Tech­ni­cal writ­ing: what is spe­cial about it?


Tech­ni­cal writ­ing, as a career option, has gained ground over the years. It calls for a unique blend of skills involv­ing writ­ing abil­ity with a strong tech­ni­cal angle. We explore dif­fer­ent aspects of tech­ni­cal writ­ing in detail in this new series.

Tech­ni­cal man­ual should give the oper­at­ing instruc­tions in plain lan­guage. You should get the points in the first read­ing itself. There should be no ambi­gu­ity. Clar­ity is supreme.

The prob­lem with allow­ing the engi­neers who cre­ate a pro­gram also to write its Help and Tuto­ri­als is that you get peo­ple who can­not write, writ­ing Help for peo­ple who do not need help.”

— Mark Rector

Soci­ety, in gen­eral, treats writ­ers with respect. They are con­sid­ered knowl­edge­able. They are endowed with skills that many oth­ers do not have. They can influ­ence peo­ple. Remem­ber the adage “The pen is might­ier than the sword.”

Most peo­ple nur­ture a desire to write. But only a few suc­ceed, since it needs a sys­tem­atic effort and per­sis­tence. Ensur­ing read­abil­ity is not easy. One dif­fi­culty encoun­tered by writ­ers is that they have to use the same tools peo­ple use in every­day life. These are words. How well you choose and use them deter­mines the qual­ity of your writ­ing. If you want to suc­ceed as a writer, tell the ordi­nary things in the extra­or­di­nary way. At the same time, use sim­ple lan­guage eas­ily under­stood by the readers.

In sharp con­trast with this, look at what the painter or musi­cian or dancer can do. Their media are not words, but some­thing not used by peo­ple in every­day life.

To be a good writer, you have to pay atten­tion to detail. No small thing can be ignored. “Small things make per­fec­tion, but per­fec­tion is no small thing.”

Attrac­tive pro­fes­sion

Let us now focus atten­tion on tech­ni­cal writ­ing that has emerged as an attrac­tive pro­fes­sion. What is tech­ni­cal writ­ing? How does it dif­fer from gen­eral writ­ing? What are the attrib­utes of effec­tive tech­ni­cal writ­ing? What are the spe­cial areas that deserve spe­cial attention?

We may say that any writ­ing should be eas­ily read­able. But with tech­ni­cal writ­ing, this aspect assumes greater impor­tance. Tech­ni­cal writ­ing involves the cre­ation of a doc­u­ment for a spe­cific tech­nol­ogy. Let us take a sim­ple exam­ple. You buy a wash­ing machine or a DVD player. Along with the equip­ment, you get a brochure. It should give the oper­at­ing instruc­tions in plain lan­guage. You should get the points in the first read­ing itself. There should be no ambi­gu­ity. Clar­ity is supreme.

While writ­ing instruc­tions, do spec­ify what should be done at each stage and indi­cate the result of the action sug­gested. The text should be accu­rate and read­able. It should help the intended users in grasp­ing the mes­sage as quickly and eas­ily as possible.

A gen­eral reader with­out tech­ni­cal knowl­edge should be able to com­pre­hend what is writ­ten in the brochure. There should be no wordi­ness or cir­cum­lo­cu­tion. These objec­tives can be met sat­is­fac­to­rily only by a com­pe­tent per­son who has thor­ough knowl­edge of the tech­nol­ogy employed and ade­quate pro­fi­ciency in tech­ni­cal writing.

The illus­tra­tion of a user-manual shown above is per­haps ele­men­tary. There are instances where more com­plex areas have to be addressed. You can say that tech­ni­cal writ­ing is a sub­set of the larger sub­ject of tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion that embraces sev­eral fields in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and beyond.

It is not just about brochures for con­sumer electronics.

There has to be lit­er­a­ture in the fields of soft­ware, diverse indus­trial prod­ucts and sci­en­tific equip­ment and processes. Sev­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers need sim­ple instal­la­tion man­u­als, train­ing man­u­als, brochures and ref­er­ence book­lets to be pre­pared well. In an indus­trial envi­ron­ment, sim­ple doc­u­ments such as cir­cu­lars, notices, pro­pos­als, reports, research papers and house jour­nals may have tech­ni­cal con­tent. Effec­tive prepa­ra­tion of such doc­u­ments calls for com­pe­tence in tech­ni­cal writing.

Tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion embraces oral forms as well. They may include dic­ta­tion, pre­sen­ta­tion, speech, dis­cus­sion, tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, tele­con­fer­ence and so on. Skilled tech­ni­cal writ­ers are needed to write web con­tent, online help and FAQs (fre­quently asked ques­tions). Cus­tomer sup­port mate­r­ial needs con­stant revi­sion, tak­ing into account new tech­nol­ogy, cus­tomer demands, and mar­ket trends.

Apart from writ­ing, a tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tor may have to han­dle jobs involv­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, pro­cess­ing and deliv­ery of mate­r­ial to clients. Doc­u­ments should com­ply with the pre­vail­ing mar­ket styles and stan­dards. Inno­va­tions enhance the pres­tige of the doc­u­ments for marketing.

If we remem­ber that tech­ni­cal writ­ing is inte­gral to busi­ness, we shall realise its impor­tance. It costs money and time. It cre­ates impres­sions and builds rep­u­ta­tion. Writ­ing may have to be expos­i­tory (inform, explain) or per­sua­sive (con­vince, influ­ence, sway). The qual­ity of doc­u­ments pre­pared by you influ­ences your stand­ing in the organisation.

World of jar­gon

There are big leaps in the fields of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. Pro­fes­sional sci­en­tists or tech­nol­o­gists have their jar­gon. Only very few of them can come out of their world of jar­gon and express their ideas in plain lan­guage. But the users of tech­nol­ogy are usu­ally not famil­iar with the jar­gon or lingo of pro­fes­sional groups.

So there has to be peo­ple who can func­tion as an inter­face between the cre­ator of tech­nol­ogy and its user.

The tech­ni­cal writer should play this role of inter­con­nec­tion. If you want to suc­ceed as a com­pe­tent tech­ni­cal writer, you have to be a per­son who enjoys writ­ing. You should have the patience to revise and mod­ify your draft sev­eral times. You have to boil down fat. You must put your ideas in as fewer words as pos­si­ble, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing clarity.

Many peo­ple who do not aspire to become tech­ni­cal writ­ers may have to know the vital aspects of good tech­ni­cal writ­ing. Sci­en­tists, engi­neers and tech­nol­o­gists who are tech­ni­cally bril­liant may not rise to the posi­tions they deserve unless they are good at pre­sent­ing their ideas con­vinc­ingly in an attrac­tive style.

Appro­pri­ate skills in com­mu­ni­ca­tion have become crit­i­cal tools for pro­fes­sional suc­cess. The final prod­uct of their work may be a writ­ten doc­u­ment or an oral pre­sen­ta­tion. But cur­ric­ula of courses in sci­ence or tech­nol­ogy do not usu­ally con­tain strate­gies for fine tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Spe­cial efforts have, there­fore, to be made by indi­vid­u­als to com­pen­sate poor aca­d­e­mic training.

There are occa­sions in which want of ade­quate skills in tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion can lead to mis­in­for­ma­tion and con­se­quent acci­dents or legal tan­gles. Tech­ni­cal prob­lems that can be resolved only with the sup­port of pro­fes­sion­als from diverse dis­ci­plines may pose dif­fi­cul­ties, unless infor­ma­tion is given with pre­ci­sion. Tai­lor­ing lan­guage to the needs of spe­cific audi­ences requires skill.

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