Technical writing is any writing about technical information. It can include, but is not limited to, preparation of technical manuals and handbooks about technology.
Technical writers need to have good writing skills, because they have to convey complex information. They also need a reasonable understanding of technology, because it is hard to explain something that you do not understand.
This page explains what we mean by technical writing, and discusses the skills required by technical writers.
What is Technical Writing?
Traditionally, technical writing focused on the documentation of processes, including through instruction manuals. However, the description is now broader.
There is no very precise definition (see box), but the term has come to mean any writing related to technology or technical processes.
Some definitions of technical writing
Technical writing is performed by a technical writer (or technical author) and is the process of writing and sharing technical information in a professional setting [Wikipedia]
Technical writing is simplifying the complex [Techwhirl.com]
Forms of technical writing may include white papers, instruction manuals, handbooks and product descriptions. Some people suggest that technical writing can also include press releases, reports, briefs and business proposals. These may certainly need some technical input. However, they are not usually written by technical writers.
The distinction is probably that these documents mention technology, but their purpose is not to simplify technology per se. For example, a press release may be about a particular piece of technology, and it may need to explain it simply, but its purpose is to ensure that journalists write about the technology.
An illustrious history
Technical writing has been recognised as a profession since the 1940s, and it expanded exponentially with the spread of computers during the second half of the twentieth century.
However, its history dates back much further. It could be argued, for example, that many of Leonardo Da Vinci’s papers are technical writing, since he was discussing and explaining technology. Some people also cite Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on an Astrolabe as an early example of a technical document, and suggest that much of Aristotle’s writing was technical in its nature.
Technical Writing Style
Like any other form of writing, technical writing has its own particular style.
It tends towards:
Simplicity and conciseness
You may find this hard to believe if you have ever read a computer manual, but technical writers spend a considerable amount of time and effort keeping things as simple as possible. They try to keep their writing short, and also use short words and sentences to make documents easier to read. They also use the active voice, rather than passive, and avoid the use of jargon.
Technical writing aims for clarity above all.
A Word About Jargon
Avoiding jargon is difficult if you are an expert in your field.
However, many technical writers have the advantage that they are NOT necessarily experts in the technology. Instead, they are experts in writing.
Even so, as you become familiar with a subject, jargon tends to creep in. Avoid this by reading your work over carefully, or getting a non-technical colleague to review your writing to check it makes sense to someone with less knowledge.
You may also find it helpful to read our page on Using Plain English.
The second characteristic of technical writing is its accuracy. There is no room for ambiguity or errors in a technical document. Users do not want to be making expensive errors because the documentation was incorrect.
Technical writers therefore need to check everything.
If in doubt, the accuracy of a sentence must be checked with someone with more knowledge.
Ultimately, every piece of writing should be written with its audience in mind. However, this is perhaps even more true of technical writing, because you need to consider your audience’s subject knowledge, which may vary widely. A document written for experts will be very different from one written for the general public.
There is more about this in our page Know Your Audience.
An objective, fact- and task-based approach
Technical writing is not emotive in style. It uses a very objective, fact-based approach, because it aims to convey information.
In technical writing that aims to convey instructions, documents will also be very task-based. They will focus on giving readers the information that they need to complete the task as easily as possible.
Careful consideration of design issues
Technical writers often have to do more than simply write. They also have to consider the design of their document to make it easier to read.
This includes the layout on the page, and the use of headings, subheadings, bullet points and numbered lists to break up the document. All these facilitate finding information rapidly, which is crucial in a technical document.
Technical writers also have to consider the use of illustrations such as pictures, graphs and tables as a way to convey information.
There is more about this in our page on Presenting Data.
They may therefore be considerably expert in using statistical tools and software to prepare technical illustrations.
Skills Required by Technical Writers
Technical writers require a wide range of skills. Many of these are similar to other writers, but there are also some very specific skills needed.
Technical writing skills include:
Extremely good written communication skills, and especially the ability to convey complex information in simple language, and to write very clearly.
An ability to grasp a technical subject quickly. Technical writers are not experts in everything. However, they usually have the ability to pick up and grasp technical subjects rapidly. They need to be able to understand enough to explain the issue simply to others.
A broad knowledge of technology. Technical writers usually have a broad but shallow understanding of a wide range of technology issues. This allows them to knit their knowledge together effectively with new information, and set their work in context.
A recognition of what they don’t know. Technical writers need to be able to consult with experts or do further research when necessary. They therefore need to understand the limitations of their own knowledge.
Knowledge and skill in various computer packages, including statistical software and design/illustration packages.
Good proofreading and editing skills. Finally, technical writers need to be able to read over their own documents and identify typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Technical documents need to be free of these errors, and look professional.
A Growing Area of Writing
Technical writers are needed to bridge the gap between technical experts and the general public, to explain technology in simple terms. As technology becomes even more complex, including through the use of artificial intelligence, this need will only grow.
Developing the skills needed to become a technical writer could well be a good investment in your future.