What Is Technical Writing?

This is an excerpt from my book How to Get Started As a Technical Writer, written for people with little or no technical writing experience.

I believe that “technical writing” is not a specific kind of writing.

That might sound strange, given the proliferation of books about technical writing, and the growing number of college degrees and certificates in technical communication. But though there are many techniques and strategies for communicating technical information, I have yet to find one universally agreed upon definition of what technical writing is.

Here’s how I define technical writing:

The art of communicating a technical subject in a way that is understandable by and useful to a defined audience.

In other words, making the connection between a (1) technical subject, (2) an audience, and (3) a specific purpose. Technical writing requires all three.

And notice I said “art”, not “science”. The key challenge in defining technical writing is that it is more of an approach than precise science. Though it’s typically based on writing well—and there are many rules and guidelines for writing well—at its core, technical writing is nothing more than clearly communicating technical information for a specific purpose.

In everyday practice, technical writing is:

  1. Collaborative: Few technical writers work alone. Most technical writing is a highly collaborative process—your work is reviewed and corrected by subject matter experts, co-designed with peers, and co-written with other technical writers or experts.
  2. Diverse: From white papers to user guides for astronauts, there’s rarely a topic or category of technical knowledge where technical writers (or at least technical writing) aren’t involved.
  3. Practical: Technical writing is focused on real-world topics, problems and goals—how to perform a task, documenting science experiment results, understanding technical concepts, piloting an airplane.
  4. Audience-centered: Good technical writing is always tailored to a specific audience (or audiences), and made as clear and applicable as possible to the reader.

Here’s a simple example:

A company of civil engineers makes frequent trips to job sites to take measurements and collect data about the work being done. They need to know quite a few things, including: which measurements do I take? How do I take them? What job information do I need? What do I do with the information once I’ve collected it?

And so, you have:

  1. An audience: civil engineers who gather field data
  2. A technical subject: measurement and construction parameters
  3. A purpose: A need to accurately and completely take measurements and gather data

Your job as a technical writer might be to write a field guide for this audience that explains the concepts and procedures they need to follow to accomplish that purpose. That will require you to do many things: learn about the audience and how they work, identify the specific tasks and concepts they need to know, determine how to write the guide and make it available, and so on.

I’ve known many technical writers who made careers out of writing software manuals. Another wrote training materials for factory workers building printers. Yet another now helps scientists explain test procedures so other scientists can duplicate them. One of the best technical writers I know spends much of her day writing technical marketing materials for physicians and nurses.

Each of these writers follow different strategies and writing styles, use different tools, and write for very different audiences. But they all share the same goal: clearly communicating technical material in a way that is understandable and useful to their defined audience.

So what does this mean for you, just starting out in technical writing? It means you should focus on:

  1. Developing your communication skills and abilities with technical subjects
  2. Knowing the preferred styles, processes and tools of your chosen industry
  3. Basic techniques for understanding and writing for your audience.

Don’t worry about learning to write “technically”, because you’ll be wasting your time. Instead, learn to write clearly and effectively, learn the basic tools to do that, and learn how to understand and communicate to your specific audience. For more advice on these three skills, see the chapter 5 Skills Every Technical Writer Must Have, and How to Acquire Them in How to Get Started As a Technical Writer.