The Society for Technical Communication defines technical communication as any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: “(1) communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations; (2) communicating through technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites; or (3) providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of the task's technical nature”. Therefore, technical writing is any writing that exhibits any of these characteristics.
Technical writing is performed by a technical writer and is the process of writing and sharing information in a professional setting. A technical writer’s main task is to convey information to another person or party in the most clear and effective manner possible. The information that technical writers convey is often complex, and it is one of their main tasks to analyze the information and present it in a format that is easy to read and understand. A good technical writer needs strong writing and communication skills and must be proficient with computers, as technical writers do not just convey information through text. They use a wide range of programs like Adobe Photoshop to create and edit images, diagramming programs like Microsoft Visio to create visual aids, and document processors like MadCap Flare to design and format documents.
With the invention of the mechanical printing press, the onset of the Renaissance and the rise of the Age of Reason, the need to document findings became a necessity, and inventors and scientists like Isaac Newton and Leonardo Di Vinci prepared documents that chronicled their inventions and findings. While never called technical documents during their period of publication, these documents played a crucial role in developing modern forms of technical communication and writing.
The field of technical communication grew during the Industrial Revolution. As more and more complex machines were invented and used, the need for instructing people how to use these devices became vital. However, unlike the past, where skills were handed down through oral traditions, no one besides the inventors knew how to use these new devices. Writing thus became the fastest and most effective way to disseminate information, and writers who could document these devices were desired.
During the 20th century, the need for technical writing skyrocketed, and the profession finally became officially recognized. The events of World War I and World War II led to advances in medicine, military hardware, computer technology, and aerospace technologies. This rapid growth, coupled with the urgency of war, created an immediate need for well-designed and written documents that chronicled the use of these technologies. Technical writing was in high demand during this time, and became an official job title during World War II.
Following World War II, technological advances led to an increase in consumer goods and standards of living. During the post-war boom that preceded World War II, public services like libraries and universities, as well transport systems like buses and highways saw massive amounts of growth, and the need for writers to chronicle these processes increased. It was also during this period that computers started being used in large businesses and universities. Notably, in 1949, Joseph D. Chapline authored the first computational technical document, an instruction manual for the BINAC computer.
The discovery of the transistor in 1947 allowed computers to be produced more cheaply than ever before. These cheaper prices meant that computers could now be purchased by individuals and small businesses. And as a result of the computer’s growing prominence, the need for writers who could explain and document these devices grew. The profession of technical writing saw further expansion during the 70s and 80s as consumer electronics found their way into the homes of more and more people.
In recent years, the prominence of computers in society has led to many advances in the field of digital communications, leading to many changes in the tools technical writers use.Hypertext, word processors, graphics editing programs, and page layout software have made the creation of technical documents faster and easier than ever before, and technical writers of today must be proficient in these programs.
Good technical writing is concise, focused, easy to understand, and free of errors. Technical writers focus on making their documents as clear as possible, avoiding overly technical phrases and stylistic choices like passive voice and nominalizations. Because technical documents are used in real-world situations, it should always be explicitly clear what the subject matter of a technical document is and what should be done with the presented information. It would be disastrous if, for example, a technical writer’s instructions on how to use a high-powered X-ray machine were difficult to decipher.
Technical writing requires a writer to extensively examine his or her audience. A technical writer needs to be aware of his or her audience’s existing knowledge about the material he or she is discussing because the knowledge base of the writer’s audience will determine the content and focus of a document. For example, an evaluation report discussing a scientific study’s findings that is written to a group of highly skilled scientists will be very differently constructed than one intended for the general public. Technical writers do not have to be subject-matter experts (SMEs) themselves and generally collaborate with SMEs to complete tasks that require more knowledge about a subject than they possess.
Document design and layout are also very important components of technical writing. Technical writers spend much time ensuring their documents are laid out in a fashion that makes readability easy, because a poorly designed document hampers a reader’s comprehension. Technical document design stresses proper usage of document design choices like bullet points, font-size, and bold text. Images, diagrams, and videos are also commonly employed by technical writers because these media can often convey complex information, like a company’s annual earnings or a product’s design features, far more efficiently than text.
Technical writing covers many genres and writing styles depending on the information and audience. Below are some examples of the most commonly produced technical documents. As these examples show, technical documents are not solely produced by technical writers. Almost anyone who works in a professional setting produces technical documents of some variety.
