A technical writer is a professional information communicator whose task is to transfer information between two or more parties, through any medium that best facilitates the transfer and comprehension of the information. Technical writers research and create information through a variety of delivery media (electronic, printed, audio-visual and even touch). Example types of information include online help, manuals, white papers, design specifications, project plans and software test plans. With the rise of e-learning, technical writers are increasingly becoming involved with creating online training material.
Technical writing is sometimes defined as simplifying the complex. Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavor at some level. A significant subset of the broader field of technical communication, technical writing involves communicating complex information to those who need it to accomplish some task or goal.
In other words, technical writers take advanced technical concepts and communicate them as clearly, accurately, and comprehensively as possible to their intended audience, ensuring that the work is accessible to its users.
...trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to the reader.
Engineers, scientists, and other professionals may also be involved in technical writing (developmental editing, proofreading, etc), but are more likely to employ professional technical writers to develop, edit and format material, and advise the best means of information delivery to their audiences.
According to the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the professions of technical communication and technical writing were first referenced around World War I, when technical documents became a necessity for military purposes. The job title emerged in the US during World War II, although it wasn't until 1951 that the first "Help Wanted: Technical Writer" ad was published. In fact, the title "Technical Writer" wasn't added to the US Bureau of Labor Statistic's Occupational Employment Handbook until 2010. During the 1940s and 50s, technical communicators and writers were hired to produce documentation for the military, often including detailed instructions on new weaponry. Other technical communicators and writers were involved in developing documentation for new technologies that were developed around this time. According to O'Hara:
War was the most important driver of scientific and technological advance. The U.S. Army Medical Corps battled malaria in the jungles of Panama, the Chemical Corps pushed chemical advances in explosives and poisonous gases (and defenses against them), the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers literally made quantum leaps in the understanding of physics, and the Air Corps pioneered aviation design.
In the beginning of the profession, most technical writers worked in an office environment with a team of other writers. Like technical writers today, they conducted primary research and met with subject matter experts to ensure that their information was accurate. During World War II, one of the most important characteristics for technical writers was their ability to follow stringent government specifications for documents. After the war, the rise of new technology, such as the computer, allowed technical writers to work in other areas, producing "user manuals, quick reference guides, hardware installation manuals, and cheat sheets." During the time period after the war (1953-1961), technical communicators (including technical writers) became interested in "professionalizing" their field. According to Malone, technical communicators/writers did so by creating professional organizations, cultivating a "specialized body of knowledge" for the profession, imposing ethical standards on technical communicators, initiating a conversation about certifying practitioners in the field, and working to accredit education programs in the field.
The profession has continued to grow—according to O'Hara, the writing/editing profession, including technical writers, experienced a 22% increase in positions between the years 1994 and 2005. Modern day technical writers work in a variety of contexts. Many technical writers work remotely using VPN or communicate with their team via videotelephony platforms such as Skype or Zoom. Other technical writers work in an office, but share content with their team through complex content management systems that store documents online. Technical writers may work on government reports, internal documentation, instructions for technical equipment, embedded help within software or systems, or other technical documents. As technology continues to advance, the array of possibilities for technical writers will continue to expand. Many technical writers are responsible for creating technical documentation for mobile applications or help documentation built within mobile or web applications. They may be responsible for creating content that will only be viewed on a hand-held device; much of their work will never be published in a printed booklet like technical documentation of the past.
In addition to solid research, language, writing, and revision skills, a technical writer may have skills in:
A technical writer may apply their skills in the production of non-technical content, for example, writing high-level consumer information. Usually, a technical writer is not a subject-matter expert (SME), but interviews SMEs and conducts the research necessary to write and compile technically accurate content. Technical writers complete both primary and secondary research to fully understand the topic.
Proficient technical writers have the ability to create, assimilate, and convey technical material in a concise and effective manner. They may specialize in a particular area but must have a good understanding of the products they describe. For example, API writers primarily work on API documents, while other technical writers specialize in electronic commerce, manufacturing, scientific, or medical material.
Technical writers gather information from many sources. Their information sources are usually scattered throughout an organization, which can range from developers to marketing departments.
According to Markel, useful technical documents are measured by eight characteristics: "honesty, clarity, accuracy, comprehensiveness, accessibility, conciseness, professional appearance, and correctness." Technical writers are focused on using their careful research to create effective documents that meet these eight characteristics.
