Guide to Technical Writing

Everything you need to know about becoming a better technical writer in one place.


Technical writing is a rare but highly sought-after skill. Whether you're an admin or an executive, there is always a demand for technical writing, so we've created this Guide to Technical Writing for you and your team to develop a stronger technical writing foundation.

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Technical writing is a valuable skill with significant job opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a 5.5% employment growth for technical writers between 2021 and 2032. According to, the average salary for a Senior Technical Writer ranges from $83,200 to $101,100, with an average base salary of $91,800.

Maybe you are an engineer or scientist who needs to communicate your technical knowledge. Or maybe you want to become a full-time technical writer for a company. Whatever the case, strengthening your technical writing skills is a worthwhile endeavor. 

Below is a complete guide to technical writing — from a clear technical writing definition to tips on how to improve your technical writing skills.

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.

However, today’s definition is more nuanced than that. No longer bound to lengthy user manuals, technical writing is the art of documenting and explaining complex technical information unambiguously.

It includes:

  • reports
  • executive summary statements
  • briefs
  • technical emails
  • press releases
  • policies and procedures



This type of writing is often found in industries such as high-tech manufacturing, engineering, biotech, energy, aerospace, finance, IT, and global supply chain. At the end of the day, you are most likely performing technical writing if you work in a technical field.

Purpose of Technical Writing



The purpose of technical writing is to break down complex ideas and information into easy-to-understand tasks or explanations for the reader. This straightforward writing style clearly informs the reader on a topic (even if they are a non-technical audience or have a lower knowledge level). 

Based on this purpose, technical writers must closely examine their target audience’s mindset and knowledge levels. They also must understand what the reader hopes to glean from the technical document. When writing, follow the adage of “explain it to me like I’m five.”

Your audience might fall into one or more of the following groups:


As the title denotes, this group has deep knowledge of the subject matter, product, or service; however, they need to know more. They are looking for info about a special topic. A good example is a doctor who reads a medical research paper to learn about a new type of cancer treatment.


These are the builders of the product. They are tasked with constructing or operating the product at hand. Technicians are viewed as the experts in their industries. The audience here may include a computer programmer or HVAC technician relying on a programming guide or repair manual to carry out their jobs.


This group handles the decision-making. Executives rely on the technical docs for the lowdown to move forward with a smart decision. They are often the funders of the product or program and need to remain current with key information. Corporate content may include stakeholder reports, business pitches, and proposals.


This cohort may be the easiest to define. These are the laypeople and end-users. We have all been made privy to tech documentation in this category. It can range from marketing communications like websites and ads to product user manuals and handbooks. Because this audience is composed of non-experts, technical writers need to keep their language basic.

Improving your technical writing skills for any audience and document type helps you become a more effective communicator. You then add more value to your company and career. Want to learn more about the return on investment for better writing? Use our ROI calculator to estimate potential savings and the impact of better writing training at your organization!


10 Types of Technical Writing


Once you understand your audience, you can break down technical documentation into three categories: end-user documentation, traditional technical writing, and technical marketing communications. 

Underneath these three categories, technical documents or technical communications take many forms. Here are 10 common types:

  1. User Guides/User Manuals

  2. Statements of Work

  3. Policies

  4. Standard Operating Procedure

  5. A Technical Email Sent to a Colleague

  6. Reports

  7. Specifications

  8. Bid Documentation

  9. Marketing Collateral

  10. API Documentation

Some of these documents overlap. Let’s look at each technical documentation type in detail and how to improve when you’re writing each one.

Download a copy of this technical writing guide so you can reference it later.

1. User guides/user manuals

A user guide or user manual is a how-to document. It breaks down key tasks and basic step-by-step instructions for the end-user to install, assemble, use, or troubleshoot a technical service or software. For example, you might receive basic assembly instructions for ARM core programming.

Here are a few types of user manuals:

  • Instruction manual

  • Product manual

  • Repair manual

  • Training manual

Most user guides/manuals are written with the assumption that the reader doesn’t have any technical knowledge about the topic.


2. Statements of work

A statement of work or SOW is a legally-binding document created for potential customers and breaks down the work management tasks of a project. It outlines a project’s purpose, resources, schedule, milestones, and costs. 

Below is how an SOW is typically set up:

  • Introduction

  • Purpose and objectives

  • Scope of work (limitations of work)

  • Schedule

  • Deliverables

  • Tasks

  • Milestones

  • Testing and compliance

  • Cost and payment terms

Acronyms should be spelled out in statements of work. These documents should also be written with clear, direct language (especially since you’re writing to potential customers).


