What It's All About

Technical writing is the process of taking complicated, technical jargon and translating it into plain language. Former U.S. President Nixon spearheaded the plain-language movement to demystify government regulations in the 1970s. The U.S. Federal Government now offers guidelines for plain-language writing at http://www.plainlanguage.gov/index.cfm.

Technical writing is just one important part of a much broader category called technical communication. Technical communication includes writing, editing, illustration, design, and development. The bulk of this kind of writing consists of user manuals, programmer guides, administration manuals, installation guides, and company software guides. A good technical writer stands out by taking complex information and presenting it in a clear, concise manner for all to understand. This is crucial in many different industries, including computer programming, consumer electronics, finance, and a wide range of scientific fields.

Technical writers develop their work by translating existing documentation and updating it with their own original content. They also seek input from subject matter experts, or SMEs. For example, engineers, doctors, pilots, chemists and actuaries can all act as SMEs in their chosen fields or topics. Most technical writers are versatile communicators, rather than technical specialists. If the technical writer does not have any expertise in a particular subject area, then he or she interviews SMEs to develop content. The corporate lawyer usually reviews the collaborative work of the technical writer and SMEs before it is published. Front line staff may "test drive" the instructions before the publication is finally released to laypeople.

The first step in technical writing is the audience analysis. The writer must understand who the reader is, why the reader needs the document, where it will be read, and the costs involved. The Marketing Department may supply the writer with a persona, which is a profile of a fictitious average customer. Alternatively, the writer may conduct a needs analysis by interviewing customers firsthand to find out where they encounter difficulty with a product. The writer tailors the document to the audience. For example, Black & Decker's The Complete Guide to Home Plumbing for amateurs reads differently than The National Plumbing Codes Handbook for licensing exams. The writer must consider the appropriate vocabulary, length, illustrations, case studies, binding, paper, spine and legal disclaimer. The needs of one novice working under a dimly lit, leaky sink with minimal tools are different from the needs of a classroom full of professional plumbers led by an expert.

Technical writers are also referred to as information developers, documentation engineers, or technical content developers. Most technical writers majored in English or Communications and are comfortable with writing about many different topics.

A Tech. Writing Overview (pdf)

Characteristics of Effective Technical Writing (pdf)

Reconsidering the Basics of Technical Writing: What are the Basic Units of a Quality Writing Project?

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