Technical writing ≠ technology writing
Do you know what technical writing is? It’s not a term most people are familiar with.
Summary for busy people – what is technical writing?
Technical writing is content that explains how products, services and processes work.
Complex source material goes in. Simple content comes out.
In short, technical writers explain how stuff works.
- A definition of technical writing
- What other technical writers say
- Labels for technical writers
- What sort of work does a technical writer do?
- What’s the difference between technical writing and copywriting?
- Hiring a copywriter – what to look for
- Let’s wrap-up
As someone who’s been in the technical writing business since the end of 2009, I thought it high time that I came up with a proper answer to what it actually is.
Anything that helps to get rid of the ‘what’s that?’ look on people’s faces has to be a good thing.
As well as my own definitions, I asked trusted colleagues in the tech writing community for their response to the question: ‘What is technical writing?’. I’ve included their answers below.
Here’s where the problem begins:
I might as well tell people that I’m a flugelgoblin. It’s always the same: blank stares.
So, I’ve given up saying my job title and assuming that anyone will have the vaguest idea what that means.
Instead, I jump straight ahead to what it is I do for my clients.
I think this leads to a good way of marketing a service business. Instead of saying this:
… you can instead say something like this:
In other words, you talk about the problems you solve and explain how you solve them.
In my case, I might say something like this:
Remember: beware of saying job titles and assuming that others will know what you mean. Examples:
➡️ You copy things? ❌
➡️ You’re like a spellchecker? ❌
➡️ You sell iPhones? ❌
I think the best approach is to give people a clear example of what you do and how that helps. Again, in my case it would be this:
➡️ Oh, I get it. That’s pretty cool. ✅
(I actually did do this and it’s my go-to example for defeating those blank stares.)
A definition of technical writing
I like a good list, so I’m going to give you some statements that I think help to sum up the essence of what we’re talking about.
- is about producing written content that informs and educates.
- is often created with special help authoring tools (HATs) but can also be written in MS Word or other text programs.
- doesn’t aim to influence or sell (though that may happen as a by-product of good content strategy).
- doesn’t have to be dry or boring. It can (and I think should) show some personality.
- doesn’t have to be about technology. The ‘technical’ is more to do with the approach to the writing rather than the subject matter.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to define technical writing. Here’s an interview I did with marketer Chloë Forbes-Kindlen:
And here’s another definition I made:
I’ve also written a technical writing primer on the Pro Copywriters’ Network.
What other technical writers say
I’ve given you my idea of what technical writing is. But how do others see it? I asked a handful of experienced colleagues for their definitions, and here’s what they told me.
Technical writers create content that explains how to use products and services. We are skilled communicators first and foremost, and often act as the middlemen between technical experts and the target audience.
Our job is to make sure the content explains concepts and tasks using terms that the audience can easily understand.
Our goal is to help readers achieve their goals without having to contact customer support.
Technical Writing is the practice of taking complex sets of information and making them understandable to readers.
In some cases, readers are technically proficient individuals like software developers or database architects. So, in this case, documentation composed by technical writers needs to be very detailed.
In other cases, readers might be non-technical users of a computer software program. So, in this case, the technical writer needs to create a user guide that is mindful of the fact that such users are not always technically capable and therefore require more visual aids and more explanations about facts, terms, processes, and what is experienced in the user interface.
Technical Writers are therefore both Technical Communicators and Technical Educators dedicated to helping readers truly understand new “systematic” information.
When asked what I do for a living, I always reply with MIT’s definition of what they call Information Design, “the art and science of preparing information so that it can be used by human beings with efficiency and effectiveness”.
That is the essence of our field for me.
What’s in a name? One of the challenges our profession, our discipline faces, is coming up with a suitable term to describe itself.
Technical writing only tells part of the story, as it doesn’t cover the visual aspect of information design. The ISTC uses the phrase technical communication, and IBM uses Information Development. These are more encompassing, but they can be harder for people sitting outside of the profession to understand.
