In 20 Years as a Technical Writer, I Never Created a Technical Document
Technical writers—thousands of them—have been around for decades. But once you realize what a technical writer does, you’ll see how unsuitable that title is.
You’ll realize there’s not much technical nor writing involved.
Now, the technical writing profession is healthy and expanding. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the growth of technical writing jobs as “faster than average.”
But what is technical writing? Why is it usually not “technical”? And why isn’t it “writing”? And can you become a technical writer?
What Is Technical Writing?
Let’s look back at how technical writing began. The second half of the 20th century saw many technical advances in computer, medical, aerospace, military, and transportation technologies.
And people needed to know how to use these new technologies.
Someone had to meet with the engineers and record how to use cool new stuff. The user manuals they produced walked people through the process of implementing and using these technologies.
Those writers were called technical writers.
Enter the 21st century. Wikipedia states:
While commonly associated with online help and user manuals, technical writing covers a wide range of genres and technologies. Press releases, memos, reports, business proposals, datasheets, product descriptions and specifications, white papers, résumés, and job applications are but a few examples of documents that are considered forms of technical writing. (“Technical Writing,” Wikipedia)
Did you notice how many items are not technical?
Why Tech Writing is Usually Not Technical
Most technical writing today is not technical.
The confusion with the role is found in the title. The discipline is based on precise expression, but the title—technical writing—is ironic.
When I began my career at Dow Jones in 2000, there were no degree programs or certifications in technical writing. I benefited from the company’s first-rate instructional program by learning how to create technical diagrams. (At the job, I created technical diagrams in Visio from crude shapes in PowerPoint or cruder shapes drawn on pieces of paper.)
Today, there is a multitude of certifications and degree programs in technical writing at professional schools and colleges. But in spite of its growth, the misnomer remains.
Who’s the Audience?
The first consideration for a technical writer (or any writer) is to identify the audience. Who will be reading this? What is the reader’s level of expertise with this subject matter?
Most technical writing is not written for a technical audience. The writing may cover complex topics, but the readers are usually not experts in technology. Most technical writing is thus
What Are Considered “Technical” Documents?
In addition to the list in the Wikipedia paragraph above, here are more technical writing deliverables that typically do not contain technical content:
· Case studies
· Job descriptions
· Online help
· Policies and procedures
· Progress reports
· Standard operating procedures
· User guides
· Video scripts
· Website content
Ask people (even writers) about technical writing, and many will say they’re not sure what it is. They might add that they can’t do it because they’re “not technical.” The assumption is that technical writing requires some in-depth technical knowledge.
Let me emphasize—it usually just requires a bright person with strong verbal and writing skills.
Why Tech Writing is Usually Not Writing
Obviously, technical writing requires some writing, but most technical writers are mostly aggregators or synthesizers of content. It’s collecting, researching, analyzing, synthesizing,
and editing content.
Where does content come from? Sometimes you can find relevant or similar content online. Examples or templates of operations manuals or user guides are all over the Internet. Writers hired for a project can start by relying on existing templates and similar documents. It’s often just called good research.
But typically, you’ll get some direction from a department or function in the company. They might be business analysts, engineers, software developers, a quality assurance team, administrators, or architects. They could also come from interacting directly with the product itself or communications among departments.
Does this Mean Technical Knowledge is Unnecessary?
Of course not. The more you have technical or domain knowledge in an area you’re documenting, the less you have to rely on the technical folks for input. And the happier they’ll be that you’re not tapping their limited time with requests for information.
Most technical writers don’t have a background in development or engineering and are not likely to know what they’re documenting as good as the technical specialists. This means the more a writer can research and learn on their own to help mitigate their own ignorance, the better the documentation process will go.
So What Is Technical Writing Really Like?
Technical writing could be compared to translating a foreign language into your native language—a language you’ve mastered. But, because you can do this, hardly means you can
do the reverse.
Let’s look at it another way. Technical writing could be compared to documenting all the components of a car’s engine. You’ll write down their names and how some parts are connected to other parts. That does not mean you’re qualified to get under the hood of the car and assemble an engine with those parts. But you could work with a technical person to translate their instructions into useable directions.
Maybe someday, someone will come up with a more apt title for technical writing. What do you think about complexity translator?
Some Unfortunate Consequences
What are some unfortunate consequences of the ill-fitting title of Technical Writer?
- Qualified candidates are discouraged from pursuing the profession because they’ve accepted the common but false idea that they’re “not technical enough.”
- Unqualified people stumble into the profession because a body was needed and they filled a purpose for a limited time. But Dan, formerly from Marketing, or Susan, the previous Office Manager, are not the best fit for this position and their work will reflect it. Meanwhile, those with stronger skills are turned away.
Are You Ready to Try Technical Writing?
Technical writing is a lucrative occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates its median annual salary at nearly $72,000.
If you like to write, are interested in technology, and enjoy communicating to a diverse group of people, chances are you can succeed as a technical writer. I’ve identified seven qualities of successful technical writers. They:
· Write and edit well
· Learn quickly and holistically
· Speak well and often (but not too often)
· Enjoy learning about technology
· Perform independent research
· Operate well in a support role (not the center of attention)
· Take pride in refining their craft
Last year, I made well over six figures—100% remotely—while working as a
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