Instructions and procedures are documents that help either developers or end users operate or configure a device or program. Examples of instructional documents include user manuals and troubleshooting guides for computer programs, household products, medical equipment, and automobiles.
Proposals. Most projects begin with a proposal—a document that describes the purpose of a project, the tasks that will be performed in the project, the methods used to complete the project, and finally the cost of the project. Proposals cover a wide range of subjects. For example, a technical writer may author a proposal that outlines how much it will cost to install a new computer system, and a teacher may write a proposal that outlines how a new biology class will be structured.
Emails, letters, and memoranda are some of the most frequently written documents in a business. Letters and emails can be constructed with a variety of goals—some are aimed at simply communicating information while others are designed to persuade the recipient to accomplish a certain task. While letters are usually written to people outside of a company, memoranda (memos) are documents written to other employees within the business.
Press releases. When a company wants to publicly reveal a new product or service, they will have a technical writer author a press release, a document that describes the product’s functions and value to the public.
Specifications are design outlines that describe the structure, parts, packaging, and delivery of an object or process in enough detail that another party can reconstruct it. For example, a technical writer might diagram and write the specifications for a smartphone or bicycle so that a manufacturer can produce the object.
Descriptions are shorter explanations of procedures and processes that help readers understand how something works. For example, a technical writer might author a document that shows the effects of greenhouse gases or demonstrates how the braking system on a bike functions.
Résumés and job applications are another example of technical documents. They are documents that are used in a professional setting to inform readers of the author’s credentials.
Technical reports are written to provide readers with information, instructions, and analysis on tasks. Reports come in many forms. For example, a technical writer might evaluate a building that is for sale and produce a trip report that highlights his or her findings and whether or not he or she believes the building should be purchased. Another writer who works for a non-profit company may publish an evaluation report that shows the findings of the company’s research into air pollution.
White papers are documents that are written for experts in a field and typically describe a solution to a technological or business challenge or problem. Examples of white papers include a piece that details how to make a business stand out in the market or a piece explaining how to prevent cyber-attacks on businesses.
Web sites. The advent of hypertext has changed the way documents are read, organized, and accessed. Technical writers of today are often responsible for authoring pages on websites like “About Us” pages or product pages and are expected to be proficient in web development tools.
The following tools are used by technical writers to author and present documents:
Desktop publishing tools or word processors. Word processors such as Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Open Office Writer are used by technical writers to author, edit, design, and print documents. Since technical writing is as much about the page’s layout as it is the written language, Desktop Publishing tools such as Adobe FrameMaker and LyX are also used by Technical Writers. These programs function similarly to word processors but provide users with more options and features for the document’s design and automate much of the formatting.
Help authoring tools are used by technical writers to create the help systems that are packaged with software products, delivered through web browsers or provided as files users can view on their computers. When writing instructional procedures for incredibly complex programs or systems, technical writers will use these tools to assist them and simplify the process. Adobe RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, Author-it and HelpNDoc are a few examples of Help Authoring Tools.
Image editing software. Often, images and other visual elements can portray information better than paragraphs of texts. In these instances, image editing software like Adobe Photoshop and GIMP are used by technical writers to create and edit the visual aspects of documents like photos, icons, and diagrams.
Web development tools. Technical writers’ jobs are no longer limited to just producing documents. They must now also produce content for company’s corporate and other professional web sites. Web Development Tools like Adobe Dreamweaver are standard tools in the industry that technical writers are expected to be proficient in.
Graphing software. In order to portray statistical information like the number of visits to a restaurant or the amount of money a university spends on its sporting programs, technical writers will use graphs and flowcharts. While programs like Microsoft Excel and Word can create basic graphs and charts, sometimes technical writers must produce incredibly complex and detailed graphs that require functions not available in these programs. In these instances, powerful graphing and diagramming tools like Microsoft Visio are used to effectively organize and design graphs and diagrams.
Screen capture tools Technical writers commonly use Screen Capture Tools like Camtasia Studio and Snagit to capture their desktops. When creating instructions for computer software, it’s much easier for a technical writer to simply record themselves completing a task than it is to write a lengthy series of instructions that describe how the task must be performed. Screen capture tools are also used to take screenshots of programs and software running on user’s computers and then to create accompanying diagrams.