What’s delivered can be tricky to define as well. These days, it could be misleading to think only in terms of paper manuals, online Help, or even a document itself.
What we produce could appear as sentence on a dialog screen, a pop-up definition on a web page, callout in an onboarding screen, as a subtitle to a video walkthrough, and so on.
So some organisations, such as the Government Digital Service, use the terms “content design” and “content development’.
User Assistance is another term that’s used. It gives more of a hint of what’s provided at the end of the technical communication process. We assist users. We help them when they get stuck. Ideally, we help them avoid getting stuck in the first place.
As technical communicators, we have technical knowledge and communication skills. We combine these, and apply them, mostly by using words.
On the Cherryleaf website, we say we create content that helps people use a product or complete a task. It can stop them getting stuck, frustrated and making mistakes.
We also have a Venn diagram based on a definition used by Mark Baker. One circle contains “What users want to do.” Another circle contains “Things users cannot figure out for themselves.” We bridge the gap between the two.
I always tell people I’m a Technical Writer and then wait for a reaction. This can be:
– “Ah OK. Cool” and therefore needs no further explanation.
– An “OK I’ve heard of that, but am not 100% sure what it is” expression.
– “A what?”
Thankfully, the number of people in the first two categories has dramatically increased from 10 years ago!
Dealing with the later two categories requires the same skill set as writing documentation. There are so many variables to take into consideration. For example:
– Does the audience require additional explanation?
– What level of detail is required.
– How long have you / they got?
I normally add that I work for a software company. This normally helps, as most people will have used some form of user assistance whilst struggling with an application. It can also be useful to lead to further discussion about why what I do is important, and how difficult it can sometimes be.
I always have an example up my sleeve to help explain my job if required. This is normally based around a simple Microsoft Word task (i.e. adding a table column). What this allows me to do is discuss more complex considerations (e.g. table expertise level, whether there are merged cells, column widths, etc.). Suddenly they start to get a clearer picture of what we do.
Labels for technical writers
Putting aside what technical writing is for a moment, there are plenty of labels for technical writers themselves (perhaps that’s part of the problem). I’ve heard all of these terms associated with technical writing roles:
- technical writer
- technical communicator
- technical copywriter ⬅️ this is the label I use for my work
- technical author
- content writer
It’s ironic that in a business that’s so focused on clarity, technical writers struggle to label themselves well.
What sort of work does a technical writer do?
Another way to understand more about technical writing is to look at the sort of content that a technical writer might create. Here are some examples of tasks a technical writer might work on:
- API documentation
- mobile app documentation
- case studies
- data sheets
- help guides
- how-to content
- HR documents
- employee briefings
- non-disclosure agreements
- policies and procedures
- event and conference write-ups
- technical brochures
Not all of these tasks are inherently techie – they’re more about presenting logical, structured content that reveals facts in a clear and simple way.
Here are some examples of the technical copywriting services I offer:
What’s the difference between technical writing and copywriting?
Technical writing is about educating, informing and explaining. It’s non-sales content that helps the reader understand a subject.
A technical writer creates content that educates, informs and explains.
Copywriting is about persuading people and influencing behaviour. It’s the sort of writing you see on sales pages, but can be found anywhere where the reader is encouraged to take some action.
This means that copywriting can apply to adverts, political campaigns or charity literature – anything that compels the reader to do something.
I had a stab at a copywriting definition here:
Copywriting is about persuading people and influencing behaviour.
While copywriting often takes a biased approach (which is natural if the content is trying to convince someone to take action), technical writing is far more neutral, focusing on concepts, facts and processes.
Technical writing is not about taking sides: it’s about sharing facts.
Another way to sum up the differences is to say that technical writing tells, copywriting sells.
I think many copywriters are probably happy working on marketing materials for techie businesses, and more and more technical writers are moving away from producing traditional, stuffy procedural documentation.
The middle ground is the technical copywriter, which is the label I think bests suits what I do.
Hiring a copywriter – what to look for
Here are 12 things to look for when hiring a freelance technical writer.
