What Is Technical Writing?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

technical writing
"The only good criterion for technical writing is 'does it work?' This indicates that in technical writing as well as in other rhetorical forms, the writer-reader relationship is most important" (Gordon Mills and John Walter, Technical Writing, 1954). (Hero Images/Getty Images)

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.)

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."

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."

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" (Technical Writing, Presentational Skills, and Online Communication, 2012).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "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."
  • Characteristics of Technical Writing
    Here are the main characteristics of technical writing:
    • Purpose: Getting something done within an organization (completing a project, persuading a customer, pleasing your boss, etc.)
    • Your knowledge of 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 
  • Audience and Purpose in Technical Writing
    "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.

Sources

Gerald J. Alred, et al., Handbook of Technical Writing. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006

William Sanborn Pfeiffer, Technical Writing: A Practical Approach. Prentice Hall, 2003

Mike Markel, Technical Communication, 9th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010