What is Technical Writing? [New Definition for 2018]
By Tom Dupuis (Instructional Solutions)
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 will 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
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Frankly, this definition has become outdated.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, 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.
Business writing is a broader category. It can be argued that technical writing falls under business writing. It deals with many of the same topics and documents.
Yet the process and outcomes of technical writing are unique. In the rest of this post, we will explore exactly what a technical writer does. We will review examples of technical writing and what you need to do to become a professional technical writer.
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.
They often work on multidisciplinary teams functioning as the mediator between the more technical staff and less technical reader. They will work closely with these teams to develop a communications strategy.
Their responsibilities often extend beyond just writing. They must understand the entire project from high-level goals to the intricacies of implementation.
How Do You Become a Technical Writer?
Technical writing can be a lucrative full-time profession. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the average salary of a technical writer in the United States is $69,850 a year. Glassdoor estimates salaries start around $41,000 and increase to $91,000 (135k in some states) for senior technical writers.
Documents Written by a Technical Writer
Your job and industry will dictate exactly what type of materials you will write.
Here is a list of the documents you could be expected to write in a technical manner:
- Technical Reports
- Emails conveying technical information
- User Interface Text
- Guides and User Manuals
- Press Releases
- White Papers & Case Studies
- Executive Summaries
- Balanced Scorecards
- Product Descriptions
At first, it may be overwhelming to see so many different types of 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.
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 communcate 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 clearly convey a concept that you have not mastered. Many technical writers have academic or workplace 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.
You may be responsible for adding graphics to complement your document.
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.
Additionally, they can utilize planning, writing, and editing tools used by business writers. We have compiled a list of our top business writing tools here.
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 the 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.
Industries That Use Technical Writing
Today technology has expanded into every facet of business. Companies continue to develop ever more technical processes in search of higher efficiency and profit.
Below is a list of industries where strong technical writing is required.
- Biotech & Pharmacy
- Energy and Chemical
- Information Technology
- Financial Services
- Government & Nonprofit
- Supply Chain
How to Improve Your Technical Writing Skills
You don’t need to have the title of “technical writer” to utilize technical writing skills in the workplace. If you work for a company that deals in highly skilled or technical or analytical work, you likely already conduct technical writing.
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 emphasise 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 quickly boost your writing skills. 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 workshop) make sure to check out our guide on how to choose an online business writing course.
All our technical writing courses come with award-winning instructor feedback. You can view our technical writing course here.
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 opportunity. For example, does the course require you 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 Role of Technical Writing
We hope this guide has helped you to understand the role of a technical writer. The goal of a technical writer is to enable your readers to understand a highly complex process or concept clearly.