What is Technical Writing?
Are you looking to understand what technical writing is and how you can become more proficient?
Technical writing continues to be a highly coveted skill in the professional workplace. Demand is expected to grow at 10% from 2014 to 2024. This is faster than the average for all occupations.
In this article, we cover the exact definition of technical writing. We also show you an average day for a technical writer, how to improve your skills when writing complex documents, and why the field is quickly changing.
Traditional definition of technical writing
What is technical writing? The traditional definition of technical writing is:
Technical writing is the practice of documenting processes, such as software manuals or instructional materials. Traditionally, it was limited to user manuals of some sort.
Frankly, this definition has become outdated. Technology moves quickly, and lexicographers are often left playing catch up.
New definition of technical writing
Today, technical writing encompasses all documentation of complex technical processes. It includes reports, executive summary statements, and briefs. Any time technical information is conveyed in writing at work, it is, by definition, technical writing.
This can include high-tech manufacturing, engineering, biotech, energy, aerospace, finance, IT, and global supply chain.
The format is no longer bound to lengthy user manuals. Technical information must be distilled and presented unambiguously. This can come in the form of technical reports, emails, policy, briefs, and press releases.
The bottom line is if you work in a technical field you are most likely performing technical writing.
How is technical writing different than business writing?
The new definition starts to sound a lot like the definition of business writing.
However, a business writer focuses on business plans, case studies, e-books, and sales/marketing collateral. They are experts in strategy and business management.
In contrast, technical writers have a strong aptitude in the field of science, engineering, or IT. They are tasked with the compilation of technical documents such as instruction manuals and other instructional materials, guidebooks, technical product descriptions, and research reports.
There are quite a few differences between the two, which you can read about in this article.
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What is the job of a technical writer?
The job of a technical writer will differ depending on the industry and company that they are employed with. But the important task of a technical writer is taking the highly complicated and sometimes confusing subject matter, and putting it in a digestible format.
This is of particular importance in a variety of industries but specifically science or technology such as biotech, engineering, manufacturing, software, and healthcare.
Technical writers often work on multidisciplinary teams functioning as the mediator between the more technical staff and less technical readers. They will work closely with these teams to develop a communications strategy.
Their responsibilities can extend beyond just writing. They must understand the entire project from high-level goals to the intricacies of implementation.
Educational experience for a technical writer can vary, but the majority of professionals hold a BA in English with an emphasis in writing, journalism, communications, curriculum development, IT, software/computer, or engineering. Some also possess an MA in technical writing.
The bottom line is that whether accumulating related knowledge or expertise through formal education or hands-on job experiences, a good technical writer must be skilled in translating technical jargon into layman’s terms. Strong communication skills and technical writing skills are crucial.
Career outlook for a technical writer
Over the past couple of years, the workplace has undergone a revolution in terms of how we communicate with colleagues, clients, and end-users. Due to fewer face-to-face meetings, technology, and the written word have become more important. This is a perfect platform for the burgeoning of the field of technical writing.
Technical writing jobs are growing at a faster rate than average, at 12%. The salary range of a technical writer varies, but the average median wage is $61,671. A technical writer is defined as one who authors descriptive manuals and guides as it relates to the complex subject matter. Job duties include:
- Researching topics
- Writing technical documentation
- Editing for publications
- Revising technical documents (guidebook, reports, brochures, articles)
Types of technical writing
Check out the summary table below highlighting the differences in types of technical writing and industries that need these documents:
|Types of Technical Writing||Project Requirements||Major Industries in Need|
At first, it may be overwhelming to see so many different types of technical documents. But each document uses a similar writing process and draws on an established set of skills. If you develop a process, you can apply it to any technical document you are creating.
Photo Credit: British Library
A day in the life of a technical writer
Many excellent writers are intrigued by the work environment of a professional technical writer. They find the quiet and tranquility of the atmosphere as a genuine job perk. Being alone with just a computer for researching and crafting documents through a technical writing process appeals to the introverted. Writers from all corners of the globe share their love for a job that can be more of a passion.
When defining what technical writing is, it’s important to look at the persona of a technical writer and explore dominant character traits. Unsurprisingly, a professional in this field is marked as artistic and investigative. They are especially inquisitive. A fun fact is that Leonardo da Vinci is deemed the most famous technical writer of all time. Apparently, during the period of the Renaissance, he wrote ‘user manuals’ for his unique inventions.
As you further your understanding of technical writing and your technical knowledge, you may want to evaluate if it matches your personality type. It’s recommended to do a self-assessment and consider your personal strengths and talents when pursuing a new professional career.
Skills needed for technical writing
To be a successful technical writer, there is a core set of skills that you will want to master. Here are some of the most common skills needed to be successful:
Research is one of the first steps in technical writing. After you have an assignment, you will be responsible for collecting the data (numerical and non-numerical) and turning it into valuable information.
Research can come from a variety of places including:
- On-Site Data
- Online and Intranet Publications
- Libraries and Research Databases
After you have researched, you will need to synthesize and begin planning your document organization.
