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There is a faction of people who think articles written by scientists, doctors, computer programmers, and engineers constitute technical writing.

Another group thinks that technical writing is only about writing user manuals.

Both of them cannot be more wrong.

But their prejudice is quite understandable. For a common person, these are the professionals (doctors, scientists, engineers, etc.) who can be termed ‘technical’ in their language. They assume that the whitepapers and thesis written by these so-called ‘technical’ folks are what technical writing is all about.

Similarly, user manuals are the documents that most of us are exposed to when understanding technical stuff (equipment and products we use). So that answers the second prejudice.

But the truth is most people do not realize that technical writing is all about writing content for common people like us. In fact, many technical articles are written only after thoroughly understanding what the readers are actually looking for in the first place.

This guide has been carefully designed to give you a deep understanding of what technical writing is, how it differs from regular content writing, and the steps you need to follow to become a technical writer.

What is Technical Writing?

Here’s how technical writing was defined a few years ago -

“The practice of noting down processes, user manuals for software, and instructions for the equipment.”

In the past, technical writing was indeed limited to just user manuals. However, in the modern world, technical writing has become an umbrella term encompassing many more definitions.

Today, technical writing is defined as -

“The documentation of technical processes in almost any field. It involves reports, briefs, instructions, and more."

It could be in a wide array of fields, such as Engineering, Information Technology, Biotech, Finance, etc.

In a nutshell, if you work in any technical field, someone is there writing technical documentation for you and your product or service.

What is the Purpose of Technical Writing?

Technical writers can expect to have their roles and responsibilities changed based on the industry and company they’re working with. However, most technical writers will work with multiple teams. They are the bridge connecting the technical staff and the less technical employees and customers. As a technical writer, it is your responsibility to communicate exactly what the technical staff wants to convey to the readers in a language they understand.

Let us consider a simple example. Your company has come up with a new sales outreach tool. There are multiple features to start, pause and schedule emails to the end customers. A typical user will need to learn about all these features to make full use of the application. Now you can either let the user discover the features on their own or provide a document that explains what each feature is and how to use it to make their lives simpler.

For users who aren’t tech-savvy, this will be a boon. Without this document, understanding and navigating the application can be quite intimidating for them. They might miss out on features that could make their experience better or even use certain functionalities improperly.

In summary, the ultimate purpose of technical writing is to avoid all these pitfalls and ensure that information is communicated clearly and simply.

What is the Difference Between Technical Writing and Other Forms of Writing?

In the previous section, we had quoted that the core idea behind technical writing is to communicate information in a lucid manner. But you might be wondering if that's the case for any other forms of writing. After all, any article is intended to deliver some information to the user in a language the readers can understand. Well, the similarities begin and end there. Here are the major differences between technical writing and other forms of writing -

Focus Area

A technical document focuses only on the concerned subjects. For example, a user manual just focuses on the product’s functions. However, other forms of writing can infuse a lot more topics and creativity to the content piece. For example, a blog on e-learning can talk about tips to conduct classes better and also about the estimated cost for starting your own e-learning academy.

Intended Purpose

Even though other forms of writing impart information, the purpose of that content piece is usually for entertainment for marketing. On the other hand, technical content is focused only on improving user experience. It gives information, provides instruction, and offers explanations for the topic, application, or equipment, and that’s all.

The Tone of the Content

Non-technical content pieces are usually written in a subjective tone, where opinions and anecdotes are used to make the content more interesting. On the other hand, technical writing is always objective in nature. There can be no opinions or any sort of confusion in the instructions given.

Format

General writing can take multiple forms. For example, there are many formats to write a blog to make it interesting and amusing to the reader. But that’s not the case with technical writing. In technical writing, there is always a set structure to follow. This ensures that the information delivered is straight to the point, and the end-users can immediately start using the product.

Writing Style

Another key differentiator between general writing and technical writing is the voice. In non-technical content pieces, writers often use the first-person format and informal tone to make the content feel conversational and engaging.

In technical writing, in the interest of keeping things easy for the reader, the content is always written in a third-person format. It’s also super-formal so as not to allow any space for varied interpretations of the provided content.

Vocabulary

Another major difference between the two is the vocabulary used. In the usual content writing, the vocabulary used is often evocative in nature to inspire an action or emotion within the reader.

In technical writing, the vocabulary is highly specialized and dependent on the type of product. You’ll see specialized terms being used in the content to provide accurate instruction or explanation to the reader, just to help them.

