What Is Technical Writing?

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Technical writers write, edit, and prepare publications in many fields of technology, science, engineering, and medicine including articles for technical and scientific journals. The publications may be technical reports, instruction manuals, articles, papers, proposals, brochures, and booklets, and even speeches for technical meetings and conferences.

Technical writers must remain objective and factual with the subject matter they have been assigned to write. Their sole function is to deal dispassionately with facts and objects and to relate useful, relevant, reliable information so their audience can understand it. The language the writers use must be simple, direct, and contain a minimum number of nonfunctional descriptive adjectives. The verbs in their sentences must be in the active rather than the passive mood to eliminate any doubt about what their writing means or implies.

Any writing that requires familiarity with (or willingness to learn about) a technical field would be considered technical writing. Writing about museum conservation is technical writing as much as writing user manuals for a software product or a troubleshooting guide for a broken tractor. Technical writing is a useful communication tool whenever information of a technical nature must be transmitted.

Sharing Your Knowledge

Technical writers have another very important function: namely, to teach others about their profession. One technical writing graduate made the following statement about her job: "A very interesting thing has happened to me. I'm giving a thirteen-week course in technical writing for my department, the civilian Atomic Power Department. I also edit reports and classify and abstract patents on nuclear-powered reactors."

It is likely that this technical writer will go far because she has jumped into a new area and has demonstrated her ability to explain, describe, and illustrate. These characteristics will help her immeasurably in preparing training programs.

Making A Name For Yourself

Will you become famous as a technical writer? It's highly unlikely. In fact, technical writers are often, by necessity, anonymous authors who do not get to see their byline attached to their work. (The exceptions to this rule of anonymity are people who write scientific or technical articles for newspapers, magazines, and learned publications under their own names or write popular how-to guides.)

Why no byline for most technical writers? The next time you try to assemble a child's toy or a new barbecue grill, program your VCR, or hook up your new fax machine, look on the instruction booklet for the name of the person responsible for the directions- the person you'd like to complain to. You won't find it. But that aside, most employers who produce technical material want to reach their audience with concise and easy to understand language and promote their product or train their audience in its use. No writing stars are required or encouraged.

You can, though, build a name for yourself through your list of credits. Every assignment you land and complete becomes another line to add to your resume. In some cases you might even be able to keep a sample of your work and create a professional portfolio to show to new clients. Word of mouth and employer and client references and recommendations also will help you to become known in your area of specialization.

Job Titles For Technical Writers

Although the term "technical writer" is the most common job title used, there are other titles as well as ranks: assistant technical writer, associate technical writer, consulting technical writer copyeditor, copywriter, corporate technical writer, course developer, curriculum designer, curriculum planner, documentation contractor, documentation specialist, education specialist, information systems writer, instructional designer, junior technical writer, knowledge analyst, lead technical writer, senior technical writer, software technical writer, technical communicator, technical editor, technical intern, technical translator trainer.

Technical Writing Fields

The number of areas in which a technical writer can work are vast and varied. Most technical writers specialize in just one, sometimes two, areas. A software manual writer wouldn't be expected to be knowledgeable about the environment or advertising, just as a medical writer wouldn't necessarily be familiar with auto mechanics.

The following list of fields technical writers write for is just a guide. Your own research will no doubt help you add to it:
  • advertising

  • agriculture

  • architecture

  • armed forces

  • computer system documentation

  • corporate communications

  • education

  • electronics

  • engineering

  • entertainment

  • environment

  • film and documentaries

  • finance and banking

  • government

  • graphics design

  • information development

  • instructional design

  • insurance

  • investments

  • journalism

  • manual writing

  • manufacturing

  • market research

  • mechanics

  • medicine

  • multimedia specialist

  • pharmaceuticals

  • proposal writing

  • public relations

  • publication management and design

  • publicity

  • research firms

  • sales

  • science

  • telecommunications|

  • video production

  • web page authoring and site design
The different specializations and the type of writing technical writers do in various areas are covered in-depth in other articles.
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