of the body of the description (right after the introduction).

Other Definition Strategies1

  • Parenthetical: Parenthetical definitions are not interested in classifying and differentiating. Rather, they are intended to provide a brief clarification or contextualization. In the sentence definition example, for instance, the Wankel engine is parenthetically defined as such: (also known as a rotary engine).
  • Visuals: Remember that an effective technical document can consist of words, images, or both. Sometimes “both” is an excellent choice to help the reader “see” the definition as well as read it.
  • Examples: Providing examples of an object or process can help the reader situate the description and make connections.
  • Partitioning: Partitioning is using bullet points to partition (break down) the various parts of a complex definition. Partitioning allows the reader to see shorter, brief definitions of each part and how they relate to each other.
  • Comparison and Contrast: Similar to example (and analogy), using comparison and contrast allows the reader to identify the object or process with something similar (comparison) or something dissimilar (contrast).
  • Analogy: Using an analogy compares the object or process to something dissimilar. However, unlike with contrast, the purpose here is to help the reader see a central structure or characteristic that both things have in common (whereas contrast would be to show what the objects or processes do not have in common). A commonly used analogy in writing papers for a first-year composition class, for example, might be to compare the essay structure to building a house.
  • Negation: Negation is a simple yet effective form of definition. It is simply stating what the object or process is not. Think of it as X ≠ Y.

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