What Is Technical Writing?

Technical writing. It’s one of those things that you likely see nearly every day, without giving it a second thought. It’s there when you need it, but it’s not something you probably know much about unless you do it for a living.

We’re here to change that.

What is technical writing, anyway?

Well, if we’re getting, you know … technical, the first definition of the word technical is “belonging or pertaining to an art, science, or the like.” It can also mean “peculiar to or characteristic of a particular art, science, profession, trade, etc.” Synonyms for the word include high-tech, specialized, and scientific. The word write, of course, “means to express or communicate in writing; give a written account of.” So, technical plus writing in the simplest terms means giving a written account of technical topics, or topics that relate to the arts, sciences, professions, or trades.

Technical writing is frequently used in complicated fields like biotechnology, computer hardware and software, and chemistry with a goal to break down complicated gobbledegook into simple, understandable language.  It’s often used to compose manuals or instructional materials, but can also be used to write briefs, reports, white papers, website copy, and other communications in a technical field. Topics range from the intricate workings at NASA to a guide on how to use your coffee pot.

According to the Society for Technical Communication, technical writing meets at least one of the following three characteristics:

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

Unlike creative writing, technical writing is pretty cut and dry. It’s about taking complicated materials and breaking them down in a straight-forward, easy-to-understand manner. It takes great attention to detail and meticulous accuracy. Writing must be organized, direct, and exhaustive.

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The history of technical writing

While it may seem like a modern skill, technical writing has actually been around for centuries. According to some, it was Aristotle back around 384–322 BCE who kicked off the profession with his writing, which included a dictionary of philosophical terms.

Technical writing continued through the years, but really came to life during World War I as advances in nuclear technologies, medicine, and aerospace proliferated, along with a need for documents to accompany them. In 1953, both the Society of Technical Writers and the Association of Technical Writers and Editors were established.

In the years since, the field has only grown with the introduction of personal computers, mobile phones, and countless other products and innovations that all need documentation and supporting materials.

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Working as a technical writer

Technical writing is a hot skill to have, too. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobs for technical writers are projected to grow 7 percent between 2019 to 2029, which is better than the average rate for all occupations. As of 2019, the median pay rate for technical writers was $72,850 per year or about $35 per hour.

To become a technical writer, you’ll likely need a bachelor’s degree, usually in English, journalism, or some sort of communications. Beyond writing skills, it helps to have knowledge of the industry in which you’re writing. There’s typically a lot of industry-specific jargon and terms you’ll need to know in order to write clearly, and you must be able to learn as you go.

If you’re looking for the buzz of a byline or pine for a Pulitzer Prize, technical writing probably isn’t for you. Nor is it for those creative souls who yearn to craft memorable characters and paint gorgeous scenes with their words. If, however, you’re looking for a solid career and like the challenge of distilling complicated information and helping people understand things, then it may be a skill worth pursuing. And even if a career as a technical writer isn’t for you, we hope you now at least appreciate that coffee maker manual a little bit more.

No matter what kind of writing you are doing, it's possible some rules don't apply to you anymore. Read this article to find out.