Technical writers act as a communication link between industry specialists and a broader audience. Many times, experts in fields like engineering, manufacturing, information technology, medicine, or robotics do not have expertise in writing. In order to communicate with a customer, a group of peers, or a broad audience of any kind, they rely on technical writers to help synthesize complex information into everyday language.
Examples of Technical Writing
Many different types of technical formats exist, but any English-language technical writer should be familiar with these common document types.
Manufacturers include instruction manuals with most products, especially products that require assembly or complicated usage instructions. Technical writers work with the manufacturer to ensure that the technical content gives end-users the detailed information they need to use the product successfully. A good technical writer addresses the customer with a concise writing style. They aim to make all instructions as simple and easy-to-understand as possible.
White papers allow businesses to communicate research to a broad audience. Many corporate white papers use data to persuade the consumer that a particular solution is optimal. The document design mimics a scientific study or a government report. In the document, the business attempts to answer a question for the consumer or compare solutions to a problem. Although technical writers aim to produce white papers with an informative tone, the real purpose of these documents is to generate sales.
Press releases are documents that share newsworthy information with media outlets. While press releases normally fall under the umbrella of public relations, announcements of advancements in computer science and technology sometimes require the help of technical writers. For example, a writer with technical expertise may be better suited to summarize a complicated product description or describe a technological invention, compared to someone with expertise in media relations.
Used by governments and businesses alike, proposals lay out the technical information and costs associated with a proposed project. A proposal could describe any type of project, from a new product line to a new permitting process. A good proposal must include enough technical information to allow the reader to make an informed decision but not so much detail that it will distract or overwhelm the decision-maker.
Reference Guides and Handbooks
Much like a user manual, references materials and handbooks should familiarize the target audience with the ins-and-outs of a subject. Instead of describing a product, reference guides and handbooks typically describe processes. For instance, most businesses offer an employee handbook to familiarize new hires with the rules of the organization. A technical writer must communicate all of the important processes and procedures within a reference guide or handbook. This form of business writing requires a logical organizational structure, since the end-user needs to be able to locate specific information in a guide when it’s needed.
Whereas a proposal describes a project that is still in the planning phase, a technical report usually summarizes a project that is underway or completed. Reports provide data and analysis to help a decision-maker evaluate the success of a project. If the project is ongoing, the reader may use the report to make recommendations for changes or adjustments to the project’s plan. For completed projects, the decision-maker often wants to evaluate the project based on a synthesis of detailed technical documentation and summarized outcomes. The communication skills of a technical writer can be useful, especially when describing qualitative outcomes.
Specifications and Technical Specification Datasheets
These documents give detailed explanations of processes and products within the fields of architecture, industrial design, information technology, and manufacturing. These documents help an end-user construct, reconstruct, or utilize a product or process. Since the audience possesses expertise in the subject matter, this formatting contains more detailed information than many other forms of technical writing. Good technical writing in this genre allows the reader to implement the product or process as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Online, Social Media, or Mobile Experiences
Some technical writers specialize in a form of writing that encourages user retention and engagement. These technical communicators specialize in writing multiple versions of the same webpage, app on-boarding message, email copy, or social media advertisement for different audiences. Similarly, they specialize in using data-based insights to revise their communications.
What Do Technical Writers Do?
Upon receiving an assignment, most technical writers begin by asking questions of the subject matter experts. Not only do they need to define the scope and requirements of the assignment, but they also need to gather a thorough understanding of the technical field in question. In order to explain a product, process, invention, or design clearly, the writer must first develop a thorough understanding of the topic at hand. The writer should also ask questions that clarify the intended audience and the formatting for the technical writing assignment.
Next, a technical writer may work with user experience designers and graphic designers to get a better understanding of how the technical document will be displayed to the end user. For example, a mobile website will likely have a different layout than a printed user manual. The written content should vary in tone, quantity, and layout, depending on where it will be published.
Many technical writers develop wireframes or mind-maps to visualize how the end-user might understand the technical subject. These visualizations can be used to confirm that the writer has a thorough understanding of the systems involved in the technical product, process, invention, or design. In addition, visual mapping may help to identify relationships that make the writing process easier. For example, the author of a user manual may divide fasteners into two categories, metal and wood, to make the assembly process easier for the end-user. Such a distinction, based on a mind-map, is likely to save the end-user time and confusion.
Lastly, a technical writing job usually involves significant rounds of revisions. As with normal writing, the text must be evaluated for grammar, style, and spelling. In addition, technical writing often requires proofreading by technical experts to ensure accuracy.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for technical writers was $72,850 last year; however, if you’re looking for accolades, you might need to reconsider a career in technical writing. In many cases, technical writers do not receive attribution for their work. Instead, a technical writer usually functions as a ghostwriter, someone hired to provide writing skills without a formal author’s credit on the work.