The Tasks of Technical Writing

By Mark Nichol

If you’ve ever read an instruction manual, you know what technical writing is, though it comes in many other forms. The three basic categories of technical writing are:

  • end-user documentation, which helps consumers build, operate, and/or repair tools, devices, software, and hardware.
  • technical documentation, which includes repair manuals, maintenance guides, and engineering specifications; white papers, research papers, or journal articles; reference guides; and annual reports.
  • marketing copy, such as advertisements, brochures, catalogs, press releases, and home page content.

Technical writing is accomplished according to various considerations:

  • Format: Will it be published in print, or online? Will the writer submit raw text to be formatted later, or is the writer responsible for its presentation as well?
  • Source: Will the writer obtain information from one or more people with pertinent knowledge (often referred to as subject-matter experts), from provided print or online resources, from materials the writer will have to identify and locate, or from a combination of sources?
  • Audience: What is the technical ability of the readership? Are readers laypeople, people familiar with but not proficient in the topic, or experts?

The expected format determines whether the writer is expected to be an information designer as well, the source(s) determine whether the writer needs interviewing and/or research skills as well as writing skills, and the audience determines whether and to what extent the writer must define or revise technical terms and/or simplify descriptions and explanations.

Technical writers must of course have an aptitude for explaining sometimes complicated procedures in clear language. It is also helpful for them to know principles of instructional design and be able to produce and present visual and audio materials to augment or replace written content. In addition, technical writers are often called on to create more than one version of a document to accommodate users with various levels of expertise.

But the most important proficiencies for technical writers are problem solving and troubleshooting, because those who create documentation are in the best position to note and respond to obstacles and inconsistencies in its production; like any writer or editor, the technical writer is the reader’s representative, examining documentation from the user’s point of view and ensuring that it anticipates any questions or concerns they may have.

The range of professional disciplines in which technical writing is conducted is diverse. Documentation is required in the following areas:

  • computer software and hardware
  • tools and appliances
  • machines and vehicles
  • toys and sports equipment
  • finance and banking
  • science and medicine
  • politics and social policy
  • law and law enforcement

Similar job titles include technical editor, information architect, and user-interface designer; people in these roles perform related functions but help refine and format the work of technical writers or produce documentation independently. Considering the array of tasks and the spectrum of subject matter involved in technical communications, if you have a knack for explaining and for organizing and presenting information, you’re likely to find a professional niche that’s right for you.

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9 Responses to “The Tasks of Technical Writing”

  • June Freaking Cleaver

    With modern content management software, content in multiple categories (online, hard copy manuals) can be more easily produced from a single documentation source.

    Gone are the days of ‘reinventing the wheel’, and basically writing the same information twice.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve read instruction manuals and some of them ought to be rewritten! For example, the instruction manual for my mom’s digital TV wasn’t written for the ‘average’ non-technical consumer. Luckily, I was able to get her TV to work and explained the ‘techie lingo’ to her. I think she’s still lost. Lol!

  • Laya Bajpai

    This is a very nice post and great for somebody who is trying their best to get a hang of what technical writing exactly is. Could you do a post on how to start as a technical writer? With actual sources of where a beginner may get work, so that he/she can generate samples. Even if it means working on low rates as long as one gets some real practice. I have lots of lessons on technical writing, but unless I begin working in that line, I feel I can’t get ahead much.
    Thanks!

  • Sharon Roffey

    Excellent article, Mark! Thanks *so* much for explaining clearly what so many people find hard to grasp about technical writing. I shall cite this article frequently.

    ** In response to June Cleaver:

    I totally agree concerning the single documentation source. I was introduced to Author-it (www.author-it.com) while I was on a technical writing course. One source, multiple outputs (Word, PDF, HTML Help, HTML Pages). Can’t beat it!

    ** In response to Rebecca:

    I think most people have been in the same situation as your mother. I would say that the basic motto of technical writing is “less is more” or “keep it simple” and – most of all – make no assumptions on the part of the reader! I learned this very early on while working on a Helpdesk: a very frustrated user (sitting there waiting for something to happen) told me “but you didn’t say I should press Enter!”

