An Insider's Perspective on Technical Writing

Contrary to apparent prevailing public opinion, not everyone can write -- or write well. This is especially true when it comes to technical writing. While there seems to be a sense in the business world that such skills are inherently part of many technical jobs (e.g., engineer, manufacturing operator, quality assurance representative), my years of diverse experience and exposure in the corporate world suggest strongly otherwise.

Interestingly enough, even the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has acknowledged that technical writers are truly in a league of their own. For the first time, the BLS is listing technical writers as a distinct profession in their latest 2010-2011 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). In addition to commonly expected skills for writers -- the ability to communicate well and possess a good command of language, spelling, and grammar, -- what sets technical writers apart and makes them successful is:

  • A background or significant knowledge and understanding in a technical field
  • A keen attention to detail
  • An avid sense of curiosity and inquisitive nature

From my perspective, a strong aptitude for critical thinking and logical reasoning will raise the bar and help proficient technical writers excel.

In spite of this advancement, it remains extremely frustrating and disheartening to encounter colleagues who continue to think that anyone can do technical writing. If that were the case, then why would there be college programs dedicated to the subject, and why would the BLS have taken steps to differentiate technical writers from all other writers?

That is because technical writing is truly unique and different. How? The point of technical writing is to break down complex topics into manageable chunks presented in an organized fashion to make it easy for the reader to use or apply the information. It is objective and fact-based in nature and not intended to express opinion, narrate a story, or convey/provoke emotion. It is a form of writing that is highly specialized, organized, logical, sequential, and specific.

Here are some tips to good technical writing from an industry insider:

  • Know your audience and your subject first and foremost. Key in on the audience's needs, and then tailor your writing to meet those needs. Ask yourself: What does the reader need from the information? Why are you writing/providing the information? How will the reader use the information? How will the information be delivered (hardcopy or electronic)?
  • Conduct your research and gather all necessary facts; consult with subject matter experts as needed.
  • Outline the information. Ensure the outline organizes and presents the information logically and reflects the order in which steps must be completed.
  • Start the draft, understanding that the process will evolve. Very few, if any, writers -- including the most seasoned and experienced -- ever get the document right or complete with the first draft. Write to the level of technical ability and understanding of the readers; if diverse, target the needs of the masses. Rework as necessary.
  • Use action-oriented, precise, specific, concrete words in your document; avoid vague, ambiguous language or generalizations. Likewise, don't try to impress the reader with jargon or confusing technical terms. Write the information in the most efficient, straightforward way -- plain and simple.
  • Be clear and concise. Include only information that is of value to the reader and absolutely required -- no more, no less. Too little information may mean that crucial details have been overlooked, increasing the potential for errors during execution. At the opposite extreme, too much information means that you will lose your reader in the vast expanse of words, causing lost time trying to translate and figure out what is meaningful, correct, and relevant. In the business world, time is money.
  • Chunk information into sections or small units, using headings and subheadings to make the information manageable and flow well. Keep ideas, sentence structure, and grammatical usage parallel. Maintain focus, and make every word count!
  • Confirm that all facts, operations, data, calculations, etc., are correct and accurate. Also, verify that the information is complete with no critical information omitted inadvertently.
  • Incorporate pictures, flowcharts, diagrams, etc., when value-added and helpful to clarify or enhance understanding; put these elements in context with the text.
  • Polish the final product by tidying up any inconsistencies that could trip up the reader or create a sloppy end product. Check for inconsistencies both within the document and across documents that may be cited as references. Clean up spelling, grammar, and punctuation; adhere to any necessary style requirements.
  • Edit the document, or give it to an experienced writer/editor for review and editing. Delete any extraneous words, and streamline redundancies wherever possible.
  • Go out and test the document by walking it down. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader, or get assistance from people unfamiliar with the topic to read through and perform any steps. The true measure of whether the document is a quality product is if it can be used effectively by the reader. Nothing else matters.

The key is to produce quality documents that support the business needs clearly and effectively, enhance the business image professionally, and support its reputation within the industry. Give the readers just what they need, the way they need it, when they need it.

Poor instruction in technical documents could be costly in many ways. It could contribute to the manufacture of a potentially defective product that cannot be sold. Or, it could increase the potential for harm from safety incidents or employee accidents. No pressure, but it is important to get it right.

Not up to the task? Even these tips will not make you an expert technical writer. Only time and lots of practice can do that. In the meantime, have the humility to seek out and use skilled technical writing resources if you are lucky enough to have them available within your organization. The amount of time, money, effort, and frustration they will spare you makes it well worth reaching out to them for assistance. Let them boldly go where you may fear to tread.

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