What Is Technical Writing?

What is technical writing and what skills does a writer need? How to get more information about technical writing. Book recommendations.

About Technical Writing

Do you have a cell phone accompanied by a small manual telling you how to use it? Have you browsed the instructions that came with your microwave oven? Then, you have been exposed to technical writing.

Skills needed for technical writing

All types of writing, whether fiction, non-fiction, business, or technical writing benefit from a grounding in the mechanics of grammar and spelling. For this purpose, "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, is always a good guide.

But don't worry if you were not the star of your English class in school; when doing technical writing, you will not be writing essays or short stories. Most of all, technical writing requires the ability to write clear prose. For those readers that will not be writing in English, you will need the ability to express yourself clearly in your own language.

Pay attention to instructions whenever you see them. Many technical writing tasks include writing instructions, instructions that describe how to use a product, for example.

If you have ever read and followed written instructions: assembled a grill for cooking or put together a toy for a child; you have seen this type of writing. And, if you have ever been frustrated by the quality of some of the instructions you've read, you can see why the world always has a need for good technical writers.

There are many books available today about technical writing, and there are entire college programs devoted to technical communication (as the field is called today).

Short of going back to school, there are lots of ways to acquire skill. For an exercise in writing instructions, experts recommend taking a simple task you know well (even tying your shoes) and writing down the sequence of steps you would use to show someone else how to do it.

Michael Bremer, in his book "UnTechnical Writing" recommends beginning to pay attention to the technical writing you encounter everyday. Further, people who think they may be interested in technical writing as a career can keep a file of manuals and articles that represent good technical writing.

I think this is beneficial for all people who do any business writing as part of their work--not only those with the title of technical writer.

Bremer also recommends reading popular science books, and books written for children. Many of these, says the author, represent clear explanations of scientific and technical principles written for the layman, and that is one important task of the technical writer.

Training needed for technical writing

Closely related to the question of skill is the question of training for technical writing. Although this training does not have to be formal, today, there are college courses available. Look to your local university or community college--if you have one in your area. Look for a course in technical communication or technical writing.

Although some technical writers started in the field with an English degree or other communication degree (journalism or communications); many are just as likely to have fallen into the field, or have made a career switch without prior training in writing.

And this is a great truth about technical writing. Technical writing is at the nexus between writing and technology; people may come to the field from both realms.

For five months I read closely a technical writing newsgroup on the Internet. One frequent debate among professional writers was which degrees should be required as an entry to the profession, and also whether there should be formal requirements and certifications at all.

One thing was clear. Listening to the stories of people who had established themselves in this field, I could not see a firm trend of employers looking for specific degrees or training. Some employers looked for an English degree, but others were just as apt to look for technical experience, or a love of technology and the ability to communicate it.

Technical writers often discuss the topic of tools. What are the tools of the technical writer? Experts may recommend becoming familiar and gaining experience with tools for writing Microsoft(r) Windows help files, or with specialized tools for page layout.

The preferred tools can change however, so recommending a specific one is dangerous. Speaking with a current contact in a technology field is best.

Theories about technical writing change too. To many people, today technical writing means writing about software (or computer hardware).

Technical writing books from the nineteen-sixties describe how to write proposals, business letters, and formal reports. This information is still crucial for any business writer, but today's books often include recommendations for writing about software and working with software developers.

How to obtain more information about technical writing

There is an organization dedicated to the field, called Society for Technical Communication (STC). This organization has many chapters in the United States, and produces a journal, "Technical Communication," discussing issues in the field, and is a source of salary and job information.

Some good books on technical writing are:

"Making Money in Technical Writing," by Peter Kent. IDG Books, 1997

"UnTechnical Writing," by Michael Bremer, UnTechnical Press, 1999

A book about commercial business writing (not only technical), which is also an encouraging and insightful book about starting a freelance writing business is:

"Secrets of a Freelance Writer," By Robert W. Bly (Bob Bly), Henry Holt, 1997

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