    ** In response to Laya:

    The two most important recommendations I can make are these:

    Locate a technical writing course with a local university/technical college. You will often find technical writing as a paper on an information technology degree. On the module I attended, representatives of local companies came to make presentations, one of which was offering opportunities to students. Your tutors will most likely have other contacts too.

    Consider a job in user support. All companies have a helpdesk and the turnover is usually quite high, mainly because the help function is often used as a stepping stone to other areas in IT. Having to explain how to accomplish tasks to users is excellent grounding and technical writing is the next logical step (you will most likely be doing this without even realizing it when explaining the “do this, then do that” process to users).

    While you are looking into the above, have a look at the Information Mapping website: http://www.infomap.com/

    The info mapping method will give you excellent grounding in structured writing; the courses are not cheap but well worth it. There is much you can find out on the infomap web site; for starters:

    – Try the demo (button on right side of Home page); it’s good fun.

    – Register for the free webinar: click on the link under Resources on the Home page.

    – Have a look around the entire Information Mapping website, you’ll find lots of interesting information: tips, case studies, etc.

    I hope that helps to put you in the right direction. What I write above reflects my own experience and I’m all the better for it. 🙂

    Sharon

  • Cecily

    I think it’s important to be aware that a technical writing career in the UK starts rather differently from one in the US.

    In the UK, there are no undergraduate courses specialising in it and only two universities offering masters: Sheffield Hallam and Portsmouth. Consequently, most people come to it indirectly, either from technical qualifications (e.g. software development) or a more general writing background.

    Without relevant academic contacts, online groups can be very useful, along with the professional body, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC).

    The ISTC is much better than it appears from its website (http://www.istc.org.uk/) and runs an excellent annual conference.

    http://www.linkedin.com/ is a useful way to connect with other technical authors. There are groups such as Software User Assistance and Technical Writer Forum, as well as ones for users of particular authoring tools, such as MadCap Flare.

    UK technical writers are often called technical authors and I don’t think any technical authors or people in marketing that I know would class writing marketing copy as technical writing. Such material may have input from a technical author, but it is not technical writing. User interface design is also only peripherally related to technical writing.

    Whatever the final format, aspiring writers should not overlook the word “technical”. It is not just about writing; you need to be competent and confident with a variety of tools and complex formats. For example, you may write context-sensitive help, which you also generate as a PDF version with hyperlinked index.

  • Cecily

    Laya, you can generate samples before you get a job: write instructions or part of a user guide for something you already have, but which is related to the area you want to work, whether that be a piece of software or an electronic device. Many help authoring tools (HATs) are expensive, so you may prefer to create a paper document or PDF. However, it would also be worth creating a help file by using free demos or freeware HATs.

  • Travis

    Technical writing example. The quotations should be in bold, but the formatting allowed is limited.

    This article describes how to post on DailyWritingTips.com

    NOTE
    This article assumes you are on a topic you wish to post on.

    1) Scroll to the bottom of the page.

    2) Type your name or alias in the “Name (required)” field.

    3) Type your e-mail in the “Email Address(required)” field.

    (optional)
    4) Type your website URL in the “Website” field.

    5) Type your comments and any other additional information in the “Speak your mind” field.

    6) Click “Submit Comment”.

    I would try to do steps like that… then have someone test them and see if they can do it. Most important… don’t miss a step and NOTE important things that could confuse the reader. Avoid being wordy… direct and to the point. Always. Yay… you are now a technical writer.

  • Larry Czaplyski

    Technical writers are people who can explain complex subjects to others. In this they aren’t very different from other non-fiction writers. The same basic principals apply to all non-fiction writing.

    To get into the field, you first must show you can write. If you can, someone will try you out.

    While there are some who study technical writing in school, it’s not really necessary.

    It’s not even necessary to be a techie; lots of technical writing work isn’t very technical at all.

  • Karla

    The name itself, “technical writing,” implies that the person is technically inclined. One of my biggest complaints about this profession is that I often have had to work with those who carried the title “Technical Writer” but weren’t in the least bit technical. The reason “lots of technical writing work isn’t very technical at all” is that many HR departments don’t know what it is. Educate them. Send them the job description from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/technical-writers.htm. If the person is not technical, than he may be a writer, but he’s not a technical writer.

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