The technical information you research and gather has to be shaped for reader interest, understanding, and perception.
Technical writers often have to communicate highly technical information to a non-technical audience. Therefore, an early step in the most effective technical writing process is analyzing your audience carefully so you can match information to their needs.
Communication skills are imperative to be a successful technical writer. You will likely be working with multiple teams and individuals from differing roles.
Your ability to listen, record, and communicate will be crucial.
It is imperative that you understand the technical nature of the content you are writing about.
It is difficult to convey a concept that you have not mastered clearly. Many technical writers have academic or work experience in the topic they are writing about and many technical writers have job titles of engineer, geologist, seismologist, financial analyst, or business analyst. They are employed in technical positions and have to summarize information cross-functionally to other areas of the company.
Technical writing is slightly easier if you come from the technical side and are learning to write. It is sometimes more difficult if your background is in writing and you are trying to learn the technical content.
Excellent writing skills ensure your documents are easy to read and are free of errors. Writing encompasses many of the other skills on this list.
It is important that you have the correct tone, style, and format for your document.
Often these rules are outlined by the employing organization in a style guide.
It is important that the graphics aid the reader in comprehending the information. Graphs, tables, and charts are commonplace in technical reports.
You will also need to be proficient in formatting documents. The formatting should be professional and aid the reader in navigating the document. Headings should be easy to skim, and the content should be organized logically.
A poorly designed document will make it more difficult for the reader to understand the content. Document design is a key aspect of technical writing.
Fluency with digital tools
Today, writers must use multiple tools during the technical writing process. This often goes beyond basic text editors. Technical writers are expected to be able to create graphics and annotate images and screen captures and extract data from Excel and convey that data in charts and tables.
User research and testing
Some forms of technical writing may require user research and testing. An example application where detailed research and testing would be appropriate is a written guide instructing engineers how to fix a faulty mechanism on a deep ocean oil rig.
It is important that the documentation is easy to follow, especially if the application is crucial to a major function. To accurately write the guide, the writer may first observe how engineers solve the problem. They may use recording devices or just notes to write down the research. This type of research is closely related to testing.
Testing is necessary to ensure your document functions as intended.
After the writer has completed a draft of the document, they may give it to a test group to read. They can then observe the end users following the instructions in real-time.
They may follow up with a focus group or survey to get feedback on the usefulness of the document. They will use these real-world insights as they revise the document.
Even in less complex or critical applications, it is always a good idea to have a third party read over the text. This helps combat the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that an individual has when trying to explain something they already understand. As an expert, it is hard to put yourself in the shoes of a learner who is less experienced.
This is why having a second set of eyes look at the document can help alert you to areas that need to be improved.
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How to improve your technical writing skills
Here are several ways to improve your overall technical writing skills:
One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read. Reading helps you train your brain to understand how to write. The more you read, the easier writing will become for you.
It is critical that you are reading relevant and high-quality documents. Look for documents produced by competitors or writers in related industries. Examine their writing to determine how they organize information through written text.
Create a process
Having a process keeps you from “getting stuck” while writing. Having a clear workflow will help you systematically accomplish your work. We teach a specific process for technical report writing in our technical writing course.
Getting subjective and objective feedback on your writing is one of the fastest ways to improve your skills. That is why we emphasize individual feedback in all of our courses.
To improve your writing, you need someone to review not only the grammar and syntax but also your approach and methods as a writer.
To truly master technical writing you need to get feedback from a mentor. This may be someone in your organization or through a professional development group. Another great option if you are taking an online course is working with your instructor to improve your writing techniques.
Take a course
Taking a class can be one of the most efficient ways to boost your writing skills quickly. You want to ensure you are enrolling in a course that specializes in technical writing.
It is imperative that the course includes one-on-one feedback and instruction. If you are considering taking an online course (or hiring an instructor to conduct an on-site or virtual workshop) make sure to check out our guide on how to choose an online business writing course.
Repetition is the key to cementing your new skills. Look to incorporate new concepts into your work. You can even review old work to critique what you would do differently if you were to write the document today.
Verify that the course you take includes practice opportunities. For example, does the course require you to map the organization and sequence of a technical document? Since this is a core technical writing skill, you want to make sure you get professional feedback on your ability to do this.
The world is a tech writer’s oyster
Now that you know precisely what technical writing is, it is an easy path forward. For the curious, educated, and lover of being alone with a laptop and cup of joe, you may view the prospect of a technical writer as the perfect gig.
The future is bright and the availability of job opportunities is wide. This is the ideal position for those seeking a second promising career or fresh out of school and in search of a writing position that holds great promise. For professionals who claim techno-savvy combined with writing prowess, this is a time of opportunity. Check out the multitude of job openings and job titles in technical writing spanning industry segments.
Online courses can help you become a stronger technical writer, increase your knowledge level, and hone excellent writing skills. To get ramped up ASAP, enroll in a special technical writing course tailored to aspiring and seasoned technical writers.