What Is Technical Writing?

technical writing
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Technical writing is a specialized form of exposition: that is, written communication done on the job, especially in fields with specialized vocabularies, such as science, engineering, technology, and the health sciences. (Along with business writing, technical writing is often subsumed under the heading of professional communication.)

About Technical Writing

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) offers this definition of technical writing: "the process of gathering information from experts and presenting it to an audience in a clear, easily understandable form." It can take the form of writing an instruction manual for software users or detailed specifications for an engineering project—and myriad other types of writing in technical, medicine, and science fields.

In an influential article published in 1965, Webster Earl Britton concluded that the essential characteristic of technical writing is "the effort of the author to convey one meaning and only one meaning in what he says."

Characteristics of Technical Writing

Here are its main characteristics:

  • Purpose: Getting something done within an organization (completing a project, persuading a customer, pleasing your boss, etc.)
  • Your knowledge of the topic: Usually greater than that of the reader
  • Audience: Often several people, with differing technical backgrounds
  • Criteria for evaluation: Clear and simple organization of ideas, in a format that meets the needs of busy readers
  • Statistical and graphic support: Frequently used to explain existing conditions and to present alternative courses of action 

Differences Between Tech and Other Types of Writing 

The "Handbook of Technical Writing" describes the craft's goal this way: "The goal of technical writing is to enable readers to use a technology or understand a process or concept. Because the subject matter is more important than the writer's voice, technical writing style uses an objective, not a subjective, tone. The writing style is direct and utilitarian, emphasizing exactness and clarity rather than elegance or allusiveness. A technical writer uses figurative language only when a figure of speech would facilitate understanding."

Mike Markel notes in "Technical Communication," "The biggest difference between technical communication and the other kinds of writing you have done is that technical communication has a somewhat different focus on audience and purpose."

In "Technical Writing, Presentational Skills, and Online Communication," computer science professor Raymond Greenlaw notes that the "writing style in technical writing is more prescriptive than in creative writing. In technical writing, we are not so much concerned about entertaining the audience as we are about conveying specific information to our readers in a concise and precise manner."

Careers & Study

People can study technical writing in college or technical school, though a student doesn't have to earn a full degree in the field for the skill to be useful in his or her job. Employees in technical fields who have good communication skills can learn on the job through feedback from their team members as they work on projects, supplementing their work experience through taking occasional targeted courses to further develop their skills. Knowledge of the field and its specialized vocabulary is the most important piece for technical writers, just as in other niche writing areas, and can command a pay premium over generalist writers.

Sources

  • Gerald J. Alred, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing." Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006.
  • Mike Markel, "Technical Communication." 9th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010.
  • William Sanborn Pfeiffer, "Technical Writing: A Practical Approach." Prentice Hall, 2003.