Do technical writers need to do research?

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

20 August 2016

Here’s part 3 of my series on technical writing prices. This time, I look at the research that technical writers have to do before they can produce any useful content.

Let’s bust one myth right away: technical writers don’t just sit at a desk and write. If that’s all there were to it, technical writing services would be far cheaper. In fact, the writing part is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most of a tech writer’s time is taken up by research, understanding and planning. These early phases of the writing process take time and effort. And that means they have a significant effect on the cost of technical writing services.

The technical writing research process
Research is the foundation of good technical writing

If you honestly want to produce a piece of work that gives your client no choice but to hire you again next week, over-commit to the research.

That sort of hunger to produce the goods is what will set you apart.

5 questions to ask when researching a writing project

Here are 5 questions I ask my clients. With these up your sleeve, you won’t go far wrong.

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. What are the key benefits?
  3. What are the key facts?
  4. Which ‘tone of voice’ is most appropriate?
  5. How much text is needed?

Question 1: who is the audience?

The most important consideration when writing anything is to consider the audience. Finding the right words will depend on understanding not only what the audience needs but also who they are and what they care about.

This is the first question I ask every client. Sometimes, it hasn’t been considered before – which is often a sign any existing content can be improved.

To build a picture of the target audience, I work with clients to create a pen portrait. This is a profile of the client’s ideal customer, the person they want to appeal to and do business with. We then refer back to this made-up audience member throughout the project.

Question 2: what are the key benefits?

Any decent copywriter will tell you that the most important aspect to producing compelling copy is to show the audience what’s in it for them.

Show the audience what’s in it for them.

Tweet this

Benefits are the key to the art of persuasion, and work best when appealing to the emotions of the reader.

Even seemingly dry technical subjects can benefit from this approach. It’s all about finding the positives – the hooks that draw the reader in and make them want to know more.

Confession time

In truth, even the most engaging text in the world is unlikely to thrill readers of some user manuals that I’ve worked on. But just by stating the benefits in a clear way, the target reader gains value … and keeps reading, which is part of the goal.

Naturally, the client should already have a good idea of what they offer their customers. But that doesn’t mean that identifying the benefits is straightforward, because they may be

  • disordered
  • unclear
  • outdated
  • overstated
  • understated.

Or perhaps I find a benefit that the client hadn’t considered before. It’s always good when that happens.

All of this requires time and thought for each client.

(There are countless books and other resources on the subject of producing persuasive, benefits-driven copy. The need to read up on best practice is another reason why copywriting services – technical or otherwise – can be expensive.)

Question 3: what are the key facts?

This is usually the easiest question to answer, but even so there are still some things to keep in mind:

  • Do all of the facts need to be mentioned?
  • How are they best ordered?
  • Are there certain terms that have to be used in descriptions (e.g. manufacturing standards, trademarks)?

Question 4: which ‘tone of voice’ is most appropriate?

Tone of voice is another way of saying ‘personality on the page’. It’s the style and language that are consistent with an organisation’s brand. The tone of voice found in a fashion magazine for teenagers would differ hugely from that found in an annual report for an international bank.

Tone of voice is your personality on the page.

Tweet this

This is an important consideration for technical writers, as the client might already have a tone of voice in the rest of their copy that they want to preserve in their documentation. Or perhaps they haven’t considered tone of voice before but are happy to inject some personality into their technical documents. (If you’ve read support documentation from companies such as MailChimp, you’ll know that providing facts with a bit of light humour can be effective.)

Tone of voice can make a technical piece of writing stand out against every competitor.

To produce effective results for my clients, I have to get a feel for which tone to use when writing about their business. In my experience, clients often haven’t thought about this too much before they get in touch with me.

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy for me to work out the right tone to use. The client and I will have exchanged several emails before any work starts, and there might already be a website and some social media activity. By reviewing all this content, I build a picture of how the client communicates with the audience. If the client is already happy with their tone, all I need to do is to replicate it in any new piece of writing.

But it’s not always that straightforward.

Often, I need to do extra work to find the appropriate tone of voice for the client’s copy. Here are some problems to tackle:

  • There isn’t enough content to assess
  • The tone isn’t consistent
  • The tone isn’t right for the audience

That leads to more questions, more time, more effort.

Question 5: how much text is needed?

Whenever I take on a technical writing job, I aim to produce content that is simple, elegant and clear. For me, this goes hand in hand with keeping my copy brief – my clients aren’t hiring a novelist, after all.

George Orwell tells us that we should use only as much text as is needed to convey our message.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

George Orwell
George Orwell
Politics and the English Language

(By the way, I do appreciate the irony of promoting brief copy in a blog post that’s so long.)

But there’s a dilemma for writers. Some clients want to pay on a per-word basis – and that’s not a good payment model for most writers. I take a look at payment models in part 4.

Before I sum up, please know that I’m not alone in banging the drum about research. Here’s some feedback from one of my colleagues on LinkedIn:

I have recently encountered this issue when another writer was hired while I was on holiday. The writer lasted 4 days because he expected to be sitting at his PC playing with the product and describing his actions.

He was horrified to find out he had to chase supporting information, sit with engineers to capture their knowledge and carry out Web research on part suppliers websites for technical data.

Now the company knows that in future this must be brought up at the interview stage.

Kevin Chilton
Technical writer

Some final thoughts

Producing words that meet a client’s brief is one of the final links in a chain of events. To do a good job, a technical writer has to put a lot of time and effort into research.

My 5 questions above show some of the areas that need to be understood before a writer can deliver any meaningful content. This ground work goes a long way to explaining why technical writing can seem so expensive.

Is all this research worth it? Here’s the answer I always give whenever someone asks that question. The great content that comes from doing good research can do wonders for a business. Whether it’s increasing sales, retaining existing customers or reducing support calls, putting the time and effort into researching the subject will bear fruit. That’s why all the best tech writers spend hours upon hours doing research – because it gets results.

Sometimes, you just won’t be given the time by a client to get through all the questions. But at the very least, get Question 1 sorted out. And if you’re serious about understanding your audience, check out my post on pen portraits.

Now it’s time to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below or catch up with me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

Series list

Catch up with the other parts of this series here:

  1. How much does technical writing cost?
  2. Why is technical writing so expensive?
  3. Do technical writers need to do research?
  4. How do technical writers charge?

Be part of Espresso+

The community for freelancers & small business owners.

119 recommendations
for John

John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

Follow me on

Share on
social media