Technical writing is writing or drafting technical communication used in technical and occupational fields, such as computer hardware and software, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics, robotics, finance, medical, consumer electronics, biotechnology, and forestry. Technical writing encompasses the largest sub-field in technical communication.
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 by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites; or (3) providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is".
Further information: Technical writer
Technical writing is performed by a technical writer (or technical author) and is the process of writing and sharing technical information in a professional setting.: 4 A technical writer's primary task is to communicate technical information to another person or party in the clearest and most effective manner possible.: 4 The information that technical writers communicate is often complex, so strong writing and communication skills are essential. Technical writers not only convey information through text, but they must be proficient with computers as well. Technical writers use a wide range of programs to create and edit illustrations, diagramming programs to create visual aids, and document processors to design, create, and format documents.
While technical writing is commonly associated with online help and user manuals, the term technical documentation can cover a wider 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 writing that can be considered technical documentation. Some types of technical documentation are not typically handled by technical writers. For example, a press release is usually written by a public relations writer, though a technical writer might have input on any technical information included in the press release.
While technical writing has only been recognized as a profession since World War II,: 2 its roots can be traced to classical antiquity.: 233 Critics cite the works of writers like Aristotle as the earliest forms of technical writing.: 234 Geoffrey Chaucer's work, Treatise on the Astrolabe, is an early example of a technical document. The earliest examples of technical writing date back to the Old English period.
With the invention of the mechanical printing press, the onset of the Renaissance and the rise of the Age of Reason, documenting findings became a necessity. Inventors and scientists like Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci prepared documents that chronicled their inventions and findings.: 1 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.: 3 There was an increasing need to provide people with instructions for using the more and more complex machines that were being invented.: 8 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 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.: 2 This rapid growth, coupled with the urgency of war, created an immediate need for well-designed documentation to support the use of these technologies. Technical writing was in high demand during this time, and "technical writer" became an official job title during World War II.: 1
Following World War II, technological advances led to an increase in consumer goods and standards of living.: 3 During the post-war boom, public services like libraries and universities, as well as transport systems like buses and highways, saw substantial growth. The need for writers to chronicle these processes increased.: 1 It was also during this period that large business and universities started using computers. Notably, in 1949, Joseph D. Chapline authored the first computational technical document, an instruction manual for the BINAC computer.
The invention of the transistor in 1947 allowed computers to be produced more cheaply and within the purchasing range of individuals and small businesses.: 3 As the market for these "personal computers" grew, so did the need for writers who could explain and provide user documentation for these devices.: 3 The profession of technical writing saw further expansion during the 1970s and 1980s 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 changes in the tools technical writers use.: 3 Hypertext, word processors, graphics editing programs, and page layout software have made the creation of technical documents faster and easier, and technical writers of today must be proficient in these programs.: 8–9
Good technical writing is concise, focused, easy to understand, free of errors, and audience-based.: 7 Technical writers focus on making their documents as clear as possible, avoiding overly technical phrases and stylistic choices like passive voice and nominalizations.: 236–245 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 how to use 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 their audience.: 84–114 A technical writer needs to be aware of their audience's existing knowledge about the material they are discussing as the knowledge base of the writer's audience determines the content and focus of a document.: 84–114 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. They often collaborate with SMEs to complete tasks that require more knowledge about a subject than they possess.: 51
Technical writing must be accurate. A technical writer, after analyzing their audience, knows what they need to communicate and then needs to convey the message in an accurate and ethical manner. Physical, environmental, or financial repercussions could result if a writer does this incorrectly. Knowing the audience is essential to accuracy because the language will be tailored according to what they already understand about the subject at hand. For example, instructions on how to correctly and safely assemble a bookshelf are included with purchase. Those instructions are constructed so that anyone can follow along, including accurate details as to where each fastener goes. If those instructions were inaccurate, the bookshelf could be unstable and fail.
Document design and layout are also vital components of technical writing.: 261–286 Technical writers spend large amounts of time ensuring their documents are readable 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.: 306–307
Technical writing covers many genres and writing styles, depending on the information and audience.: 84–114 Technical documents are not solely produced by technical writers. Almost anyone who works in a professional setting produces technical documents of some variety. Some examples of technical documentation include:
The following tools are used by technical writers to author and present documents: