TW 101: What is Technical Writing?

The Society for Technical Communication defines technical communication as something like:

...information about technical processes or products directed to a targeted audience through various forms of media...

That works for me, more or less.1

Another way to think about being a technical writer is being a sort of ambassador. The technical writer's job is to be a go-between for people who know something and people who don't, particularly when that something is specialized in some way. In this way, technical communication is very much like teaching, as well.

The "something" that people know that needs to be communicated might be very technical information that needs to be communicated in a very formal way, like requirements for a rocket, or it might only feel technical to someone who is pretty introductory in the subject matter. Sometimes, communicating the technical information is best done using quick tips in or on the product, illustrations, or quick videos. Sometimes, it's best to use a decidedly informal tone.

Examples of technical communication are all around us:

  • Danger signs with warnings or instructions that advise us not to do something

  • Conceptual information as might be covered in a meteorology or archeology textbook.

  • Diagrams to express what can be difficult to say in ten thousand words.

  • Guides or tips about the best way to use some app

  • Instructions or steps for using some tool or feature or performing some task

Here's the video. Embedding is giving me a hard time. I'll get that sorted out later.

  • Reference material about a technical or proprietary topic. [Disclosure: that link goes to some of my stuff. Blogger's prerogative.]

Wait a minute, Haber. You make it sound like everything is technical writing or communication or whatever. That can't be right.

Fair enough. But notice what I haven't included:

  • poetry
  • drama and fiction
  • essay and memoir
  • literary criticism

Now, mind you, those things and others are all things that I love. But they're not about imparting specialized knowledge to people that don't have it yet. That means, in my mind, they're not technical communication.

Also, notice what I haven't done. True to the definition from the STC, I haven't limited us to a particular medium or tool. In your career, you might write lots of standard operating procedures using MS Word. You may impart technical knowledge via cartoon videos. I can imagine that. Neither the medium nor the tool is the point. The communication is the point. If that happens, then job done. If not, then back to the drawing board.

So, to sum up:

Technical writing is all around us. When it's good, we barely notice it because it makes technical things clear. But not everything is technical.

Personal note

I am a working technical writer and I work in the software industry. I write documentation about how to use software, how to administer it, and how to program it. Rockets, financial packages, and medical devices are all very important things to document, but I have never documented them. I am going to try to counteract my own gravitational pull toward discussing software and will certainly try to generalize from my experience, but really, I only have my experience personal or vicarious to go on.

I'd love to hear your experiences, too. Feel free to use the combox at the bottom of every page.


1Disclaimer: I use the term 'technical writing' interchangeably with the term 'technical communication'. I would never do that if I were in the middle of the act of technical writing, but as I am not, I will take a moment of literary license. We all know that communication is a broader genus of which writing is a species. If you will give me this indulgence, I promise you that we will all be happier for it. If an occasion arises in which precision is required, I will be sure to call out the heightened precision.

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