Definition of a Technical Writing Process
We all have different approaches to our writing. Some of us do the crux of our writing in one fell swoop, dedicating long, consecutive hours to getting the job done. Other technical writers prefer to divide up the tasks and do a little each day.
Whichever your modus operandi, there is a defined process to follow in technical writing. The good news is that the “how-to” is intuitive. The steps below are the definition of a technical writing process for even the most complex document:
Step #1: Plan to plan ahead
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” –Yogi Berra
Planning is the critical first step in creating a technical document. Know that you are not just the author of your document. You are the CEO of it. Being in charge requires a how-to plan. Assume the role of a journalist. You need to cover the who, what, when, where, and why. Keep these top of mind as you plot your plan:
Pinpoint your base of readers. Who is your target audience? What is their age and skill level? Think carefully about whom you are directing this writing piece. You need to keep your target audience front and center throughout the process.
What is the goal of this document? What do you want your readers to know about the subject matter? The purpose(s) depends on the type of document, whether it's a user manual/instruction manual/user guide, report, executive summary, or brief.
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Establish when the project is due. If you are collaborating with or seeking input from SMEs, make sure to schedule their time accordingly. Check in with the design and publishing group to make sure that you meet their production schedule. You will need to set up a timeline for review, QA, and creativity. As a technical writer, you have a dual role as a project manager.
Where is this document to be published? The reason that this is important is that you need to establish the tone of your writing. The tone will vary if this is being distributed to end-users or presented to the CFO of the company. You will also need to know if there is a style guide to follow or a template.
This is where it can get tricky. The “why” here is referring to the reason that this technical writing piece is being compiled. Why is the stakeholder requesting that this document be put together in the first place? From a business standpoint, why is this request being made? Your business leaders will hold the answer to this important question. Knowing the reason for the ask will help frame your approach.
Step #2: Outlining, mapping, and research in between
“The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun. The first draft is the hardest because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying.” –Ken Follett
I highly recommend that you define your document before you begin to write. This is an integral step and super helpful in the writing process. Don’t skip it and learn to embrace it.
Contrary to popular belief, outlining isn’t confined to assignments you might have had in school. It’s of great value in the business world as well. Think of outlining as the blueprint for your technical document. You wouldn’t build a house without a pre-plan, would you? An outline helps you to organize your message. Start simple: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Weave in your research throughout.
For technical outputs, outlining works well. For cross-functional and complex documents, mapping can be more effective. Outlining and mapping are similar, but mapping is less linear. Mapping is a research-based method centered on both audience needs and the purpose of the information being presented. Check out this tool for collaborative mapping.
The two strategies will allow you to see content and structure, and verify these before you start drafting. The end goal for both is coherent writing. Try one out and see which works for you. To cope with information overflow, Evernote is a great tool to help organize your research.
Step #3: Let the writing begin!
"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple." –Jack Kerouac
"I write to discover what I know." –Flannery O'Connor
"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." –Thomas Jefferson
With your plan in place, follow the guidance of the best-known contemporary and classic authors, and just write. Put fingers on keys, and enjoy the process. Begin writing in whichever way is best for you, and then write some more. Trust that you followed the right path and let that confidence power you through your writing style.
Step #4: Edit, edit, edit
"Half my life is an act of revision." –John Irving
This final step is full of double, triple, and quadruple checks. And it doesn’t end there. This is the time to bring in your testers. Technical writing is a collaborative effort, and input from others is imperative. Welcome the feedback and don’t be offended. Go through this checklist:
- Did you meet the needs of your intended audience and content goal(s)?
- Are the complex ideas and technical concepts easy to understand?
- Is the content categorized and sequenced appropriately?
- Did you include helpful visuals or graphics?
- Are you using good grammar from beginning to end? Some writers get lazy in the latter parts. Every sentence should be perfect.
- Is it written with clarity and brevity?
- Are you using active voice vs. passive voice?
- Are you including positive statements?
- Did you avoid long sentences?
In this Age of Information, there are lots of helpful tools that you can rely on for quick expert advice to write stronger technical content. Check out these: Grammarly, Missing/Misused Commas, and Write Like Hemingway.
Bonus Step: Take a technical writing course
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway
If you’re serious about technical writing, honing your technical writing skills, and creating strong technical communication, you will want to leave no stone unturned in your learning.
Gain new insight into the definition of a technical writing process by enrolling in a technical writing course.
The more you can glean from the experts, the better your technical documents. Plus, you'll receive individualized feedback on your technical content which helps you hone those specific communication skills as a tech writer.