Guide to Specification Writing

For U.S. Government Engineers
by John Oriel, NAWCTSD

A Quick Course in Specification Writing

The following articles will lead you through the high points of this guide. Read these articles and the articles that they point to. If you can recite it all and apply it to your work, you'll qualify as an expert on the subject of Government specification writing; at least in my opinion you will.


Most of engineering is based on physical laws that are easily expressible as simple equations.  All the rest of each topic is simply a treatment of details about those principles and how they can be applied to practical use.  Consequently, the material can usually be organized in a logical manner so it's easy to learn and remember.  Specification writing doesn't work that way; it's a hard subject to teach because it draws on so many diverse topics--project management, engineering practice, law, civics, grammar, word usage, and even philosophy.  Hence, the subject matter does not integrate well into an easily comprehensible whole like we're accustomed to dealing with in engineering.  No matter how you try to organize it, all you have is a lot of disconnected facts.  The correct order of presentation is almost impossible to determine.  Becoming familiar with such a body of knowledge through on-the-job experience usually takes a bright person many years, and keeping it all in mind while drafting a document is very difficult, indeed.

In keeping with the nature of the material, this guide is a collection of short articles. It is written by an experienced U.S. Government engineer to an audience of fellow engineers. The intent is to help both newcomers to the field and those who sometimes prepare informal specifications, but don't prepare them often enough to maintain the high levels of knowledge and skill they really need to do the job right.

Earlier versions of this guide were embedded in a software package I made for engineers to use while they were actually drafting specifications. This HTML version was adapted from that on-line package so it can reach a larger audience. Since more memory space is available for this version, and the HTML format imposes fewer constraints, the articles have been expanded from their original content. They still, however, specifically addresses the types of errors I have seen repeatedly in drafts of training-device specifications written by Government engineers. Note the text displayed in red makes points I don't want you to miss.

While drawn, where possible, from recognized authoritative sources, much of the information in these articles does not come from official policy documents. Think of it as you would a textbook for a college course.  There is no shortage of directives affecting specifications. I see their lack of explanations as the reason why they are so often not followed.  Such is a necessary trait of directives; if they were to try to answer all the "why" questions, they would be too lengthy and would open themselves to too much interpretation.  The intent here is to educate you, not to issue directions in bureaucratic prose.  Equipped with a general understanding, you should have less difficulty remembering and applying all the rules. To my knowledge, no other texts are readily available that treat specification writing in quite the same way as it's treated in this guide. If you know of one, please tell me about it.

Use this guide as a general introduction to the principles that apply to specification writing.  If you need a quick review of basic grammar, I've included a few pages of information to get you back up to speed. See the Basic Grammar Review page. For detailed directions on how to do your work, refer to your locally applicable directives, not to this guide.  When the directives are insufficient to help, and you're called upon to make your own informed decisions, perhaps this guide will provide some of the knowledge you need.   Note: the opinions expressed in this guide are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy.

Credit for transforming my own meager attempt at HTML into something worthy of its presence on an official Web site goes to Rick Neff of NAWCTSD. Rick also made many suggestions about the content that have improved the overall quality of this guide.

John Oriel
NAWC Training Systems Division
Orlando Florida
April 1999


This guide is not a scholarly work, and hence I have not tried to make everything traceable to sources. If you need to know the source on a particular point, contact me. The following is a list of possible sources for further reading. The list is by no means complete, but you may find it useful.

Bates, J. D. Writing With Precision. Reston, VA, Acropolis Books Ltd., 1990. (Based on a lifetime of experience at combating Governmentese.)

Block, G. Effective Legal Writing. (3rd Ed.), New York: Foundation Press, 1986. (This book covers many fine points about clarity.)

Bly, R. W. and Blake, G. Technical Writing. New York, McGraw Hill Book Company, 1982. (A short book on technical writing.)

Flesch, R. The Art of Plain Talk. New York: Harper & Row, 1946. (This is the classic on clarity of communications.)

McRobb, M. Specification Writing and Management. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1989. (This book closely parallels my own philosophy about specifications.)

Nagle, J. Preparing Engineering Documents, New York: IEEE Press, 1995. (Another fine book based on a lifetime of experience.)

Naval Material Command. Defense Contract Management for Technical Personnel. Washington, D. C., 1978. (This is the text from the Navy course by the same name.)

Last Update: 1 April 2013