3. Policies

A policy outlines procedures and standards of behavior for a specific scope such as a company, product, or project. It includes requirements for the company, product, or project to succeed. An example could be a cybersecurity policy at a company. 

Policies should be easy to understand, so try to use simple language rather than falling back on jargon.


4. Standard operating procedures

A standard operating procedure or SOP is a set of instructions on what steps to follow when performing some operational task. These steps ensure that:

  • laws, 

  • industry regulations, or a 

  • company's quality standards are met. 

For example, this type of document might be written for a blood bank to ensure the blood is stored and issued appropriately. SOPs are typically required in industries such as manufacturing, warehousing, and restaurants.

5. A technical email sent to a colleague

Technical writing isn’t limited to formal documents – technical emails also count! For example, you might email step-by-step instructions on how to transfer users to a license management account and how to assign licenses to a user. Or you might provide instructions on how to use a new software feature. 

Hint: follow the same best practices that you would with any email, such as including a greeting, bottom-line-on-top, headers, etc. Learn more about best email writing practices here.

6. Reports

A report details the results of a project. Common types of technical reports include:

  • feasibility reports

  • laboratory reports as a medical writer

  • annual reports

For example, an annual report is a comprehensive technical document that a company presents to its shareholders to describe its activities from the previous year. The formal document typically includes a report from the company's Chairperson, CEO, corporate info, mission statement, etc.


7. Specifications

Tech specifications outline how you're going to approach a specific problem or issue. It also details the need for a solution such as a system or a project. With specifications, you know the unknowns like potential risks or performance issues. Specifications help with collaboration, too, because you can agree on the specifications, which improves the timeline of completing a project and prevent costly mistakes.


8. Bid documentation

Bid documentation is technical documents that describe the elements of a construction project and are used to request proposals. Elements include:

  • estimates

  • specifications 

  • plans of a project 

It gives bidders or suppliers the necessary info to place bids.

9. Marketing collateral

Marketing collateral is a type of marketing communication that shows why your company, product, or online platform is the best on the market. It's not always technical, but it can be if you're sharing technical information such as software or hardware.

Types of marketing collateral include:

  • e-Books

  • case studies

  • white papers

For example, an e-Book titled "Guide to C++ for Software Engineers" would be technical marketing collateral.


10. API documentation

Application programming interface (API) documentation is a reference manual on effectively using and integrating API. It's written for technical users who want to move forward in their software development. It shares specialized knowledge and schemas for tasks for software programs. 

API documentation is also a big part of technical writing for computer science teams because it informs teams on how to connect and route different interfaces.

Learn how to write any technical document and receive instructor feedback on your actual writing.

Learn the best process for technical writing, and practice by constructing two different technical documents. Your instructor will provide detailed feedback on your actual writing.

Is Technical Writing the Same as Business Writing?


Technical writing and business writing are often used interchangeably but are not the same thing. In short, technical writing = neutral instruction. Business writing = clearly conveying both information and intent. 

Granted, these two techniques are similar. They are very reader-focused and overlap in their goal to be accessible. They require concise language and specific word choices. Both styles often use bulleted or numbered lists to clearly present info. 

But one is not interchangeable with the other. Business writing ranges from interpersonal to information to technical content. Technical writing overlaps with business writing when a business person needs to convey technical information. 

Another key difference is the tone toward the target audience. The tone of business writing can vary, depending on the reader and goal of the communication. For example, you may use a direct formal tone for an internal memo. Or you might use a professional but warm tone for an email to a new client. You must write clearly and the message should be accessible, but the tone changes based on the audience. 

Technical writing rarely changes tone because it aims to clearly and effectively explain something. Technical writing always has a neutral, competent tone. You’re not trying to persuade the reader to do something or develop a relationship. You’re using language to communicate instructions to the target audience effectively.


Follow a Technical Writing Process


No matter what technical doc you’re writing, technical writing doesn’t have to be complicated. We recommend following a specific writing process

This process gives you an exact framework for writing clearly and efficiently. Here are the exact steps to take when creating a technical document.

Step #1: Plan to plan ahead

Planning is the critical first step in creating a technical document. Before you ever start writing, cover the who, what, when, where, and why of the doc:

Understand your target audience. This dictates the content you create. Who is your reader? 

Map out the purpose of the document. The purpose(s) depends on the document type (e.g., user manual/instruction manual/user guide).

Write down when the project is due. As a technical writer, you have a dual role as a project manager. You will need to set up a timeline for review, QA, and creativity.

Other important aspects are the WHERE and WHY. Where is this document to be published? How will the document be distributed to your readers? What style guide should you follow? This will impact your sentence structure and formatting.  

The WHY here refers to the reason 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? 

