Technical Writing: What Is It?

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

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

20 thoughts on “Technical Writing: What Is It?

  1. Technical writing need to be very obvious for what the writer want to say and express what in his mind, choosing the words carefully in order to make the readers on the stage.

  2. I’m a little bummed about technical writing. I used to do a lot of it at my last job and am very good at transforming documentation to user level. Unfortunately, I’ve had no technical training, so I can’t get a job doing it. Would love to though.

    Good luck to all.

  3. I am B.E.(Med. Electronics) graduate,want to do the Technical Writing Course,please guide me,weather this will be helpful to make my career bright or not?Need Suggestion.

  4. I would like to know the ropes of technical writing and how to get started. I would like to know what goes in and what stays out when this form of writing is attempted. could someone please assist me. from where I come, there are very few tech writers and even fewer places to learn this

  5. Technical writing covers a lot of territory, ranging from a quick-start card for a new software application to a manual for a new semi-conductor process hundreds of pages in length to a help file for an accounting program.

    As a tech writer you are usually part of a product development team and must work not only with the engineers and/or programmers designing and implementing the new software application or other new technology, but often must also deal with an assortment of quality assurance (QA), marketing, safety and executive personnel. By far, writing and maintaining documentation constitute the majority of what most technical communicators do. You are busy learning the new product in preparation to start outlining and writing the manual, help file, or other documentation.

    Think just when you have finished the docs and think you are through with the project for a while, you find that a new patch or release of the software or new features are being added to a product, and you must rewrite parts of the documentation in order to maintain the documentation adequately.

    I’ve been technical writer for the last 7 years doing some part-time testing, project management and some HR consultancy. What I like most about this profession is the interaction with people and the fact that I always have to be “in trend” with new technologies, to learn products and understand bthe target audience in order to write clear and concise documentation for end users.

    What I suggest for someone interested in this job is to search for a company hiring Junior Technical Writer. All details you find on teh Internet about tech writing could be coonfusing. The best way to learn tech writing is to find a junior tech writer job.

  6. Even technical communicators/writers sometimes are at odds about how broad the field of technical communication can be — that's why checking out the breadth and depth of work that is represented within STC may help you.

    Some of us claim that we have always been one — just used different titles over the years. Some of us have held the title instructional designer or learning specialist and trainer, usability specialist, manager, information architect, programmer, policies and procedures, proposal/grant writer, journalist, etc. Some of us have experience in computer science and technology, health care and medical writing, scientific research, environmental studies, occupational safety, accessibility, cross-cultural communication, education, quality management, translation and localization, social media and communication, and organizational development.

  7. Hi, I am a at present not working. I now want to work from home. I would like to know more about this technical writing as a career. Could you kindly guide me please.

  8. Austin, if your school has a career counselor, you might want to show him or her the message you posted above, and ask for tips on how to make such a request more professional and effective.

  9. I would like to know more about this topic. I am 18 and am extremely interested in this line of work, and would be very greatful if I recieved a response. Please contact me through my Email and I will discuss this in greater detail. Also your work should contain more detail on the responsibilities of technical writers, and not the overall coordination of the job.

Leave a Reply to khalifa Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *