Technical writing is one of those in-demand hard skills that will always stay relevant.
From ordinary citizens who need help with their gadgets, to engineers who need assistance with using industrial-scale machines – technical writing helps everyone digest complex information.
Technical information – regardless of who the audience is – 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 refers to documenting complex, technical processes that are difficult to comprehend. It falls under the broad umbrella of technical communication, which itself is 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, and is mostly needed in STEM fields such as computer science/information technology, engineering, biochemistry, medical sciences, physics, finance, etc.
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 is up to the organization or the person developing the content – which should ideally be based on the comprehension level of the audience(s).
However, the goal for any type of technical writing is the same – to be as unambiguous as possible when defining a technical process or sharing 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 is NOT
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 aforementioned conditions can help provide some level of clarity, but even then it often becomes difficult to draw the line between technical writing and other forms of writing.
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 topics like house decoration, management, personal journey, etc.)
- Any infotainment content that explains a technical concept, but the audience doesn’t necessarily 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 referred to reports, journals, and manuals only. But as technology penetrated the different walks of life, the actual content took many shapes, such as explainer videos, infographics, etc.
For the sake of gaining knowledge, spending too much time on learning about the different media used to deliver the content isn’t important. What’s important is to understand the types of technical writing, which are distinguished on the basis of the goals they’re meant to accomplish.
That being said, here are some of the most common types of technical writing:
1. Technical Documentation
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 include engineers, mechanics/technicians, and scientists, it is imperative that they understand their technicalities, especially if they’re not accustomed to using them. Even the smallest error can potentially send thousands of hard-earned dollars down the drain.
To communicate those instructions, and ensure that the user doesn’t make a fatal error, technical documentation is needed.
This is the most common type of technical writing, and exists in the form of instruction manuals, maintenance checklists/guidelines, references, and engineering specification, among others.
The content for software documentation has to be as straight-forward 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 the captions meet the requirements of technical writing.
2. 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 on the basis of their target audiences and the products they’re intended for.
Unlike traditional technical documentation, these instructions aren’t for highly complex, industrial-level machinery/equipment, but for day-to-day gadgets and software used by ordinary consumers and business professionals.
Examples of this form of technical writing include the instruction manuals we get with our brand new smartphones, handbooks for laptops, and instruction videos for enterprise software.
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.
3. Technical Reports
Technical report writing encompasses a wide range of products.
Strictly speaking, in the context of technical writing, these reports mostly refer to documentations that keep track of a 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 that are determined by the organization preparing it. In some cases, those rules are set forth by an external party in case auditing is required.
Unlike most forms of technical write ups, these reports are typically meant for an internal audience (like a board of directors or a committee). In the case of feasibility reports, they may also be shared with an external party, such as a potential investor.
4. 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 risks of liability.
Typically, these policies and procedures are prepared by technical writers, under the supervision of a compliance officer and/or another member of the senior management.
Since they’re intended for employees across the company (or a specific team), they have to communicate what’s expected in a very straightforward and unequivocal way.
Doing so can help avoid potential lawsuits and uphold an organization’s reputation.
5. Business Plans/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, and is 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.
6. Case Studies
A case study is a detailed documentation of a project, event, or a process/experiment. Its purpose is to provide guidance, insights, or proof of something.
Case studies can be used for both business and scientific/engineering purposes, and can therefore be on a wide range of topics.
However, all case studies have one thing in common – they leverage data to identify patterns.
7. White Paper
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 brand’s authority within the industry
Although not necessary, in addition to writing the technical content, creating a white paper also entails engaging in graphic designing.
How to Write Technical Documentation
To reiterate, there are no strict rules when it comes to 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:
1. Create (or Refer to) Personas
The first step in technical writing is to clearly describe whom you’re writing the content for.
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, which should include the age, occupation, level of education, and the goals of the persons the content is intended for.
2. Keep it Laser-Focused
The next and perhaps the most important step in technical writing is to conduct extensive research and gather data.
This involves scouring the web to collect the relevant information.
Furthermore, despite being subject matter experts, technical writers are also expected to collaborate with other stakeholders within the organization for highly complex projects. This ensures that whatever information they present is a hundred percent accurate.
3. Use Ample References
This doesn’t apply to all forms of technical writing.
However, for certain technical content, providing an ample amount of references – especially when sharing figures, making a claim, etc. – is recommended.
Doing so adds credibility to your content.
4. Use Appropriate English
Last but not least, it’s important to use internationally-acceptable English when writing in this language.
This especially applies to content that may be read by people 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.
The Roadmap to Becoming a Full-Time 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 is based 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, Apple, etc. on LinkedIn and start creating a name for yourself in the industry.
All things considered, technical writing is a sought-after skill, the demand of which will continue to grow in the years to come.
If you have a knack for writing, talking about difficult/complex concepts, and understand the nuances of certain subjects, you can potentially build a lucrative career in this field.
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 fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.