Curated by UCL

Writing about a technical project

Writing about our own work can be very tricky: things are so obvious to us that we forget why our work is important and all the technical concepts we had to learn in order to understand the problem and make progress with it. Here are some tips on how to write a good article, paragraph by paragraph.

Audience

Start by thinking about your audience. Remember, we don’t want you to write a technical paper, but something that encapsulates the context in which you are working, why the problem you are tackling is interesting, and the concepts behind your solution. You can think of as an advertisement for your work and for your recent and future publications (in other words, if people want all the gory technical details they can get them from the references.
On the other hand, we don’t want you to over-simplify altogether. When people within your own discipline read your article, we still want them to have some idea of how your work differs from your competitors.
Essentially, this means you are having to address three different audiences at once. First is a general technical audience consisting of people from very different disciplines: if you are an electrical engineer, it may be useful to think of a reader who is a microbiologist. If you are a chemist, think of a mechanical engineer. Second is the subset of readers within your general discipline: other electrical engineers or chemists. Finally, there are those people who are actually specialists in your field—working in signal processing, say, or nanotechnology—who want to know the meat of your technological contribution. Though they may be reading, this isn’t the right place to address them directly. Instead, you can help them out by putting in references so they can follow up if they’re interested.

Template

This covers a generic technical project… deviate as appropriate! You can add more paragraphs if you need them, but try not to make each individual paragraph super long. They should be 50-150 words and have a topic sentence (remember those?) that gives us an idea of what the paragraph will be about.

Headline (General audience)
Keep it short (ten words or fewer), straightforward, and as free from jargon as you can: jargon is any word that someone from outside your discipline would have to look up. Make clear the application/importance of your work, not the specifics (yet!). For example:
Machine intelligence is enhanced using analogue computation.
Paragraph 1: Vision/Status Quo (General audience)
This paragraph is critical, because it’s the one where people will decide whether they can be bothered to read on or not. Give the context of your work for a non-specialist. You might focus on the following questions. Why do we need progress in this area (what would it achieve)? Why is this important? Why isn’t what we have now good enough? Remember to spell out all acronyms the first time you use them, and to explain all jargon terms that aren’t well understood outside your field. Please write the main text in the active voice where possible, using the first person or first person plural (“we have developed…”).
Paragraph 2: Technical Problem/Competing Solutions (General Audience) 
OK, by this stage we should understand why what you’re doing is worth doing. Now we need to understand why it’s new and clever. We can’t do that until you explain the problem to us in a bit more detail, what the criteria for success are (these can be technical, practical or economic criteria as applicable, e.g. performance, manufacturability, or cost, respectively), and how other people’s approaches have fallen short (at least, for the specific application you’re focussing on).
Paragraph 3: New Solution (General Audience)
Now you’re nicely set up to explain your team’s approach to the problem. Start with what it is and how it works conceptually and why you think it will be more successful than the ones you described in paragraph 2. Remember, we’re not experts, so you need to explain enough so that we understand the difference between what you’re doing and what others have done/are doing.
Paragraph 4: How it Works  (General Audience > Audience in your Discipline)

Start simple and tell us what you did to take the ideas in Paragraph 3 and and make them real enough to test (that could mean a model, a prototype, or a full commercial product). Start off on the less technical side so that those that we can all grasp the basics of what you’re trying to do: even if we don’t understand the full details.

Paragraph 5: The results (General Audience > Audience in your Discipline)

So, how well did it work? Again, start simple and just give us an idea of whether they looked good or not. Then you can explain what you did to determine whether you met all those criteria you talked about back in Paragraph 2.

Paragraph 6: Obstacles (General Audience)

Based on the results you outlined in Paragraph 5, can you proceed to develop the technology the way you wanted to? Are there new problems you didn’t know about that now need to be addressed? How do you look beside your competitors now? Are you going to be able to apply the technology as you wanted to?

Paragraph 7: Discussion/Further Work (General audience)
What does this all mean? Look back at Paragraph 1 again make sure you put the work you’ve described in the last few paragraphs back into the context you described in Paragraph 1. Remember you can be more technical now than you were at the top: we’ve learned a lot over the last few paragraphs. Finish up by telling us what you plan to do next. Do you need to refine some design elements, do more experiments, find another material, raise money to commercialise, or what? Leave us looking to the future.
Overall, this should produce a 800+ word story with enough technical detail to satisfy most (especially if you’ve included references) and enough context so that everyone can understand why the work is important.