What is technical writing and why do technical writing skills matter?
Technical writing refers to any documentation that helps explain technical, technological, or scientific subject matter for an audience that needs instruction, learning, or understanding. Traditionally, this has meant the documentation of processes and instructions for user guides, instruction manuals, and other educational materials, like the manuals that accompany electronic equipment.
More broadly, it refers to any communication used in any technical field, including computer hardware and software, engineering, chemistry, aerospace, robotics and machine learning, analytics, medicine and health technology, consumer electronics, biotechnology, and more.
Technical writing is indisputably a specialized form of writing because it requires an ability to translate complex and sometimes arcane or abstract material into understandable, usable forms. Thus, good technical writing is about more than producing a grammatically correct document: it’s about producing documentation and communications that can help the reader produce a desired outcome by applying their understanding in real-world scenarios.
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What are examples of technical writing?
- Instructions, procedures, and user guides and manuals
- Technical proposals
- Deviation or exception reports
- Product or technical specifications
- Technical reports
- Technical or scientific articles for publications
- Case studies
- Help systems
- And more
How can your team develop their technical writing skills?
1: Understand the Purpose
What is the purpose of the technical document? If necessary, perform a use-case or problem-solving analysis where you examine the problem the document is solving or articulate the use-case scenario in which the document will be used.
2: Know the Audience
Who’s going to be reading the technical document? The best technical writers target their writing directly to their intended audience, using vocabulary with which the reader is familiar and comfortable, and speaking to their exact knowledge level. It’s a much different experience writing a document for peers with specialized knowledge, end-users who just want to make the machine work, and the general public who may know nothing about the subject matter.
3: Focus on Clarity
Clarity is king in good writing. This is true for all forms of writing, but it’s particularly important when writing about technical topics. The audience’s level of understanding makes a difference here. Generally, technical writers should avoid jargon, for example, but specific audiences may expect some phrasing and might get confused in its absence. In the end, confusion is the enemy of a good technical document, and everything technical writers do – from how they organize the document to the specific words they use – must be clear and understandable.
4: Keep It Simple
Technical topics can skew toward the complex, which makes it even more important for technical writers to keep the documents they produce as simple as possible. Document organization should be simple and straightforward. The language used should be simple, precise, and readable at the educational level of the intended audience. Guidance and instruction should be broken down into simple, easy-to-follow steps. Descriptions and discussion should be kept simple; added information that unnecessarily complicates the subject matter should be deleted or moved to a footnote or appendix.
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5: Use Visuals
On the point of simplicity, a good visual can distill otherwise complex subject matter into something that can be consumed and understood at a glance. In the case of technical writing, accompanying visuals can take a dizzying array of forms – photographs, illustrations, flowcharts, tables, charts, and more. One word of warning: resist the temptation to over-rely on visuals. Wordless instruction that relies exclusively on visuals – think IKEA instruction manuals for assembling furniture – can work in some situations, but in other cases can turn an attempt to simplify into a form of shorthand only engineers can understand. Further, visuals are not always as intuitive as their creators may think; like the text itself, visuals must be targeted to the audience and their knowledge and comfort level with the subject matter.
6: Use Examples
The simplest technical writing needs little embellishment. A simple user guide for setting up a new gadget often just needs a few step-by-step instructions. But if the material is more complicated than that or covers abstract topics, consider integrating examples, cases, and real-world applications into the document to bring otherwise technical subject matter to life.
7: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread.
A mistake in a technical document can be worse than unprofessional, it can potentially compromise the effectiveness of the instructional or educational material. Proofread carefully, and then proofread again and again. Ideally, multiple people should review the document before it’s exposed to its target audience to ensure it’s correct and ready for prime-time.
8: Get training.
Because technical writing is a distinct form of content production, it has its own associated skillsets and masteries. The best way for teams to develop technical writing skills is to get valuable training and education in this form of writing. We’re not the only ones who think so: one study found that 80.5% of professional engineers, for example, believe that technical writing skills should be required of engineering students due to the importance to their work. Technical writing isn’t limited to engineers, however, and any professional who works with technical topics will benefit from skills development in this area.
For more tips about developing technical writing skills, check out our previous article on this topic.
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