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What Is Technical Writing and How You Can Handle It

Guy with Laptop

The popularity of this job or activity (before we start digging deeper into it you can call it as you like) has been boosted by the rapid progress in different spheres of human life. So, let the word “technical” in this term not mislead you. It’s not only about technology of different kinds. Technical writers are often involved in chemistry, medicine, finance, and many other domains.

Why are such specialist in that high demand nowadays? What is so specific about technical writing that it’s becoming an essential element of many businesses? Can you try yourself as a technical writer and what do you need for that?

We’re going to answer these and many other questions in this post! Make yourself comfortable and let’s start.

How Should You Understand Technical Writing?

On the one hand, we could define this term more generally by stating that technical writing produces technical documentation of various types, which is mostly aimed at explaining and describing things, as well as instructing a potential user of these things.

Phew, I did it! That was quite hard, but such a definition is actually right, though a little verbose.

So, on the other hand, we could try to come up with a more detailed definition by considering the main aspects of technical writing and introducing them in more concise parts. By the way, that’s what a good technical writer always strives to.

Let’s try to do this exercise now.

  • Technical writing should be taken as a dominating form of technical communication. The latter implies quality and timely conveyance of mainly technical and scientific information.
  • The three key purposes of technical writing include: 1) providing audience with a clear understanding of what exactly a particular item is (a brand-new computer program or a med); 2) instructing audience in how this item works and/or how to use it; 3) informing audience about particular news, plans, or solutions via special types of documentation and providing necessary interpretation or clarifications.
  • Corollary, this type of writing features several subjects: a tangible and an abstract one. A tangible subject implies descriptive or explanatory information about a particular item (something we can touch or just see). An abstract subject implies information about a working process or sequence of actions which a consumer or user should take.
  • Technical writing implies working not only with texts. That is the job of such specialist isn’t limited with the only responsibility for creating a quality sequence of sentences. Rather, the text is a final result of the entire work of a technical writer. This work includes doing research and keeping record of the conveyed information, using special technology tools and creating content of different types and formats, editing and advising, etc.
  • The highest demand for topnotch technical writing is typical of computer and information technology, engineering, robotics, aeronautics, business, biology, chemistry, medicine, as well as narrower subject areas that have grown at the intersection of these spheres of human activity.

Does Technical Writing Have Any History?

Old Measuring Devices

It appears not as contemporary as it may seem. Technical writing was officially recognized as a job title and profession during World War II. Considering the advances of technology and medicine at the time as well as an urgency to document them and their usage, the demand for people who could do that fast and well is not very surprising.

However, some critics claim that even the works of Aristotle, a prominent ancient Greek scientist and philosopher of the 4th century BC, can be referred to as the first samples of technical writing. Also, the greatest minds of Renaissance (the 14th-17th centuries) and the Age of Enlightenment (the 18th century) added to the development of technical writing by composing their revolutionary and profound scientific works.

Of course, at that time there was no need to coin such term. But the post-wars 20th century required intelligent, detailed, and prompt documentation and explanation of all novelties, which shook the world outside laboratories, factories, and other establishment where they were created.  

Nowadays, technical writing serves not only the manufacture of tangible goods but also the development and promotion of various services. One of the most modern and notable examples that demonstrate how versatile this writing can be is its use in consulting services as a problem-solving and decision-making tool.

By the way, there is a special document aimed at clarifying an issue and offering a solution for it. This document is called a white paper.

And if you’re curious about any famous personalities behind contemporary technical writing, meet Gordon Graham. He’s an author of white papers for 3M, Oracle, and Google. Isn’t that impressive?

How Is This Type of Writing Different from Any Other?

The very term “technical writing” makes us think about something very different from both a college essay and a novel by Stephen King. But what exactly makes this difference? Let’s approach it from a linguistic angle.

  • A technical writer must stick to a formal style. It means no shortenings, colloquial phrases or slang.
  • Personal pronouns, such as “I”, “we” and “you”, aren’t necessary to use.
  • Instead it’s absolutely okay to use Passive Voice. (But don’t stuff it into every sentence.)
  • The audience of technical writing tolerates no errors. So, correct punctuation is a must.
  • Also, it’s highly important to use acronyms, numbers, and units of measure in the right way.
  • When they say that technical documentation must be clear and concise, they mean that a writer must opt for simpler and more straightforward words and phrases.
  • Despite the required formality of the style, technical writing welcomes simplicity and clearness of introduced information, absence of ambiguity and poetry, as well as directness and reasonability of the presentation.
  • A technical document must have a logical structure. A writer can’t afford to deviate from the topic.
  • A technical writer actually has no room for creativity and self-expression. Their audience is interested in facts, numbers, and guidelines, but not in aesthetics.   

What Does a Good Technical Writer Do?

Project Presentation

Simply put, if you are brilliant at, say, Biology and write college essays in this subject perfectly (from any point of view), you have more chances to become a technical writer for medicine than, say, me. Though I’ve worked as a both a freelance and full-time web content writer and blogger for more than five years.

The thing is that such experts must be excellent not only at putting words together and inserting the right punctuation marks between them. They must know their main specialization inside out.

So, as I’ve never been very good at Biology and as I’m quite an honest person (I hope so at least), I’ll never agree to write about anything connected with this science. My domain is economics and sociology – I’m writing for them most of the time.

Some Mister or Miss Know-All might say that Google can help us write in any topic we need. But that’s just where the whole thing starts.

Check what the main responsibilities of a good technical writer are and think again whether Google can give a helping hand to a person who has no idea of a topic she’s given.

  • Distinguishing different types of documentation

    They range from emails and job applications to press releases and case studies. Each document features a specific structure, has a specific purpose, and hence requires a specific approach.

  • Knowing target audience

    Technical writing is always human-oriented. Software instructions must be user-friendly, and description of a medicine must be clear for a person who’s very far from pharmacy.

  • Doing information research

    Even if a technical writer is well-versed in a certain field, they can never escape working with huge amounts of data. So, selecting suitable info and analyzing it are the two valuable skills that can help such experts do their job flawlessly.

  • Writing quality content

    Scroll up and take a look at the main language features of technical writing once again. Considering them is one of the major precepts of people who decide to devote themselves to such a profession.

  • Editing and/or proofreading

    That’s what technical writers do not only with content they author. By the way, there’s even a profession of technical editor. But I think it’s unlikely to include writing content from scratch.

  • Designing documents

    Making neat tables, graphs, and charts is a commonplace thing for technical writers. Besides, they are expected to format documents and structure them logically, so the texts are easy to navigate.

  • Using digital tools

    Being a proficient user of MS Word and MS Excel isn’t enough in the 21st century. Professionals can use image editing software, help authoring tools, and even web development tools.

What Do You Need to Become an Expert?

If everything I’ve told you above can’t scare you off, you can try yourself as a technical writer. Let’s assume that you really like writing, have good knowledge of all intricacies of the English language, and are very good at one or two subject areas. What else do you need?

  • To take a course in technical writing.
  • To read a lot.
  • To have own recipes of inspiration.
  • To practice as much as you can.

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