Google and LinkedIn should be all you need. Would you hire someone who isn’t discoverable via those channels?
Yes, there are loads of other platforms out there, but most competent writing professionals should be easy enough to find via Google and LinkedIn.
If you disagree, let me know in the comments below.
Your ideal technical writer should be well trained and able to demonstrate a commitment to continuing professional development (CPD).
The last thing you want is someone who ‘learned everything they need to know’ years ago and who hasn’t bothered to keep up with new developments.
Keeping up to date is especially important when it comes to IT and other technical subjects, because of the sheer rates of progress in these fields.
Think back to the end of the last decade: how aware were you of cybersecurity, cloud computing, social media, responsive web design, and so on?
Look for someone who’s on the ball with up-to-date training.
2. Editorial skills
Look for someone who is accurate and concise with their words.
Some excellent writers aren’t great at self-editing. Take a look at any writing they’ve made public, e.g. on their blog.
Is the content tight? Are there typos and other errors?
If you can spot problems with their text, what would your customers think if the writer were to produce content for you?
I don’t think it’s possible to edit your own writing well unless you leave a long time between writing the draft and editing it. That way, the text being edited feels like fresh content.
This isn’t practical in many workflows: there just isn’t the time or money available for the writer to act as a competent editor.
And yet that’s what most clients expect from their writers.
They want perfect text with no errors.
So, what’s the solution?
In my opinion, the best course of action is to use the services of a professional editor and proofreader.
I use professional editors and proofreaders to ensure the quality of the content I produce for my clients.
As a former director of what is now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), I’ve been fortunate to be in regular contact with a lot of editorial professionals – so finding someone to assist me with a project is never a challenge. I usually call upon one of my colleagues from the South Wales Editors collective.
And yes, the fact that there’s an editorial step in my workflow means that my rates are higher than those of some other technical writers.
But that’s OK – I work with clients who want the best and who are willing to pay for it. (For more information about pricing, take a look at my Technical writing prices series.)
Although there’s no substitute for a professional pair of eyes, I’ve written a post that might help. Check out my top 10 proofreading tips to help you polish your content.
3. Website and social profiles
These days, it’s natural that we look online to find out as much as we can about others before doing business with them. An obvious place to start is on their website. What impression does it give? Has your prospective writer cobbled something together in a few minutes or have they taken the time to publish a professional design? Do they have a blog? What sort of information do they share?
Most tech-savvy people have some form of social media presence. Take a look at the big three social networks: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Does your writer have accounts there? Are they active? How professional do they seem?
I’ve had some elements of my website professionally designed, but have built the rest myself.
I’m most active on LinkedIn
4. Modern software
Many clients don’t know that technical writers usually don’t spend much time in Microsoft Word.
Looking for someone with Word skills therefore isn’t going to be a fruitful avenue of research.
If you want a good technical writer, look for someone who has skills in modern help authoring tools (HATs) such as MadCap Flare and Adobe RoboHelp.
These are heavyweight computer programs that enable technical writers to produce effective online and print output, including content that’s optimised for consumption on mobile devices.
This software isn’t cheap – it’s one of several reasons why technical writing services can be so expensive.
I used Adobe RoboHelp for years but made a wholesale switch to MadCap Flare in 2014.
I like working with code so I also use professional text editors such as BBEdit to write and edit HTML, CSS, XML, Markdown and other types of content.
5. Client history
Do you want to work with someone fresh to the market?
Sometimes the answer will be yes: you want to give someone a chance, save money, or take an unusual approach.
More often than not, you’ll want to put your project into the hands of someone with experience.
So take a look at the other clients your chosen technical writer has worked for.
Have they tackled big projects for established companies, or is their work limited to smaller organisations and individuals?
Since going freelance at the end of 2009, I’ve worked with individuals, small businesses and some of the real big players, such as Virgin Media and Sky.
Is your prospective technical writer someone who has been recognised by other leaders of the industry? As we’d say in football parlance, ‘show me your medals’.
