What Is Technical Writing?

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technical writing

We see examples of technical writing every day, yet it seems to be one of the least popular types of writing. 

But it’s everywhere.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), Customer Service scripts, How-to videos, User manuals, and Release notes are just a few of the products made by technical writers.

Each time you click the ‘Help’ button in a computer program or you read your lawnmower’s user manuals, you seek the services of a technical writer.

Yes, people make careers out of writing that stuff. Most of them are excellent at it. And… they make a good dollar too.

But what is technical writing and what is it used for? I have packed answers to these questions and more in this article.

Let’s get this reading feast underway.

What Does Technical Writing Mean?

Technical writing is a writing discipline that simplifies complex or technical ideas to a level of instruction or direction easily understandable by an average person or layman. It is meant to provide comprehensive but graspable information on how products, services, and processes work.

What Do Technical Writers Write?

The job of a technical writer is to break down complex constructs or processes into easy-to-understand slices or chunks of information.

contract is one of the most common technical writings
Legal Contract is one of the most common technical writings. (Image credit: http://howtostartablogonline.net/legal/ on Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

There are different kinds of writing that a technical writer handles. The long list includes:

  • Manuals
  • Online Help Systems
  • Video Tutorials
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS)
  • Product Packaging
  • Software Installation Guides
  • Policy Statements
  • Customer Service
  • Warning Scripts
  • Contracts
  • Legal Disclaimers.
  • Reference Guides
  • Course Materials
  • Release Notes
  • How-To Content
  • Standard Operating Procedures
  • Service Level Agreements
  • Company Documents

There are other tasks that technical writers do, though I’d have to fill a page or two just to list all of them.

The Main Purpose of Technical Writing?

The main purpose of technical writing is to unthaw technical information into content that readers can understand and use.

Technical writing helps those users who don’t possess technical knowledge of the service, product, or process to take advantage of expert information that has been written in simple, easy-to-understand language. Technical documents are also used to furnish professionals with industry standards, protocols, laws, and procedural requirements.

As you can deduct from some of the documents that technical writers are tasked with, it’d be difficult for experts to communicate to a layman using their jargon.  

Where Is Technical Writing Used?

So, if you’re asking yourself, ‘what industries can I work in as a technical writer?’

I don’t really think that you’re asking yourself that question, I just had to introduce this section. *laugh out loud*

On a serious note, the answer would be, ALMOST ALL. There are a lot of industries that employ technical writers. As a technical writer, you can get hired in the following sectors:

  • Insurance: There’s a lot of legal stuff and T&Cs that insurance companies have to write.
  • Engineering: Engineering has a lot of jargon and complex things that need explaining.
  • Finance: Annual reports, market analysis, executive summary briefs, rates, etc.
  • IT: Billions of Apps being made and updated constantly; they need software documentation, Tutorials, FAQs, reports, release notes, and a lot of technical stuff.
  • Medicine: It is a no-brainer that a sector that is mostly involved in death and life situations needs people to write regulatory documents, usage guides, and how-to content for digital medical equipment.
  • Manufacturing:  There are a lot of machines, processes, and new regulations in this sector. There’s a huge demand for technical writers who can write manuals, procedural tenets, and documentation of new regulations and developments in the sector.
  • The Government. In some economies, the Government is the biggest employer. They own assets in many sectors; therefore, they’re likely going to employ a lot of technical writers.
examples of industries that employ technical writers.
Examples of Industries that employ technical writers.

What Are the 3 Main Parts of a Technical Document?

Technical documents usually have a similar structure and function. This format often includes front matter, body, and end matter.

A standard format makes it easy for readers to figure out what the document’s intent is, how it’s arranged, and how the document’s content compares to that of other documents.

Sections found in the front matter include a title page, abstract, table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, list of terms, acknowledgments.

The Body may include elements like introduction, background, theory, design criteria, materials and apparatus, procedure, results, discussion, conclusion, and recommendations.

And, finally, the end matter may consist of references, appendixes, indices.

the 3 main parts of a technical document.
The 3 main parts of a technical document.

Rules of Technical Writing

Here are some of the things you should remember when writing technical content.

  1. Know the purpose of the content.
  2. Understand your Target audience.
  3. Don’t use jargon unless necessary.
  4. You should be descriptive, consistent, and concise but precise.
  5. Avoid using passive voice.
  6. Using a conversational, straightforward tone.
  7. Avoid writing chunky, word sections. Remember, full stops do exist.
  8. Employ infographics to aid your written explanations.
  9. Your writing should follow a logical flow.
  10. E-mail, memos, and letters should be concluded with a call to action.
  11. Write using generally accepted formats and if your company or business uses a style guide, write according to it.

What Skills Do Technical Writers Need?