Audience

Of course, the audience also majorly varies between the two. In technical writing, the audience is always specialized and knows their stuff. They are the people who will be buying your product or service. They could also be business analysts or product managers who need information on the program or service to make better use of it. Here, technical writers will find that their goal is to ensure that all the necessary stakeholders get the required information on time. The writers are not pressured to attract more people to read it.

In the other form of writing, the audience is a lot more generalized. There can be wide differences in their age group, professions, etc. In short, there is no specific set of people for whom the writing is designed for. The writer also has to focus on the content getting broadcasted to a lot more people (who are interested in the topic).

Technical Writing Examples

Here are the most popular technical writing examples or the types of content you will find written by technical writers -

Standard Operating Procedures

These are documents designed to provide instructional and informational content to the user about the proper operating procedures within an organization. Such documents will cover their rules, regulations, and guidelines for processes and situations. Additionally, it will also provide information on escalation procedures and people to reach out to for specific occurrences.

Instruction Manuals

Most of us are familiar with instruction manuals. They can be the small booklets we get when we buy a new electronic device like a smartphone, or they can be thick books that we receive with a larger item, such as a car. All these documents are written by technical writers. Here, the writers aim to provide information on how to use the device or equipment properly.

Legal Disclaimers

These are also called hedge clauses. They are usually written to provide a disclaimer to the reader about what an organization is and isn’t liable for when using its product or service. Technical writers will often have to consult with legal specialists and product developers to understand what can and can’t be written into a legal disclaimer.

Legal disclaimers have an added level of complexity based on the market the product or service is being sold in. This is because different countries have different legal requirements for companies to support and service their customers in that region.

There are many other types. The ones mentioned above are just a few technical writing examples for your reference.

How Do You Become a Technical Writer?

If you’re interested in becoming a technical writer, there’s good news. Not only are there many ways to enter the field, but there’s always growing demand for technical writers amongst companies around the world. They need your help to write technical documentation for their products, services, and processes. On that positive note, here are the different things you can do to become a technical writer -

Learn to Write

While this might sound obvious, learning to write doesn’t just involve stringing sentences together. You’ll need to learn a variety of subtopics within writing, such as using different voices for different types of writing, understanding how to describe and refer to illustrations clearly, and more.

Know the Different Stages of Writing

In almost any technical writing project, you will have these three steps -

#1. Planning

Project planning is often initiated by your employer or client. In this step, the basic requirements are defined, such as what type of document it is, the subject matter, the goal, scope, and the audience to be targeted.

If everything isn’t provided initially, you’ll need to talk with your client or employer and get those details through a conversation. Sometimes they might not be sure of what they're looking for. As a technical writer, your job is also to ensure that you’re able to communicate your needs to complete the project.

With proper questioning and conversations, this step can save you a lot of time and effort.

#2. Understanding Audience Requirements

If you were able to narrow down on your audience in the first step, the second step entails understanding who your audience is and what they’re looking for.

Collect as much information as you can about your audience before you start writing. For example, do your readers have technical expertise in the field? Will they be able to understand complex terms and jargon? Or are they totally new to the field?

Additionally, the audience might also have some expectations when they’re reading technical documentation. What will they be looking for? Are they looking for an in-depth understanding of the product, or are they laymen just wanting to know how to use the product? Providing what the reader really wants will decide your entire writing process. Remember - they’re asking questions, and you need to provide accurate answers.

Also, a developer looking for documentation on an API is entirely different from a customer who's purchased a brand new piece of furniture that needs to be put together. Those are two different audiences with different requirements in their technical documentation.

#3. Write for the Audience

After understanding the audience’s needs, understand how you’re going to create the document to address those needs. A common mistake that writers tend to make is creating a document that can be very well received by other writers but provides little to no value to the end-user.

So before you start typing away on your keyboard, ask yourselves these questions -

  • Is the document easily accessible to the audience I’m writing for?
  • Is the document easy to understand from the audience’s point of view?
  • How is the reader going to use this document?
  • Is this document easy to navigate?
  • Is the document too complex for my reader?
  • Is the document too simple for my reader?

Develop Technical Writing Skills

Whichever field you choose to write for, the field will involve some level of technical expertise. You cannot write software documentation without knowing what syntaxes, APIs, and programming languages are. If you want to write a document about C++, you should at least know how C++ works. If you can code with it, that’s even better.

