The Tasks of Technical Writing
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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