Technical writing is presenting information to help the reader solve a problem. Technical communicators write, design, and/or edit proposals, manuals, web pages, lab reports, newsletters, and many other kinds of professional documents.
While technical writers need to have good computer skills, they do not necessarily have to write about computers all their lives. “Technical” comes from the Greek techne, which simply means “skill”.
Every profession has its own specialized forms of writing. Police officers, lawyers and social workers all write specialized reports, and someone has to learn, perform, critique, and teach each one. Every major politician hires staff members to design, administer, and analyze surveys — and to write the secret reports that get leaked to reporters. Somebody has to design tax forms and the accompanying instruction books, assembly instructions for toys, and scripts for product demonstrations or multimedia presentations.
For a large project, a technical writer may work with a graphic designer, an interface designer, several computer programmers, and a staff of freelance writers to design a huge web site. For a small project, or for a small company, the tech writer may be expected to do all of the above, all alone.
The first rule of technical writing is “know your audience.” Writers who know their audiences well are in a position to suggest and implement solutions to problems that nobody else identifies. Whenever one group of people has specialized knowledge that another group does not share, the technical writer serves as a go-between. But technical writers are not just translators, accepting wisdom from experts and passing it on unquestioningly; they also are in the business of generating truth, by choosing what gets written, and for whom, with the full knowledge that later readers will depend on the accuracy of what has been written.
Whoever writes the first draft sets the agenda.
- Whenever I find myself writing the first draft of a collaborative document, about 80% of it gets published more or less as I drafted it. When other people show me their first drafts, I tend to change very little — unless I really care about the topic, or I have a lot of time on my hands.
- My sister is a computer programmer who, when she just started out, happened to distinguish herself by being very good at taking notes during meetings. Her colleagues began stapling her notes to the official minutes. As a result, she was in a key position to resolve disputes about what did or didn’t happen at a particular meeting, or to offer opinions about how a particular project was progressing. (These are the skills that enable employees to move out of the cubicles and into the offices with windows.)
- On the web, where the most senior people in an organization typically spend the least time on the Internet, younger webmasters can have a disproportionately large effect on the way the world perceives the organization.
- The web is mostly words. See: How Users Read on the Web.
Technical editing may involve working with brilliant researchers and scientists, who may be world-class experts in fluid dynamics or swine reproduction, but who may not know a paragraph from a participle. Some of these will be eternally grateful for your help, and others may resent your interference.
Good technical writers are also good teachers. They excel at explaining difficult concepts for readers who will have no time to read twice. Technical writers have an excellent eye for detail. They know punctuation, syntax, and style, and they can explain these rules to authors who need to know why their drafts need to be changed.
Although they typically work on their own for much of the time, they also know how to coordinate the collaborative work of graphic artists, programmers, marketers, printers, webmasters, and the various “subject matter experts” (SMEs), who know all the answers but have never bothered to write them down anywhere.
Some colleges offer a technical writing major. Other majors that will help you practice the necessary skills include English (including literature and creative writing), journalism, or any liberal arts degree that focus on reading and writing. (History, Spanish, philosophy, etc.)
Getting Started in Technical Writing
- Society for Technical Communication (STC): “…the largest professional organization serving the technical communication profession.”
- TECHWR-L: Home page for the technical writing mailing list.
Dennis G. Jerz
Feb 2000 — first posted
18 Nov 2002 — minor update
06 Dec 2002 — minor update
23 Apr 2008 — changed template
02 Jun 2011 — updated links
22 Aug 2019 — added graphic; removed broken links; added college advice