Do Plenty of Research

This isn’t just to learn about how to write your next technical writing assignment. You want to stay abreast of what’s happening in your field so that you can explain terms and concepts to your user better. If your audience is made up of advanced software programmers, then you’ll need to stay on their level to ensure that your content is useful for them.

With all these technical writing skills, you’ll be ready to take on the role of a technical writer, whether you’re going to do it full-time or taking up technical writing freelance projects. But it’s important to remember that being prepared as a technical writer is a continuous experience.

Roles of a Technical Writer

Writing is one part of being a technical writer, even if it is a major role. If you want to become a fully fleshed-out technical writer who can take on any project, it’s important to understand all the roles you will be expected to take up when taking on a technical writing job.

Writing, Editing, and Proofreading Documents

Of course, as a writer, you’ll be expected to know how to write technical documentation. As mentioned above, this can include a variety of documentation, from user manuals to legal disclaimers. In addition, technical writers are also expected to edit and proofread documents to ensure their accuracy and readability. If you’re working with other technical writers on your team, you’ll be checking each other’s writing to ensure that it meets quality standards and delivers the required information to the audience.

Coordinate with Project Stakeholders

Every project will have developers, engineers, managers, customers, and other stakeholders. Your job will also include coordinating and communicating with them on what the document will require, who it will reach, and what it should contain.

You will also need to understand what kind of budget is available for particular projects and allocate your time, resources, and efforts accordingly. If there are not enough resources or time to finish a certain project, you will be required to make sure that you’re able to secure those resources from project managers and leaders.

Work with Experimental Software to Provide Documentation

If you’re writing for a software that has regular release updates, you will need to understand the functions and features of experimental software to educate users on what each update will contain. This can include patch notes, bug fixes, etc. Usually, patch notes and bug fixes are a lot shorter than traditional technical documentation, but their release schedule is more frequent.

Evaluate and Recommend Standards and Guidelines

As a technical writer, you’ll be adhering to certain guidelines and standards based on the project or organization you’re working for. These guidelines and standards will need to be updated and changed on different occasions. Processes and products will change, so standards and guidelines will need to be reviewed and monitored occasionally to ensure they’re meeting the needs of the audience, the product/service, and the organization.

Skills Needed for Technical Writing

If you’re looking to make this your profession of choice, understand that there are more skills required than writing. Great technical writers possess a variety of skills to ensure they’re able to create great technical documentation. Here are the different skills needed for technical writing -

#1. Writing Skills

This is a given. Technical writers need to have impeccable language skills and a deep understanding of grammar, tone, and vocabulary to make their documents easy to understand by audiences.

#2. Research

Technical writers need to know how to dive deep into a subject and find information that would otherwise be difficult to find. Readers want to know the whole picture when they’re reading your documentation, and it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.

#3. Teamwork

Often, you’ll find yourself as a part of a team, working alongside other technical writers, engineers, team leads, managers, and legal experts. You’ll need to learn to effectively work with the team to be a great technical writer.

#4. Single-sourcing

Single sourcing lets you produce multiple documents using the same source document. This is great when you have a task that requires you to make multiple user guides for different audiences but with the same source document.

One audience can be a power user, while another could be a complete layman. Here, referencing a single document and creating multiple documents for each audience can help you manage your time and resources effectively.

#5. Being Systematic

Technical writing, while being thorough, should also not lose out on readability. A well-researched technical document is useless if it’s not structured and presented properly. The reader will struggle to navigate the document, becoming a chore for the reader to understand. Being systematic and organized in your writing will help you complete your projects faster while also ensuring that audiences can clearly and effectively derive value from your work.

#6. Web Design Skills

In today’s connected world, most documentation is rarely put on paper to consume. Although this is optional, learning web design and development skills can be helpful to make your documentation easy to access on a website for online users looking for instructions and information.

Wrapping Up

Whether you’re planning on taking up technical writing freelance work or planning to work full-time in the field, you’ll need to understand and master everything mentioned above. A technical writing job can be incredibly rewarding when done right, since you’re providing clear and easily understandable information to thousands, if not millions of people.

But at the same time, from what you’ve seen with the above examples, it’s also an incredibly demanding profession that requires you to stay abreast of the latest trends, markets, innovations, and more for each field you plan to put your services into.

If you’re in need of technical content and need a professional service to put together a fantastic user manual backed with AI-powered quality assurance, Scalenut has all the expertise you need. Reach out to us with your requirements now.

The beginner's guide for technical writing (2021)