Understanding Technical Writing

A good definition for “technical writing” is simplifying the complex. To accomplish this seemingly simple action, a writer must employ skills and techniques to communicate information from numerous fields of human endeavor.  Technical writing can be considered a component of technical communication. Its primary intention is to share detailed information with a reader who must complete an objective technical procedure.

Related: Is business writing the same as technical writing?

Technical Writers – Past and Present

To fully understand the profession of technical writing, we must look into the definition of the word technical. It means:

  • Having to do with a specific topic, craft, or related techniques.
  • Relating to either applied and industrial sciences.
  • Resulting from a mechanical failure.
  • Applying firmly to formal rules and guidelines.

These definitions clearly indicate that technical writing goes hand-in-hand with the written word.  The modern understanding of technical writing and communication – and its role as a professional pursuit – emerged during World War I. That conflict saw rapid technical innovation in wartime weaponry, production, and communication. These days, people tend to envision computer user manuals when they think of technical writing, which isn’t the field’s full extent. Technical writing can be employed in any industry or discipline where complicated concepts and processes must be explained.

Another definition comes from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That bureau says that technical writers “put technical information into easily understandable language.” They also state that while they are generally employed in “information-technology-related industries” there is an increasing number of technical writers outside the tech sector that provide explanatory writing “in a diversifying number of industries.”

What Should Technical Writing Accomplish

A quality technical writer should aim to relay applicable, clear, high-utility information to a targeted readership. Good technical writing should facilitate specific actions from its reader to achieve a particular objective. This goal could be:

  • Effectively using a type of software
  • Safely using industrial machinery
  • Responsibly consuming perishable food
  • Accurately diagnosing a medical ailment
  • Operating in compliance with the law
  • Coaching a team of athletes
  • Any number of other high-skill activities

In short, any skilled or specialized activity requires technical writing for broad dissemination.

Be aware, technical writing geared towards a general reader is only a tiny part of technical communication. Many institutions produce reams of technical writing to disseminate company processes, product specs, new initiatives, sales and service guidelines, and administrative policies. The  Society for Technical Communication, a prominent association representing technical writers, caters to these different subgroups and a series of special interest conferences.

The Different Categories of Technical Writing

In the large field of technical communication, technical writing is the largest category.  Working with many partners – from graphic designers to content analysts – these writers create a broad spectrum of work. These include:

  • Case studies
  • Catalogs
  • Compliance specifications
  • Contracts
  • Customer Service scripts
  • Design materials
  • Employee training documents
  • FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
  • Instructional media
  • Instructions
  • Online help resources
  • Online Training Media
  • Packaging content
  • Policy papers
  • Project materials
  • Reference guides
  • Release notes
  • Simulations and product demos
  • User instructions and guidance
  • Warning disclosures
  • Website content
  • White papers
  • Workflow processes

Timelines of Technical Writing

The development timeline for technical writing is analogous to the timeline for product development:

  • Determining goals, readership, and scope
  • Preparation
  • Research and preliminary writing
  • Review, proofing, and revision
  • Delivery and distribution
  • Reader response
  • Updates or discontinuance

Integrated Technical Communications

The last 20 years have seen major changes in the discipline of technical writing. In particular, the way these institutions research, compile, and distribute technical writing has shifted. Consequently, many professional groups are turning to integrated technical communications, which efficiently organizes a unified technical communication process. These organizations also develop content management strategies that bring together all communication outputs: technical content, promotional material, internal communication, and messaging for customers and partners.

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