What is technical writing?

What is technical writing?

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.

A technical writer turns complex source material into writing that’s clear and simple to consume.


What is technical writing? A conversation

Blank stares aplenty here

Introduction

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:

πŸ’¬ I’m a technical writer.

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:

πŸ’¬ My job title is X.

… you can instead say something like this:

πŸ’¬ I help people to Y by doing Z.

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:

πŸ’¬ I save clients time and reduce their support costs by writing content that explains how their products, services and processes work.

Remember: beware of saying job titles and assuming that others will know what you mean. Examples:

πŸ’¬ I’m a copy-editor.
➑️ You copy things? ❌

πŸ’¬ I’m a proofreader.
➑️ You’re like a spellchecker? ❌

πŸ’¬ I’m a digital marketer.
➑️ 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:

πŸ’¬ I wrote a help guide for the Sky+ remote control so people wouldn’t have to keep calling for support on how to set up their TVs.
➑️ Oh, I get it. That’s pretty cool. βœ…

(I actually did do this and it’s my go-to example for defeating those blank stares.)

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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.

Technical writing:

  • 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 ChloΓ« Forbes-Kindlen:

And here’s the definition I cooked up for my technical writing page:

I’ve also written a technical writing primer on the Pro Copywriters’ Network.

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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.

Craig Wright

Craig Wright
Technical writer
StrayGoat Writing Services

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.

Keith Johnson

Keith Johnson
Technical writer
Techwriterguy

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.

Kevin Chilton

Kevin Chilton
Technical writer

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.

Ellis Pratt

Ellis Pratt
Cherryleaf

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.

Colum McAndrew

Colum McAndrew
Knowledge Base Manager
Mimecast

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 πŸ’΅

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Who wrote this?

John Espirian freelance technical copywriter

John Espirian – the relentlessly helpful technical copywriter

I write B2B web content, blogs, user guides and case studies – all aimed at explaining how your products, services and processes work. I also offer LinkedIn profile critiquing and rewriting.

I work from home in Newport, South Wales and support the (formerly) mighty Liverpool FC πŸ”΄βš½οΈ