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:
- of or relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques
- of, involving, or concerned with applied and industrial sciences
- resulting from mechanical failure
- 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|
|Knowledge base articles||Release notes||White papers|
Technical writing follows a development lifecycle that often parallels the product development lifecycle of an organization:
- Identification of needs, audience(s), and scope
- Research & content development
- Testing / review and revision
- Delivery / production
- Evaluation and feedback
- 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.
- Oxford University Press. (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/technical?region=us accessed November 25, 2011).
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 (http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos319.htm, accessed November 3, 2011)
- Wikipedia article on technical writing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_writing, accessed November 25, 2011)
- Society of Technical Communications (http://stc.org)
- How to Become a Technical Writer
- Essential Technical Communications Skills
- Technical Writing Terms and Definitions
- What is Technical Communications?
- Software Tools for Technical Writing
Recommended Next Readings on TechWhirl’s Tech Writer Today
- TechWhirl’s Technical Writing Research Portal (Various)
- TechWhirl’s Technical Communication Research Portal (Various)
- Learn More about Localization (Various)
- Tech Writer Tips and Tricks sponsored by Adobe (Various)
- Techie Writer Series (Eric Ray)
- Integrated Technical Communications (Connie Giordano & Al Martine)
- The 5 W’s of Online Help (Geoff Hart)
- The Quality of Writing Can Never be Better than the Quality of Research (Herman Holtz)
- The New Communications Cycle series (Connie Giordano)