Step #2: Create an outline or concept map

Map out the content of your document before you begin to write. We recommend creating an outline or concept map before drafting. 


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.


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. 

Check out this tool for collaborative mapping.

Technical Writing Mind Map Outline


The end goal for both outlining and concept mapping is coherent writing. Try one out and see which works best for you.

Step #3: Start drafting

Once you have your plan, you’re ready to write. Choose a quiet place free of distractions. Follow your outline or concept map.

Continue writing until the document is complete. If you have a solid plan, the writing part should be simple.

Step #4: Edit, edit, edit

Time to edit your technical document to ensure that there are no mistakes - both with the content and the sentences.

Also, ask for input from colleagues. For clear sentences, we recommend running your content through the Hemingway Editor. For grammar and spell check, we recommend using Grammarly.


5 Strong Technical Writing Examples


Need some inspiration for your technical documents? Here are five strong technical writing examples to help you write different types of technical content effectively.

1. End-User Manual

Adobe created an end-user manual or guide for newbies learning InDesign's features. The company provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the software to create beautiful graphic designs and elegant layouts.

Technical Writing End User Manual Example

It contains neatly organized content with a table of contents, headings, and subheadings. Users can start at the beginning of the guide, or visit each section individually, depending on their questions. Adobe also includes clear instructions and images for each topic. 

2. API Documentation

Stripe, the online payment processing company, provides comprehensive documentation on its API -- from Authentication to Request IDs.

Technical Writing API Documentation Example

Its documentation includes definitions, helpful core resources, information on products, and more. Categories are clearly organized with subcategories. Helpful API screenshots are also included on the side of the instructions. 

3. Annual Report

Below is an annual report created by Canadian Hearing Services (CHS). The 2020-2021 report includes an overview of CHS, its business activities, and in-depth financial information.

Technical Writing Annual Report Example

It updates shareholders on the company's condition while telling a story about how it pivoted during the pandemic. The content is polished and accurate, which is crucial as it's presented to a large audience. It also includes visuals and clear formatting, which keeps the reader engaged in the content. 

4. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 

The following SOP is for the Central Fire Protection District of Santa Cruz Counties' operating vehicles. It outlines the scope, purpose, definitions, etc., of using these vehicles to enforce safety laws and the safety of the drivers.

Technical Writing SOP Example

This SOP includes a brief overview of the document’s purpose (aka the Scope) at the top, so the reader knows what to expect before reading. The writer incorporated clear headings and white space by using bulleted lists and paragraphs to create digestible content.

5. White Paper

Redpoint Global created a white paper to explain the problem of brands connecting with customers through their preferred touchpoints. The white paper then offers a solution for using a customer data platform. 

Technical Writing White Paper ExampleThe white paper's title could be more descriptive and persuasive. But overall, it does a good job of outlining a specific problem and providing persuasive stats to support its arguments.

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10 Bad Technical Writing Examples


Not all technical documents are well-done. Have you ever read an instruction manual that was so confusing you couldn’t put the product together? Or maybe you’ve seen a diagram in a handbook that was more hindering than helpful. 

Avoid these same mistakes in your own writing. Below is a list of the top ten bad technical writing examples and how to fix each common mistake in technical documentation.

1. Indecipherable titles

A title is an opportunity to persuade your reader to read the entire document. If the title is long, pretentious, or filled with jargon, the reader will be too intimidated to even read the first page.

Here's an example of a poor title: The All-inclusive and Thoroughly Vetted Interdepartmental and Multi-functional Manual Pertaining to Optimal Performance of The Richards 77 of the Modular 3.3abx Series.

Keep your title concise and use plain, simple language. In this case, “The Richards-37 User Manual” would suffice.

2. Glaringly incorrect, absent, or poor-quality images

Visuals are one way to guide your reader through a complex concept. If a document is missing images or the images are fuzzy or poor quality, the reader is going to be frustrated and confused. 

Display modern and matching photos and images. Also, ensure that images are properly labeled. 

3. Confusing substance

As a subject-matter expert, it’s sometimes easy to use confusing language. But remember that technical documents are typically for readers who don’t know about the topic. 

Avoid writing hard-to-understand content that’s hazy in vocabulary, word order, or descriptions. Consider your audience's needs and make sure that your writing is direct, accurate, clear, and simple. If unsure of a sentence or instruction, run it by a non-expert. Use layman’s terms. 

4. Circular cross-reference

Circular cross-reference is when you reference a point of instruction in a doc, only to find that the last object references the first object, creating a closed loop. 

It’s never fun to have to dig around for the instructions. Assume the perspective of a non-expert and avoid this tactic.

