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What is Technical Writing?

What is Technical Writing?
Credit: YURALAITS ALBERT | Shutterstock

Not all writing requires a creative touch. While most readers like to be entertained while reading, sometimes just a simple straightforward explanation is needed instead. When those situations are called upon, whether it is for a user manual or a product description for example, technical writers are used.

Instead of trying to be creative, technical writing is more about understanding. Technical writing should not be written to entertain readers. The goal of technical writing is to give the reader a better understanding of the subject being written about in clear and concise terms.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, technical writers, also called technical communicators, prepare instruction manuals, journal articles and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather and disseminate technical information among customers, designers, and manufacturers.

"Although technical writers work in a variety of industries, they are concentrated in the computer and engineering industries," the Bureau of Labor writes in their Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Dennis Jerz, an associate professor of English at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, said technical writing is the presentation of information that helps the reader solve a particular problem.

"While technical writers need to have good computer skills, they do not necessarily have to write about computers all their lives," Jerz writes on his website. "Technical communicators write, design, and/or edit proposals, manuals, web pages, lab reports, newsletters, and many other kinds of professional documents."

Other examples of technical writing include assembly guides, user guides, scientific papers, medical research, brochures, employee and student handbooks and white papers.

Jerz said good technical writers are also good teachers, who have an excellent eye for detail.

"They excel at explaining difficult concepts for readers who will have no time to read twice," he writes. "They know punctuation, syntax, and style, and theycan explain these rules to authors who need to know why their drafts need to be changed."

Western Wyoming Community College advises students on several keys for successful technical writing, including:

  • First things first: Other forms of academic or creative writing sometimes suggest a creative lead-in, but technical writing requires you to get straight to the point — put your purpose first.
  • Know your reader: Consider the audience and their needs. Think about who will read the document. What prior knowledge do they have about the topic? Design the document with the audience in mind.
  • Order is important: Think carefully about a logical way to organize the information. A clear sequence means the reader can follow the directions easily. Once the best order is determined, break up the writing into chunks or sections. Headings and subheadings will help readers grasp the main concepts. Lists can also be helpful.
  • Provide visual assistance: Visual aids assist and engage readers. An idea that takes many words to explain might be easily transmitted with an illustration (graph, picture, chart). White space will help readers take a mental break to digest the information.

Tips for technical writing from instructors at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) include avoiding jargon, always defining things that may be unfamiliar to readers, using words efficiently, putting the most important information first and have an active voice by using strong verbs.

Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show technical writing is a growing field in the United States. Between 2012 and 2022, they predict technical writing jobs will grow 15 percent faster than the average for all occupations.

"Employment growth will be driven by the continuing expansion of scientific and technical products and by growth in Web-based product support," the Bureau of Labor writes in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, are expected to be good."

Cameron Postelwait, marketing director at Sewell Direct, said technical writing is currently one of the most in-demand skills by employers.

"At least for our business, messages between suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and the end user all happen in the written word online via emails, press releases, Web pages, articles, PDFs, manuals, etc.," Postelwait said in an interview with BusinessNewsDaily. "Having someone with a gift for written communication while understanding the technology is crucial."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual wage for technical writers was $65,500 in May 2012. To become a technical writer they say a college degree is usually required, as well as experience with a technical subject, such as computer science, Web design, or engineering.

As the demand for more technical writers increases, many schools are also offering certifications in the subject to help students get more experience in writing and as a way for them to show employers how serious they are about being the field.  

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.

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