Technical writing is a special type of writing. Therefore, there’s a skill set you need to have to become a technical writer.

Becoming a good technical writer requires you to get a good understanding of the targeted field (industry, category, etc.).

You also need to be adept at breaking down technical terms and processes into easy to grasp language. This means that you have to invest time and monetary resources into improving your knowledge of technical terms.

Below are some of the skills that can help you become a good technical writer.

  • Writing
  • Technical Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Research Skills
  • Knowledge of Your Target Audience
  • Hardware and Software Resources for a Digital Workspace

What Is Effective Technical Writing?

Most often, technical writing deals with a product, method, procedure, or abstract concept, and the vocabulary used must be functional. In this field, consistency and accuracy are prioritized over style.

So effective technical writing must be accurate, coherent, logical, useful, and simple, targeted, and well-structured. The grammar, spelling, and punctuation used therein must be polished.

When all these ingredients are added to the mix, and the targeted user of the information in the technical document is convinced that it simplifies things, that technical content is effective. Effective writing focuses on the information or message, not the writer’s writing style or views.

What Makes Good Technical Writing?

There are a couple of features that make good technical documents. Good technical writing uses tables and graphs, involves team writing, and considers ethical issues.

three features that makes good technical writing.
Three features that makes good technical writing.

1. Tables and Graphics

The use of tables, diagrams, graphs, illustrations, photographs, and charts in technical content helps in effectively representing the information. The use of such instruments also adds a professional edge to the content. For professionals, tables, graphs, and charts can be used to compare data or changes in data.

2. Team writing

For technical to be technically accurate and productive, technical writers collaborate with other professionals and work on research, design, development, and testing.

Working as a team is not easy, but when resources are pooled, the technical content is crafted from a vast pool of skill, knowledge, and creativity, ultimately benefiting both the users and the owners of the product, service, or process.

3. Ethical Issues

Although technical writing has to use standard terminology and language, the writer must not use the ideas, language, or visual instruments graphics of other entities as their own.

Writing someone’s ideas verbatim and using instruments by others without acknowledging the owners is plagiarism, and you’re liable to face legal action or risk tarnishing both your image and that of your employer.

The best way to avoid this is to reference your source and try as much as possible to use your thoughts, ideas, and language.

The Most Common Mistakes in Technical Writing

1. Writing Before Planning

Before writing a technical document, do your research, test (the product, service, or process), and plan your document.

You must also research the targeted audience―their intellectual level, age group, gender, etc.

2. Overwhelming Details

Don’t overwhelm the readers with so much information. If there’s a need for the document to disclose and explain a lot of information, break the content into chunks and give it to them in segments and logical order.

Don’t flood your readers with overenthusiastic explanations.

3. Being too vague

You have to provide headings and descriptions that are specific, concise, and clear.

4. Using the passive voice

This is a no-no in lots of writing genres. You have to use language that motivates your target audience to act.

Passive sucks at doing this because it is less action-oriented and fossilized. For the majority of a technical document, you’re advised to use the active voice.

5. Using Disorderly Writing

Good technical writing follows a logical flow. It must introduce the reader to the information contained inside the technical document. Then it has to broaden the information, fleshing out the content in an orderly manner.

You can’t have your readers moving back and forth, trying to find answers that are contained in the same document.

How Hard Is Technical Writing?

This is not the part where I tell you that ‘anything is achievable if you put your mind to it.’

But what I’m about to say comes close to that.

Writing technical content is not that easy; nothing’s easy in life.

But once you get good at some things, you become a good technical writer. When or if you master the art of using language, transform to various professional voices (medical doctor, engineer, lawyer, et cetera, and have an understanding of or quickly grasp technically complex topics, then you can become a good technical writer.

So the question should be rephrased to, ‘how hard is it to achieve the things I listed?’

Not easy and not that hard!

What Separates Technical Writing from Other Forms of Writing?

In terms of fundamental structure, grammar, and spelling, technical writing is similar to other forms of writing.

The things that separate it from other writing are purpose and style. Technical writing is practical or functional. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than the conveyance of information. The other forms of writing might seek to entertain or amuse their readers, but technical writing only seeks to connect to readers’ logic, not their sentiments.

Therefore, technical writers focus on creating clear, concise presentations of the topic at hand, not garish writing styles.

Learn what makes Technical Writing different from other types of writing.

Final Words On Technical Writing

Technical writing is valuable and lucrative. Technical content is everywhere and there’s always a high demand for writers who can effectively communicate technical knowledge to customers, employees, contractors, and general users.

It’s not a way to earn an extra buck; it’s remunerative full-time work.

But to become a good technical writer, you have to put in a lot of effort, and you have to invest a lot of resources―i.e., time―into your writing and communication skills.

Nothing is easy, but anything is possible!

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Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories. She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.