Technical Writing

Technical writing is a form of technical communication designed to document and explain the basics of a technical subject regardless of it being abstract or tangible. The word technical comes from the Greek techne, which is often translated as art, skill or craft. The goal of this style of writing is to provide users with easy to comprehend information on how to operate a particular device or with details on how it actually works. Examples of technical writing include printed or online user manuals, assembly and installation instructions, analysis reports or summaries of lengthy reports, employee guidelines or handbooks. Sometimes the final product simply includes a list of steps to take in order to reach an objective.

Technical writing evolved as a professional field of communication which was established during World War I because of a growing need for such materials in the military, aerospace, production and electronic industry sectors. The Society for Technical Communication (S.T.C.) is the oldest and biggest professional association for technical writers. It is the result of a number of merger transaction between several U.S. organizations during the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The S.T.C. has its headquarters in Virginia.

The task of a technical writer is to carry out research; analyze the subject in question along with the target audience; synthesize all the information; and create a clear documentation. The writer will spend time writing, reviewing, revising and editing the material. Since most of writers are not experts in all subject areas, they will need to go through other technical documents, reports, references and manuals or consult with specialists to gather the necessary information to complete their work. An important factor is that the writer takes into consideration the reader's level of understanding of the matter. It is easier for the writer to do his or her job when the reader is an expert or at least is familiar with the topic, as explanations for many of the specific terms may not be necessary. Moreover, the writer may use a wider range of technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations. On the other hand, the task becomes harder when the reader is considered a novice with no knowledge on the subject matter, as the writer has to explain all the details. There is no place for first person references or the use of slang in this style of writing. Still, if the target audience allows it, jargon may be used, although only in an appropriate way. Often the writer has to take the role of a teacher who instructs a student on a specific subject and this explains why educators usually become successful in this field.

The final product should include a table of contents, extensive index as well as diagrams and picture material that would help the reader assimilate the information more quickly. If the writer presents the subject through a web page, he or she may also choose to put hyperlinks and animations which can be extremely helpful. The advantages of online writing are that it is inexpensive compared to the production of a printed book. However, its biggest disadvantage is that the final product may only be distributed through computer media such as CDs or via the Internet. Many people still prefer a printed product, especially if they are not confident with computers and other forms of technology.

To get a job as a technical writer an applicant does not necessarily have to obtain a college degree but in most cases he or she has a better chance of employment prospects by following a course in English, journalism, creative writing, engineering or computer science. Furthermore, the job-seeker may also want to obtain professional or technical writing certificates from the relevant institutions. The prospective technical writer needs to acquire a number of qualities and skills so that he or she may implement the work properly. These include research, organizational, communication, computer and of course good writing and editing skills. In addition, it is crucial for the writer to be able to simplify difficult to understand information since this is the primary objective of the particular writing style. It is also necessary for the writer to be dedicated to their role and put in the hours necessary to finish the task in an allocated time and thus meet the assigned deadlines.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical, and Business Communication
Christopher Turk; John Kirkman.
E & FN Spon, 1989 (2nd edition)
Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology
Ann Hill Duin; Craig J. Hansen.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
Scientists Must Write: A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students
Robert Barrass.
Routledge, 2002 (2nd edition)
Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design
Kim Sydow Campbell.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995
Professional Writing in Context: Lessons from Teaching and Consulting in Worlds of Work
John Frederick Reynolds; Carolyn B. Matalene; Joyce Neff Magnotto; Donald C. Samson Jr.; Lynn Veach Sadler.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Four "Writing in High-Tech Firms"
Writing for Your Peers: The Primary Journal Paper
Sylvester P. Carter.
Praeger, 1987
Writing Workplace Cultures: An Archaeology of Professional Writing
Jim Henry.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2000
Writing like An Engineer: A Rhetorical Education
Dorothy A. Winsor.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
Writing Successfully in Science
Jenny Gretton; Maeve O'Connor.
E & FN Spon, 1999
How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper
Robert A. Day.
Oryx Press, 1998 (5th edition)
The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies
Peter Dear.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers
Deborah Blum; Mary Knudson.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century
Barbara Mirel.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts
Patrick Dias; Aviva Freedman; Peter Medway; Anthony Pare.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Studying Engineering at University: Everything You Need to Know
Clare Rhoden; Christine Tursky Gordon.
Allen & Unwin, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Technical Writing - Style by Numbers"
Writing in the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History
David R. Russell.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2002 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Technical Writing and the Technical Disciplines" begins on p. 119
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