5. No table of contents or index

A table of contents or index makes it easy for a reader to find a specific section in a document. They also orient the reader. Without one or the other, the reader must painstakingly read or scan a document page-by-page. 

With this in mind, include a table of contents or index to further meet the reader’s needs!

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6. Jargon overload

While industry words and acronyms might be understandable for you, the average reader probably won’t understand what you’re talking about.

Be aware of the terms that you use. As a general rule, avoid jargon. Acronyms are typically a “heads up” flag that calls for defining. It’s a good practice to spell out the acronym in parentheses the first time you use it. After that, use the acronym.

7. Poor punctuation

For obvious reasons, bad grammar, spelling mistakes, typos, and missing or incorrect punctuation should be avoided. These mistakes can hurt reader comprehension. It also doesn't look professional. Use grammar and spell check tools like Grammarly to catch any errors. 

8. Inconsistency in tone

The tone in technical writing should always be neutral and competent. Especially for collaborative documents, inconsistent tone can be a problem in technical docs. The tone might switch from direct to conversational. 

The primary author should set the tone for the entire piece. They will need to re-write portions of the text according to a single, established dominant tone that is evident throughout.  

9. Overly focused on the formal

Using overly formal language can be an immediate turnoff for your reader as it sounds arrogant. Be sure to write at the level of your readers. This is a fantastic readability tool to help with the effort.

10. Unclear antecedents

An unclear antecedent is when a sentence does not identify to which noun a subsequent pronoun refers. It is burdensome in technical writing when the reader must comprehend every point. Grammarly should help you catch this common error.

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7 Tips for Effective Technical Documentation


You’ve got a clear writing process to follow. You also now have good and bad technical writing examples to help you write. Improve your technical communications even more by following these tips:

1. Be specific and accurate

Technical writing is often used to map out complicated processes. If a step or detail is omitted or vague, your document could cause major damage. Nothing matters more in technical documentation than accuracy and specificity.

Here’s an example: a plastic-producing company client reached out to Instructional Solutions after losing their largest customer when a polymer the company produced broke down at a particular temperature. 

Instead of overtly stating the acceptable temperature breakdown point for this type of polymer, the SOP simply stated, "test for acceptable heat tolerance." Each testing engineer had a different understanding of what “acceptable heat tolerance'' was. Underperforming products were produced and shipped. Money was lost, and the technical writer who wrote the section lost their job.

2. Review your company’s technical documents

Spend some time looking at the technical documentation put out by your company. What kind of documentation is it? Who is the audience for each document, and what is their knowledge level? 

This process will get you out of your own head (which is full of content knowledge) and into the mind of your potentially very varied readers.

3. Follow a style guide

Look into the style manuals or writing conventions of your company. Do they use another writing style manual or have their own? Is there a set of writing rules? This process is going to help you start thinking about technical writing in a way that fits your company.

4. Focus on organization and sequence

Your technical document’s framework is almost as important as the information itself; Without coherent organization and sequencing, none of your details, clear examples, photos, etc., will be helpful to your reader.

Create your document framework by following these two steps:

  • Categorization. Break up your document into logical sections. 

  • Sequencing. It's critical that you put each of your topics or sections in a logical order. 

The right sequence depends on the type of technical document.

Consider your readers’ topic understanding, and guide them in a clear way. Every sequencing decision should be intentional; never leave your technical document details in a stream-of-consciousness format.

5. Use active voice

The active voice is easier to read and understand than the passive voice. Whenever possible, choose the active voice in your sentences. 

6. Ensure clear formatting 

The style of the technical document carries over to the formatting stage. The formatting should be clean and professional. Well-chosen, readable fonts, sizing, and layout will assist the reader in understanding the text. 

Make the content easily digestible for the reader. Break up chunky paragraphs (over seven lines) with paragraph breaks.

7. Implement a review process

Ensure that your technical document is reviewed by others when your personal review is complete. The reviewer could be a peer, a supervisor, or a subject matter expert.

This review cycle will vary depending on the company or client. Each review will refine and improve the document. Therefore, a lengthier or more critical document will require additional rounds of review.

This review process is also valuable to you as a technical writer. External feedback will improve not only the current text but also your writing in the future.



Technical writing is a highly profitable skill — whether you’re making a career shift to a technical field or adding this ability to your current role. Any employee who can convey technical information at work is very valuable to a company. Investing time and money to hone your technical writing craft benefits you and your career in the long term.

Get in-depth writing training with Instructional Solutions. Instructional Solutions has been delivering online business and technical writing courses since 1998, following optimal online and adult learning principles. 

Download a copy of this technical writing guide to use the next time you're writing or reviewing a technical document.

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