I’ve picked up a couple of gongs along the way. I was awarded Microsoft Most Valuable Professional from 2003 to 2007, and was named Unsung Hero of Publishing 2016.
Industry awards aren’t easy to come by. It’s far more likely that a writer will be able to confirm their skills by demonstrating ‘social proof’ – that’s a buzzword term for testimonials, recommendations and reviews.
Take a look at what past clients have said about your prospective copywriter. What impression do you get?
8. Positions of responsibility
Look for a writer who’s really invested in what they do.
A good way to do that is to see which organisations they’re part of and whether they have a prominent role within them.
People who are leading the industry should be able to offer insights you won’t find elsewhere.
Hiring someone like that could be the difference between creating good content and creating great content. Think about how high you wish to aim.
I was a director of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) for 5 years. I’m also involved with the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) and the Professional Copywriters’ Network (PCN).
Be wary of people who take a long time to respond to your queries. Are they too busy to get back to you?
If they are, how much attention are they going to give to your job? Are you going to be at the end of their queue as they focus on bigger clients?
(Someone actually said that to me once – guess how much business I do with him now.)
It isn’t reasonable to expect a service provider to be plugged in to the grid all the time, so if you send a long email on a Sunday evening, don’t expect a reply within a few minutes. But in general you should expect a reasonably swift response.
Lack of responsiveness is one of my biggest turn-offs when it comes to dealing with other people online.
I’m probably more sensitive to this than most, but I can’t stand it when someone keeps me hanging on for days for a response.
The icing on the cake is that the reply, when it eventually arrives, is usually a one-line email that doesn’t answer all of my questions. Shoot me now!
I always try to be Mr Responsive when I communicate with clients.
Email is my weapon of choice, though I’m doing a lot more via Skype/Zoom these days.
One of the most important things to look for is someone whose writing style matches what you want for your own documentation.
A talented writer will be able to adapt to any style you request, but keep in mind that their natural approach to producing content will usually shine through.
Look for a portfolio or blog that shows off the writer’s style. Is it the right fit for you?
I aim to write in a style that is simple, clear and elegant. My blog acts as my writing portfolio.
In my experience, keeping things simple is the best way to achieve effective results. That’s why I steer clear of big words and complex expressions.
As I said in my interview with the PCN, nobody ever complained that some piece of copy was too easy to read.
I hate having to hunt around for prices, so I’d always favour someone who’s transparent with their charges.
It’s hard to make comparisons when some freelancers quote their prices and others don’t.
If you find a freelancer you think might be a good fit, ask them for a ballpark figure of costs.
If they can’t or won’t answer that question, think twice.
Are they going to be ludicrously expensive? Have they not done this sort of work before? Find out.
Your ideal technical writer should be able to give you an idea of their approximate day rate.
Some writers prefer to quote an hourly rate and a very small number prefer a per-word rate.
Whichever method they prefer, a technical writer should be able to give you some idea of how much their service will cost.
Given that the number one question I’m asked by prospective clients is ‘how much do you charge?’, I don’t see the point of trying to hide my prices.
It’s important to find someone who takes their craft seriously.
No client wants to feel as though they’re dealing with someone in it for a fast buck.
One way that freelance technical writers can reassure their clients is to take up professional indemnity insurance (PII). This is a common feature of other service providers.
Think about plumbers, electricians, lawyers, dentists. Would you hire someone who isn’t insured?
PII isn’t so common in the field of writing, but wouldn’t you feel more comfortable if your chosen technical writer were insured?
I have a PII policy that covers my technical writing services up to the value of £500,000. My clients know that I’m committed to my profession and that I won’t vanish should anything go wrong.
I’m glad to report that I’ve never come close to having to make an insurance claim.
Let’s wrap up
My basic definition is that technical writing is written content that helps to educate or inform readers about a product, service or process.
Technical writers are known by many different labels, which is ironic given that we’re meant to be the masters of precision and clarity.
The most important lesson here is to focus not on your job title but instead on what it is you do to help people.
That leads to better understanding and better conversations. And that in turn can lead to more business