To create effective technical documentation, the writer must analyze three elements that comprise the rhetorical situation of a particular project: audience, purpose, and context. These are followed by document design, which determines what the reader sees.
Technical writers strive to simplify complex concepts or processes to maximize reader comprehension. The final goal of a particular document is to help readers find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they understand appropriately. To reach this goal, technical writers must understand how their audiences use and read documentation. An audience analysis at the outset of a document project helps define what an audience for a particular document requires.
Accurate audience analysis provides a set of guidelines that shape document content, design and presentation (online help system, interactive website, manual, etc.), and tone and knowledge level.
A technical writer analyzes the purpose (or function) of a communication to understand what a document must accomplish. Determining if a communication aims to persuade readers to “think or act a certain way, enable them to perform a task, help them understand something, change their attitude,” etc., guides the technical writer on how to format their communication, and the kind of communication they choose (online help system, white paper, proposal, etc.).
Context is the physical and temporal circumstances in which readers use communication—for example: at their office desks, in a manufacturing plant, during the slow summer months, or in the middle of a company crisis. Understanding the context of a situation tells the technical writer how readers use communication. This knowledge significantly influences how the writer formats communication. For example, if the document is a quick troubleshooting guide to the controls on a small watercraft, the writer may have the pages laminated to increase usable life.
Once the above information has been gathered, the document is designed for optimal readability and usability. According to one expert, technical writers use six design strategies to plan and create technical communication: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone, and ethos.
Technical writers normally possess a mixture of technical and writing abilities. They typically have a degree or certification in a technical field, but may have one in journalism, business, or other fields. Many technical writers switch from another field, such as journalism—or a technical field such as engineering or science, often after learning important additional skills through technical communications classes.
To create a technical document, a technical writer must understand the subject, purpose, and audience. They gather information by studying existing material, interviewing SMEs, and often actually using the product. They study the audience to learn their needs and technical understanding level.
A technical publication's development life cycle typically consists of five phases, coordinated with the overall product development plan:
The document development life cycle typically consists of six phases (This changes organization to organization, how they are following).
Well-written technical documents usually follow formal standards or guidelines. Technical documentation comes in many styles and formats, depending on the medium and subject area. Printed and online documentation may differ in various ways, but still adhere to largely identical guidelines for prose, information structure, and layout. Usually, technical writers follow formatting conventions described in a standard style guide. In the US, technical writers typically use The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Many companies have internal corporate style guides that cover specific corporate issues such as logo use, branding, and other aspects of corporate style. The is typical of these.
Engineering projects, particularly defense or aerospace-related projects, often follow national and international documentation standards—such as ATA100 for civil aircraft or S1000D for civil and defense platforms.
Technical writers often work as part of a writing or project development team. Typically, the writer finishes a draft and passes it to one or more SMEs who conduct a technical review to verify accuracy and completeness. Another writer or editor may perform an editorial review that checks conformance to styles, grammar, and readability. This person may request for clarification or make suggestions. In some cases, the writer or others test the document on audience members to make usability improvements. A final production typically follows an inspection checklist to ensure the quality and uniformity of the published product.
There is no single standard career path for technical writers, but they may move into project management over other writers. A writer may advance to a senior technical writer position, handling complex projects or a small team of writers and editors. In larger groups, a documentation manager might handle multiple projects and teams.
Technical writers may also gain expertise in a particular technical domain and branch into related forms, such as software quality analysis or business analysis. A technical writer who becomes a subject matter expert in a field may transition from technical writing to work in that field. Technical writers commonly produce training for the technologies they document—including classroom guides and e-learning—and some transition to specialize as professional trainers and instructional designers.
Technical writers with expertise in writing skills can join printed media or electronic media companies, potentially providing an opportunity to make more money or improved working conditions.
In April 2021, the U.S Department of Labor expected technical writer employment to grow seven percent from 2019 to 2029, slightly faster than the average for all occupations. They expect job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, to be good. The BLS also noted that the expansion of "scientific and technical products" and the need for technical writers to work in "Web-based product support" will drive increasing demand.
Technical writers can have various job titles, including technical communicator, information developer, technical content developer or technical documentation specialist. In the United Kingdom and some other countries, a technical writer is often called a technical author or knowledge author.