What is Technical Writing?
Technical writing is one of those in-demand hard skills that will always stay relevant.
From people who need help with their gadgets to engineers who need assistance with using industrial-scale machines – technical documents help everyone digest complex information.
Regardless of who the audience is, technical information isn't always so easy to comprehend. To that end, subject matter experts work to distill all that information into easy-to-understand content, which falls under the broad umbrella of technical writing – a sought-after trait, the meaning of which has become blurry due to its vast applications.
If you're considering a career in technical writing, are conducting academic research, or are just curious to know what it is, keep reading. In this detailed article, we'll go into the nitty-gritty of this type of writing, its different shapes and forms, and how to build a career as a technical writer. If you're looking to learn via video, then see this resource:
Let's get started.
What is Technical Writing?
Technical writing is documenting complex, technical processes that are difficult to comprehend. It falls under the broad umbrella of technical communication, a sub-field of business communication.
According to the Society for Technical Communication (STC) – a professional association – "technical communication" is any form of communication that ticks the following boxes:
- Communicating about topics that are technical or have a very specialized focus
- Done by leveraging some form of technology, like web pages, social media, etc.
- Provide instructions to a clearly-defined audience through technical content
Compared to most forms of writing, technical writing is supposed to have a much more targeted audience. STEM fields such as computer science/information technology, engineering, biochemistry, medical sciences, physics, and finance greatly need technical communication.
This form of writing can have different goals, including, but not limited to:
- Unambiguously defining a process
- Explaining how to use a tool/machine
- Discussing the findings of a research
- Analyzing trends and forecasting something
The technical documents, videos, and other content, which are products of this type of writing, take many shapes and forms, such as user manuals, reports, FAQs, wiki pages, etc. (more on that later).
There is no universal style guide for technical writing. The formatting, writing style, tone, and level of difficulty are up to the organization or the person developing the content as well as the audience.
However, the goal for any technical writing is the same: to be as unambiguous as possible when defining a technical process or sharing the results of your findings.
If you're interested in learning more about the technical writing role and landing your dream technical writing job, then check out our Technical Writing Certification Course.
What Technical Writing Isn't
Any form of content that does not provide technical information in a meaningful, unambiguous, and targeted way is not considered technical writing.
Sticking with the conditions above can help provide some level of clarity. Still, it often becomes challenging to draw the line between technical writing and other forms of writing even then.
To be a bit more specific, here are some common examples of content that do not fall under "technical writing":
- Regular blog posts with non-technical content (on house decoration, management, or a personal journey)
- Any content explaining a technical concept when the audience doesn't have to apply that knowledge in a professional setting
- Promotional or entertaining content shared on social media
To a layperson, these distinctions may not seem that significant. However, to a technical writer or someone interested in pursuing this career, it's critical to know what the job entails and what it doesn't.
7 Common Types of Technical Writing
Historically speaking, technical writing was only limited to content developed for audiences associated with science and engineering.
Today, it encompasses a broad range of fields.
Furthermore, traditionally, technical writing only referred to reports, journals, and manuals. But as technology penetrated the different walks of life, the content took many shapes, such as explainer videos, infographics, etc.
To gain knowledge, spending too much time learning about the different media used to deliver the content isn't essential. What's important is to understand the types of technical writing, distinguished based on the goals they're meant to accomplish.
That being said, here are some of the most common types of technical writing:
The use of a technical product (like heavy-duty machinery, a handy tool, etc.) requires clear instructions on how to use it.
Since the audience of such products includes engineers, mechanics/technicians, and scientists, they must understand their technicalities, especially if they're not used to using them. Even the smallest error can potentially send thousands of hard-earned dollars down the drain.
Technical documentation is needed to communicate those instructions and ensure that the user doesn't make a fatal error. This is the most common type of technical writing and exists in the form of instruction manuals, maintenance checklists/guidelines, references, and engineering specifications, among others.
The content for software documentation has to be as straightforward and crystal-clear as possible to ensure the end-user comprehends it.
Additionally, technical documentation can also be in the form of a training video, provided that the narration or captions meet technical writing requirements.
Instructions for the End-User
This form of technical writing is very closely related to the previous one, as it pretty much accomplishes the same goal – to help the end-user.
The only distinctions between the two are target audiences and their intended products.
Unlike traditional technical documentation, these instructions aren't for highly complex, industrial-level machinery or equipment but day-to-day gadgets and software used by ordinary consumers and business professionals.
Examples of technical writing include the instruction manuals we get with our brand new smartphones, car handbooks, and enterprise software instruction videos.
The goal is to minimize tickets/requests for the customer service department, as the users will have everything they need to set up and get started with their product.
Technical Writers' Reports
Technical report writing encompasses a wide range of products.
In technical writing, these reports mainly refer to the documentation that keeps track of complex processes (such as a maintenance report) and product history.
They may also include financial/feasibility reports. However, some prefer placing them under a completely different category known as "business writing."
Technical reports follow strict writing and formatting rules determined by the organization preparing them. In some cases, those rules are set forth by an external party in case auditing is required.
Unlike most technical write-ups, these reports inform an internal audience (like a board of directors or a committee). In the case of feasibility reports, an external party, such as a potential investor, may view them.
Policies and Procedures
Every company has a set of policies and pre-determined formal procedures that the employees must follow to ensure productivity, create a safe working environment, and reduce liability risks.
Typically, technical writers prepare these policies under the supervision of a compliance officer or another member of the senior management.
Since they're for employees across the company (or a specific team), they have to communicate expectations in a very straightforward way.
Doing so can help avoid potential lawsuits and uphold the organization's reputation.
Business Plans and Proposals
Traditionally, technical writing didn't encompass business plans.
However, due to the extensive researching, number crunching, and laser-focused targeting that it entails, experts began considering it a part of technical writing.
