What is a Technical Writer?

A technical writer is someone who transforms complex and technically difficult written material into clear and concise documentation that will be read by target audiences. They gather and develop technical information in order to create maintenance and operating instructions, technical and instructional manuals, journal articles, and other documentation for manufacturers, designers, and clients.

Technical writers can be found working in many areas, such as technology, engineering, medicine, and the sciences.

What does a Technical Writer do?

A technical writer transforms complex and technically difficult written material into clear and concise documentation that will be read by target audiences.

A technical writer prides him/herself on having excellent language, writing, and communication skills, and strives to create professional and error-free documentation in order to establish credibility with the audience. Technical writers also have excellent research and exploration skills, and carry out extensive research in order to create a document that communicates information in clear, useful terms. This, in turn, helps the reader find, understand, and use what they read appropriately.

When given an assignment, the technical writer must first analyze the target audience in order to define what they will require. The sound or feel of a document is governed by the targeted audience and the document type. Accurate audience analysis will shape what the document's presentation, design, and content will be like, and define whether the communication will be lighthearted, humorous, formal, or professional.

Analyzing the target audience will also help to define the tone and knowledge level of the document, and tailor it specifically. For example, software documentation tends to be very clear and simple, so that inexperienced users can easily follow it, whereas medical procedures used by physicians may be less simplified, because it assumes that the reader already has knowledge in the field.

The following are a few questions a technical writer may ask themselves at the outset of a document:

  • who will the target audience be?
  • what is the knowledge level of the audience?
  • what is the role of the audience?
  • what is the task of the audience?
  • what is the purpose of the document?
  • what will the audience be persuaded to do?

Another component of technical writing is document design. The technical writer will look at how to use images, lists, charts, and headings in order to increase usability. They will put emphasis on important sections, such as 'useful tips', or 'warning' sections, by using various colours, bolding, type sizes, and fonts. The technical writer must at the same time keep in mind that overly complex graphs, ornateness, too many headings, illegible font, etc., will hinder the reader's comprehension. Therefore, keeping everything clear and concise, and keeping out the 'visual noise' and 'visual bulk' is the technical writer's main design strategy. After completion, a document is usually submitted for editing, and after approval, published in the appropriate venue.

Are you suited to be a technical writer?

Technical writers have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

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What is the workplace of a Technical Writer like?

Technical writers work for a variety of industries, such as engineering, the sciences, medicine, and technology. Technical writing follows a development lifecycle that often parallels the product development lifecycle of an organization, and a technical writer often works as part of a writing or project development team. Technical writers also work together with document specialists, editors, content managers, instructional designers, graphic designers and illustrators, and analysts to produce deliverables.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a Technical Writer?

Aspiring technical writers can earn a four-year Bachelor’s degree, a two-year Associates’ degree; or a technical writing certificate, which typically takes six months to complete. Most technical writers have a Bachelor’s and most employers ask for this qualification.

What are Technical Writers like?

Based on our pool of users, technical writers tend to be predominately artistic people. At first, the description of ‘technical’ writers as artistic may seem incongruent. In fact, this prevailing characteristic further dispels the myth that technical writing is dull and uncreative. The crafting of language, whether to write a poem or a user manual, is always an art.

Steps to becoming a Technical Writer

The process of becoming a technical writer demands more than a commitment to formal education. Because the field involves ongoing collaboration with experts from many subject areas and often many different industries, it requires a dedication to lifelong learning.

Should I become a Technical Writer?

To answer this question, you need to dispel some myths surrounding technical writing and then compare the occupation’s required characteristics and skill set with your own.

The Myths

Technical writers only write about highly technical, scientific, technological, medical, or systematic topics. This is probably the biggest fallacy of all. At its core, technical writing is about conveying factual information, for a particular purpose, to a targeted audience. Producing material for an engineering firm will certainly be of a complex and technical nature. But technical writers create a wide variety of documents, including schedules, training manuals, product descriptions, reference guides, and even press releases.

Technical writing is boring and lacks creativity. Typically, people assume that the act of writing is creative. Technical writing, however, is perceived as dull and boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Technical writers cover almost every conceivable topic and they can be asked to create anything from a spec sheet for a piece of machinery to a journal article.

Technical writers need a technical background. A talented technical writer does not need to know anything about the subject matter before starting a project. Whoever hires you is the expert. It is your job to read provided literature, ask intelligent questions, conduct research as needed, and transform the materials into comprehensible text for the intended audience.

Technical writing has a very rigid structure. While there are certain standard elements in many documents, the writer is charged with finding innovative ways to present information and ideas and make them stand out. Some material may be rigid or dry; its presentation does not have to be. In fact, unexciting data or info often provides the biggest challenge to a writer’s creativity.

The Required Characteristics

Love of learning If you are one of those people who never reads instruction manuals in favor of ‘just figuring it out,’ you may have the aptitude to become a technical writer. If you like to investigate, explore, and figure out how a product, device, or app works, you have the mindset to learn new things.

Teaching mentality and imagination Being a technical writer means that you need to be able to break down complex information and make it simple. You have to avoid jargon and use language that gives users without technical experience exactly what they need when they need it.

Attention to detail Do you have the natural ability to follow up on details? Are you the one who finds the one typo in an article or notices when someone misuses words? Do you enjoy reviewing, proofreading, and editing your own or others’ work? If so, you possess some of the traits that will help you produce quality documentation on the job.

Flexibility As engineers and product developers tweak their designs, technical writers will be called upon to adjust their related documentation. There will inevitably be times when you are asked to move from one ‘emergency’ to another, and then back to the first one. The ability to adapt and roll with the punches is imperative.

The Required Skill Set

Communication skills Technical writers are seldom authorities on the subjects they write about. In this role, therefore, you cannot be too shy to ask the ‘dumb questions’ that make engineers really think about their answers. In short, you have to be a talented communicator, listener, and interviewer; part journalist and part investigative reporter.

Writing skills This is the core competency demanded of a technical writer. Simply stated, your job will consist of taking technical material and explaining it in easy-to-understand ways. In other words, it is up to you to make the reader feel smart.

Documentation tools skills Knowledge of tools used to produce technical documentation is an asset. Some commonly used tools are Adobe FrameMaker, MadCap Flare, RoboHelp, PageMaker, and Quark. But as already noted, technical writers are accustomed to learning – it is really at the foundation of what they do – and most are capable of learning a new tool quickly and efficiently.

Graphic design skills To a growing extent, the technical writer needs an appreciation for graphics, formatting, and illustration. The need for knowledge in these areas varies from project to project. Required skills may be rudimentary or advanced.

Usability testing skills A technical writer may be asked to take an active role in testing usability and validating documentation. Confirming that a product works as it is documented to work is vital.

Technical writing perfectly combines writing and technology. If you love the richness and versatility of the English language and you are fascinated by the evolution of technology, this may, in fact, be the career for you.

Technical Writers are also known as:
Technical Communicator Information Developer Technical Documentation Specialist