The Art and Science of Technical Writing

Like many terms, technical writing is defined in different ways, but most definitions tend to agree on one central principle. Technical writing is the art and science of translating technical information generated by subject matter experts into readable, accessible information usable by a wider audience. If you have ever read the user's manual for a piece of software or equipment that you've purchased, you've seen technical writing in action. Creating user manuals, help, technical support documents, online help systems, and instruction manuals are some of the main projects technical writers take on. Since nearly every business in every industry imaginable has at least an occasional need to bring technical information to its users and customers, technical writing is found in nearly every business, governmental, and non-profit arena.

Who does technical writing? Depending on a company's size and needs, it may hire one or more full time technical writing specialists, or it may occasionally hire contract writers or outsource writing needs to freelance writers or agencies. In other cases, engineers, developers, project managers, and others involved in the creation of a product will be called upon to create user documentation and training materials for the product they are developing. If the term technical writing is defined a bit more broadly, it can include marketing and public relations materials, brochures, sales letters, and trade articles. Indeed, in any situation where a complex product, service, or feature must be explained in simple terms, technical writing skills will come into play.

Some of the fields in which technical writing is commonly needed include the computer and software industries, the consumer and industrial electronics industries, the medical and healthcare fields, and any other area where technical information needs to be disseminated in a readable and understandable form. In the United States and other developed countries, where knowledge industries, whose primary products are information based, companies are faced with the task of organizing and maintaining vast knowledge banks and databases. Companies like Google, for instance, do not produce products but instead package information in useful, usable forms. New content management systems and knowledge management systems are being designed to help companies manage their informational assets. In many cases, technical writers are moving into these roles as well.

Technical writing, then, can be a career, or just a part of your job description. Whether you are called upon to communicate technical information to clients and coworkers, or you are thinking of technical writing as a new and interesting career, this article is designed to help you get started. We'll talk more about the kinds of products technical writers get involved in, and discuss the kinds of skills that successful technical writing requires. We'll talk about ways to approach and organize a technical writing project, and look at the kinds of materials technical writers produce, from written manuals to video tutorials. If you love to write and are looking at technical writing as a viable career, we'll discuss ways of improving your skills set, getting training, and breaking into the field.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Technical Writing course?
Technical Writer or Technical Communicator?

More and more, technical writers don't just write. As documentation and training materials become more interactive and audiovisual media more transferable over the World Wide Web, a wide variety of materials, from video tutorials to podcasts, screencasts to video blogs, some say the term technical writer is outdated. Many practitioners in the field prefer the term technical communicator, which allows for the many other modes of communication besides writing that are available. In many ways, the term technical communicator speaks to the heart of the technical writer's job, communicating technical information successfully to less technical audiences. Still, some people prefer to be called technical writers, or just tech writers, as the term technical communicator is somewhat vague and a bit of a mouthful. For purposes of this article, we'll use the two terms interchangeably, remembering that a technical writer can often do a lot more than simply write.
Technical Writing, A Viable Career?

The U.S. Government Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median salary for technical writers at $58,050, with the middle 50% of workers earning between $45,130 and $73,750 in May of 2006.

As technology continues to advance, and becomes involved more and more with our daily lives, the need for skilled technical communicators is expected to increase. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of jobs will grow 20% between 2006 and 2016.

Clearly, technical writing can be a financially rewarding career. As technical communicators continue to find ways to increase their value to organizations by improving communications and facilitating the management of knowledge, their earning potential can increase as well. In addition, technical writing offers a challenging, rewarding workday. Technical writers don't just write. They interview experts, collaborate with designers and production staff, participate in product testing and development, and manage large projects.
Let's talk more about the kinds of projects technical writers work on. As we've discussed before, nearly every industry involves some technical writing, especially if we include marketing materials under the technical writing umbrella. But here are some of the industries and projects that demand the greatest number of technical writers today.
Software Documentation

Generally speaking, software documentation is any written material associated with a software product. Two main categories of documentation include technical documentation and user documentation. Technical documentation is essentially a written translation of the code used to program a computer. To a large extent, technical documentation is written by the programmer as he or she writes the code. It is primarily intended for the programmer's use and is not distributed. Exceptions to this general rule include open source software, which other developers and programmers are allowed to modify, and API's, or application programming interfaces, in which developers design applications to run on existing platforms (examples include Facebook and Google applications).

Technical writers may become involved with generating or editing technical documentation in open source applications such as these, but most of the work that a technical writer will do in the software field will involve user documentation. Historically, software producers published hardcopy user manuals that shipped with their products. While some still do, many more primarily offer manuals as a pdf or other computer document. Some ship a basic "Quick Start Guide" consisting of a page or two of basic instructions, then offer a more complete manual in pdf format. Still more offer online help on their website in lieu of a printed manual.

