Do you know what technical writing is? It’s not a term most people are familiar with.
📚 Just here for a definition?
Technical writing is written content that educates, informs and explains how products, services and processes work.
Good technical writing conveys factual content in a clear, simple and useful fashion.
- 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?
- 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’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:
💬 My job title is X.
… you can instead say something like this:
💬 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:
💬 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:
💬 I’m a copy-editor.
➡️ You copy things? ❌
💬 I’m a proofreader.
➡️ You’re like a spellchecker? ❌
💬 I’m a digital marketer.
➡️ 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:
💬 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.
➡️ 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.)
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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.
- is about producing written content that informs and educates.
- is created with special help authoring tools (HATs) but is also often written in plain old MS Word.
- 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 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.
Knowledge Base Manager
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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.
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:
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.
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 💵
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