For those with little or no experience with business writing, a business plan is a comprehensive document detailing the various strategies of a venture created for people who would be willing to invest.
A typical business plan includes details of the following:
- Business Introduction/Elevator pitch
- Business model
- Unique selling points
- Consumer research
- Competitor research
- Marketing strategy
- Financial projections/Feasibility report
A professionally-written business proposal can help an aspiring entrepreneur bag the capital they need to launch their venture.
A case study is a detailed documentation of a project, event, or process. Its purpose is to provide guidance, insights, or proof of something.
Case studies can be used for business and scientific or engineering purposes and can be on many topics. However, all case studies have one thing in common–they leverage data to identify patterns.
White papers are authoritative documents that present solutions to a complex issue.
Organizations publish them to discuss their philosophies on different matters for defined audiences. The goals of a white paper could include:
- To persuade the reader to adopt or invest in a particular solution (like a software, machine, or a crypto-currency)
- To establish the brand's authority within the industry
Although not necessary, creating a white paper also entails engaging in graphic designing.
How To Create Technical Writing
There are no strict rules for developing technical content. However, there are certain best practices that all technical writers should adhere to.
Here are the steps you should take to develop a technical piece of content:
Create (or Refer to) Personas
The first step in technical writing is to describe who you're writing the content for clearly.
That's because every type of technical content needs to be laser-focused on the audience it's intended for, as it helps choose the appropriate tone, select the right words, and drive the message home.
This entails creating detailed personas, including the age, occupation, level of education, and goals of the intended audience.
The next and perhaps most important step in technical writing is conducting extensive research and gathering data.
This involves scouring the web to collect relevant information.
Furthermore, technical writers must collaborate with other organizational stakeholders for highly complex projects despite being subject matter experts. This ensures that whatever information they present is a hundred percent accurate.
This doesn't apply to all forms of technical writing.
However, providing an ample amount of references for certain technical content – especially when sharing figures, making a claim, etc. – is recommended.
Doing so adds credibility to your content.
Speak Plain English
Last but not least, it's important to use internationally-acceptable English when writing in this language.
This especially applies to content that people may read from other corners of the world.
For instance, if you're a technical writer from the US, developing content for an international audience, avoid using local phrases/idioms that might confuse the readers.
Become a Technical Writer
In the US, technical writers are well-compensated, and rightly so. However, aspiring technical writers might face some trouble figuring out how to proceed with this career path.
Here's a quick roadmap that anyone can use to launch a glorious career in technical writing:
- Seek Relevant Education/Training – Before worrying about anything else, make sure that you have the right background and relevant skillset for the job. Belonging to a technical field is a huge plus, but not mandatory. In any case, start by investing in a technical writing course.
- Start Soaking Technical Content – Good technical writing rests on strong research. To become better at what you do, start consuming the type of content you're interested in. Figure out how the writers present their thoughts (and what you can do to improve them).
- Develop and Sharpen In-Demand Skills – Naturally, you should be a great technical communicator (i.e., you should enjoy explaining complex concepts in easy words). To that end, strong communication skills are mandatory. Experience with document design/graphic designing is also a huge plus.
- Develop a Portfolio – Practice makes perfect. Put your technical writing skills to use and start developing technical content as a hobby. Additionally, create an online portfolio that you can instantly share with recruiters.
Finally, start applying for technical writing jobs. Connect with recruiters from top tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple on LinkedIn and start creating a name for yourself in the industry.
Final Thoughts on Technical Writing
Technical writing is a sought-after skill, the demand for which will continue to grow in the years to come. If you have a knack for writing, talking about difficult, complex concepts, and understanding certain subjects' nuances, you can potentially build a lucrative career in this field.
What is technical writing in simple words?
Technical writing is documentation that deals with a particular subject matter within a specialized field. It is used to instruct or guide people on how to do something, often related to work procedures and tasks. Technical writing focus on simplifying complex information.
What are technical writing and its purpose?
Technical writing is the documentation where technical writers simplify complex information. Technical writers create user manuals, how-to guides, assembly instructions, and other documentation to communicate complex information more effectively. They convert complex information into the layman's language
Its purpose is to help better understand complex material by making it easier to follow and digest. A technical document enables the readers to easily comprehend technical information.
What are some examples of technical writing?
Technical writers work for a particular industry. Here are some examples of technical writing:
This type of writing enables users to understand the usage and interaction of software products. UX writers work on software documentation and create content for software products like mobile apps, desktops, or websites.
Grant writing is the writing that involves applying for funding from organizations or government bodies. The objective of this type of writing is to get financial support for non-profit organizations or individuals. Grant writers have an in-depth knowledge to write successful grants.
Proposal writing is a type of technical writing used to persuade potential customers or clients to accept a particular product or service. This type of writing is common in businesses and is used to win new contracts or clients. It enables organizations to get funding for their projects from donors.
API (Application Programming Interface) writing involves providing instructions on how to use a particular software program or application. It is a type of technical writing that is used by developers to create software applications.
What is the meaning of a technical writer?
A technical writer communicates technical or specialized topics to their audience. They are trained to understand and simplify complex information and present it in a way that is easy for consumers to understand. A good technical writer also understands their target audience and writes content that is relevant and engaging. They also play a key role in the document lifecycle.
They contribute to user stories, participate in design reviews, and document the product requirements. Technical writers work with SMEs (subject matter experts) to gather accurate information and convert it into user-friendly documentation. Technical writers are also involved in the Agile Scrum process. Unlike Waterfall, agile is an iterative process where the content is created in short sprints. It means that the technical writer has to be flexible and be able to adapt their writing style to the ever-changing product.
If you are new to technical writing and are looking to break-in, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn the fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.