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Technical Writing Introduction
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One thing I have often gotten asked about by non-writers, or by writers new to professional writing, is to define the nature of technical writing: a profession I served in off and on for a number of years until the IT bubble burst in about 2001 or 2002.

I have even found some instances in which clients or employers had a full understanding of what a “technical writer” position might signify.

Indeed, this title covers a broad range of different document types: some of which might never cross the mind of people unfamiliar with the profession.

Overall, the technical writing field involves work that combines the concepts “technical” and “writer,” but there are various technical specialties within that broad definition.

There are also a few areas that some people regard as “technical writing” and others do not, but categorize in the more broadly based realm of general “business writing.” In this form, you will find technical writers writing such materials as human resources policies and procedures or internal company-to-employee communications such as corporate employee newsletters for example.

Writers who do policies and procedures or employee communications may have positions fully dedicated to that work, or may do that work as well as more technically-oriented documents over the course of several months or a year.

Some of the kinds of technologies that technical writers may deal with include:

Computers: Perhaps the one area most people know of having association with technical writing involves the software manual and quick reference documents. However, some technical writers with the proper background may specialize in writing hardware installation and maintenance manuals.

Online. Related to computers, technical writers may author online help systems and things like FAQs for a distributed computer system, or networked system. Technical writers working in this area need a good grasp of the difference in effective delivery between print and online documentation distribution.

Aviation. There are technical writers who write an array of documents dealing with aircraft and aeronautics. These writers need good technical knowledge of the aeronautics industry and the particular aircraft they write material pertaining to. These writer produce documentation such as pilot checklists and aircraft maintenance manuals. They may also have reason to write materials pertaining to procedures relating to activity involving aircraft carrier seagoing vessels.

Medical. Medical technical writers often come out of a background or prior work as a Registered Nurse, particularly at a supervisory level, and some training or prior work as a writer. These technical writers may write anything from proposals for review by the Federal Drug Administration to operating and maintenance manuals for such biotechnology devices as defibrollators. Medical technical writers also may write documents related to pharmaceuticals: including all the “when to take/not to take” information that nowadays comes stabled to the bag containing your prescriptions.

These are the fields I am most familiar with, however, you may also find technical writers working in such technologies as engineering, architecture, nuclear power plant operations, and environmentally-oriented documentation production: among others.

What all the disciplines share in common is a need for the writer to communicate effectively within the perspective of user need from the document, and to have a strong awareness of good ways to enhance the message through visuals and good use of white space.

Developing writers who want to hone skills for this type of writing need to learn that much of effective writing lies in the planning stage, focus on the message as the audience perceives it versus the natural writer-focused way of writing a first draft, and develop the appropriate technical skills for whichever field they would like to pursue.


Street Talk

Nice article, Christine. If I wanted to hire a technical writer how would I confirm their ability "to communicate effectively within the perspective of user need"?

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
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