What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is sometimes defined as simplifying the complex.  Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavor at some level.  A significant subset of the broader field of technical communication, technical writing involves communicating complex information to those who need it to accomplish some task or goal.

Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) provides four definitions for the word technical, all of which relate to the profession of technical writing:

  1. of or relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques
  2. of, involving, or concerned with applied and industrial sciences
  3. resulting from mechanical failure
  4. according to a strict application or interpretation of the law or rules

With these definitions in mind, it’s easy to see that technical writing has been around as long as there have been written languages.  Modern references to technical writing and technical communications as a profession begin around the time of World War I as technical developments in warfare, industry and telecommunications began to evolve more rapidly.  Although many people today think of technical writing as creating manuals for computers and software, the practice of technical writing takes place in any field or industry where complex ideas, concepts, processes or procedures need to be communicated.  In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines technical writers as those who “…put technical information into easily understandable language. They work primarily in information-technology-related industries, coordinating the development and dissemination of technical content for a variety of users; however, a growing number of technical communicators are using technical content to resolve business communications problems in a diversifying number of industries.”

The Goal of Technical Writing

Good technical writing results in relevant, useful and accurate information geared to specifically targeted audiences in order to enable a set of actions on the part of the audience in pursuit of a defined goal.  The goal may be using a software application, operating industrial equipment, preventing accidents, safely consuming a packaged food, assessing a medical condition, complying with a law, coaching a sports team, or any of an infinite range of possible activities.  If the activity requires expertise or skill to perform, then technical writing is a necessary component.

Only a small proportion of technical writing is actually aimed at the general consumer audience. Businesses and organizations deliver vast amounts of technical writing to explain internal procedures, design and produce products, implement processes, sell products and services to other businesses, or define policies. The leading professional association representing technical writing, Society for Technical Communication, hosts a number of special interest groups for these different aspects of the profession.

Technical Writing Categories

Technical writing comprises the largest segment of technical communications.  Technical writers work together with editors, graphic designers and illustrators, document specialists, content managers, instructional designers, trainers, and analysts to produce an amazing variety of deliverables, including:

Contracts Online and embedded help Requirements specifications
Customer Service scripts Policy documents Simulations
Demonstrations Process flows Training course materials
Design documents Project documents User manuals
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) Product catalogs Warning labels
How-to videos Product packaging Web-based Training
Instructions Proposals Websites
Knowledge base articles Release notes White papers
Reference guides

Technical writing follows a development lifecycle that often parallels the product development lifecycle of an organization:

  1. Identification of needs, audience(s), and scope
  2. Planning
  3. Research & content development
  4. Testing / review and revision
  5. Delivery / production
  6. Evaluation and feedback
  7. Disposition (revision, archiving, or destruction)

Technical Writing and Integrated Technical Communications

Enormous changes have occurred in the field of technical writing in the last 20 years, particularly with how technical content is researched, and how it is produced and delivered.  As a result, more organizations are developing integrated technical communications to effectively manage the information that must be communicated. They also build a content management strategy that encompasses delivery of technical, marketing and promotion, internal and other communications messages between the organization and its customers, suppliers, investors and employees.

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