Whichever format is used, technical writers are responsible for presenting user manuals and other help information that will help users successfully learn to use their company's products.
Hardware and Equipment
Most companies producing high tech equipment such as cell phones, mp3 players, and computers, handle documentation in a similar fashion, with a minimal hard copy manual or quick start guide included in the product packaging, a more complete manual on a CD or online, as well as online help. Less high-tech products such as home appliances and lawn and garden equipment still tend to come with manuals, though these have become shorter both due to cost constraints and to concerns that few people actually read long user manuals.
Automobiles and other vehicles generally include written manuals. Until the average person has access to the Internet while in the car, this will probably continue to be true.
Even when a company does print manuals for its products, the same information must generally be online for people who have lost the manual, or perhaps who bought the product second hand and didn't receive a manual. One of the challenges technical writers face is the responsibility for offering the same information in a variety of formats, both online and offline. Being able to write information only once that can be published in a wide range of formats, known as single sourcing, has long been seen as one of the holy grails of the technical writing industry. New technology is beginning to make single sourcing a possibility now, though, and we'll discuss more about this in a later lesson.
Training Materials
In addition to printed user information, technical writers often produce instructional materials intended to be used by trainers who teach people (either in person or remotely) to use a company's products. These instructional materials can include instructional videos, PowerPoint presentations, scripts for live training sessions, or multimedia presentations including several of these elements. Many business-to- business software companies, offering point-of-sale software, content management software, and others, offer live training in conjunction with their products. Another field that involves a lot of training is the healthcare field, in which extensive training on extremely sophisticated testing equipment is often implemented.
Live sales presentations of high tech products can also require the services of a technical writer to be certain the information communicates effectively with the audience.
Marketing Materials
As we've noted before, some definitions of technical writing include any kind of writing involving technical topics. Brochures, company websites, newsletters, sales letters, and any other promotional or marketing materials distributed by companies with a technically complex product could fall under the heading of technical writing. The field of advertising and promotional writing is generally referred to as copywriting. Copywriting for high tech products can be thought of as a combination of technical writing and copywriting, as well.
Many companies selling large or complex products or services submit written proposals. Construction companies, for instance, submit proposals for building projects which include a description of the work to be performed, a timeline for the project, and a proposed fee. Good proposal writing can help the company's sales staff in selling a product or service by highlighting its benefits. Proposal writing can also involve communicating technical information to a lay audience, so in many companies, technical writers are called upon to write proposals as well as documentation.
Tech Writing 2.0
Today's web user is not just a browser, reading static information on a web page in the same way he or she might read a newspaper. Today's web user is also a content provider, publishing photos on flikr, videos on YouTube, reviews to Amazon and helpful information to user forums and discussion boards.

For the technical writer, the new character of the Web has spawned new kinds of projects for informing and interacting with users. These include:

  • Knowledge Bases. Companies don't just produce their own user documentation alone nowadays; they also provide forums for users to publish solutions. Microsoft, for instance, maintains a searchable knowledge base containing the solutions for hundreds of known problems affecting their products. Many of these solutions were provided by users, who are sharing their knowledge for the benefit of others. Technical writers often support knowledge bases by editing and polishing user generated content, ensuring that the help these users provide is clear and written to match the company's overall voice.
  • Wikis. A wiki is a webpage that can (theoretically) be accessed and revised by anyone from anywhere. Wikipedia is of course the most well known example, but there are thousands of other wikis. Many companies are beginning to use wikis internally in place of employee manuals and for publishing problem solving information. Employees who have solved a common problem are encouraged to contribute to the wiki so that other employees will have access to the solution. A wiki can also be set up to serve the same purpose as a knowledge base, described above. Again, technical writers are employed to edit and monitor the user generated content on wikis to ensure that the information is as clear and as useful as possible.
  • Blogs. More and more companies are using blogs as a way of building a web presence, communicating with customers, and singing the praises of their products. Unlike a static article in a newsletter, a blog invites comments. Blogs are a great vehicle for two-way communication between user and company. Technical support blogs are coming online that offer solutions to common problems, point out lesser known features of products, and invite comments and thoughts from users. Technical writers are often called upon to write and maintain company blogs.
These Web 2.0 technical writing applications are just beginning to appear on the Web, but there can be little doubt that their use will increase. A company that can gather the insights and experiences of its users and use them to help others make the best of their products are providing value by harnessing the awesome collaborative potential of the web.