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Technical communication is a set of methods that practitioners use to research and document technical processes or products. Technical communicators may put the information they capture into paper documents, web pages, digitally stored text, audio, video, and other media. The Society for Technical Communication defines the field as any form of communication that focuses on technical or specialized topics, communicates specifically by using technology or provides instructions on how to do something. More succinctly, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators defines technical communication as factual communication, usually about products and services. Whatever the definition of technical communication, the overarching goal of the practice is to create easily accessible information for a specific audience.
- 1 As a profession
- 2 Content creation
- 3 References
As a profession
Technical communicators generally tailor information to a specific audience, which may be subject matter experts, consumers, end users, etc. Technical communicators often work collaboratively to create deliverables for various media. Deliverables include online help, user manuals, white papers, specifications, industrial videos, reference cards, data sheets, journal articles, patents, and forms and documents.
Technical communication jobs include the following:
- Technical Writer
- Technical editor
- Technical illustrator
- Information architect
- Usability expert
- User interface designer
- User experience designer
- Technical trainer
- Technical translator
- API writer
Technical communication is a professional task performed by specialized employees or consultants. For example, a professional writer may work with a company to produce a user manual. Some companies give considerable technical communication responsibility to other technical professionals—such as programmers, engineers, and scientists. Often, a professional technical writer edits such work to bring it up to modern technical communication standards.
To begin the documentation process, technical communicators identify the audience and their information needs. The technical communicator researches and structures the content into a framework that can guide detailed development. As the body of information comes together, the technical communicator ensures that the intended audience can understand the content and retrieve the information they need. This process, known as the 'Writing Process', has been a central focus of writing theory since the 1970s, and some contemporary textbook authors apply it to technical communication. Technical communication is important to most professions, as a way to contain and organize information and maintain accuracy.
The technical writing process can be divided into five steps:
- Determine purpose and audience
- Collect information
- Organize and outline information
- Write the first draft
- Revise and edit
Determining purpose and audience
All technical communication serves a particular purpose—typically to communicate ideas and concepts to an audience, or direct an audience in a particular task. Technical communication professionals use various techniques to understand the audience and, when possible, test content on the target audience. For example, if bank workers don't properly post deposits, a technical communicator would:
- Review existing documentation (or lack thereof)
- Interview bank workers to identify conceptual errors
- Interview subject matter experts to learn the correct procedures
- Author new material that describes the correct procedures
- Test the new material on the bank workers
Similarly, a sales manager who wonders which of two sites is better for a new store might ask a marketing professional to study the sites and write a report with recommendations. The marketing professional hands the report off to a technical communicator (in this case, a technical editor or technical writer), who edits and formats the document, and adds graphics as needed. In each of these instances, a technical communicator transfers knowledge from someone who has it to someone who needs it. This is the basic definition of technical communication.
Audience type affects many aspects of communication, from word selection and graphics use to style and organization. A non-technical audience might misunderstand or not even read a document that is heavy with jargon—while a technical audience might crave detail critical to their work. Busy audiences often don't have time to read entire documents, so content must be organized for ease of searching—for example by frequent headings, white space, and other cues that guide attention. Other requirements vary according to particular audience's needs.
Technical communication in the government is particular and detailed. Depending on the segment of government (and country), the government component must follow distinct specifications. The US Army, for example, uses the MIL-spec (Military specification). Information changes continuously and technical communications (technical manuals, interactive electronic technical manuals, technical bulletins, etc.) must be updated.
The United States Department of Defense, for example uses many technical manuals, and their creation and maintenance is a core agency responsibility. Though detail-oriented in their requirements, the DoD has deficiencies in technical communication. The following paper discusses those deficiencies and identifies the major contributing factors.
Technical communicators must collect all information that each document requires. They may collect information through primary (first-hand) research—or secondary research, using information from existing work by other authors. Technical communicators must acknowledge all sources they use to produce their work. To this end, technical communicators typically distinguish quotations, paraphrases, and summaries when taking notes.
Organizing and outlining information
Before writing the initial draft, the technical communicator organizes ideas in a way that makes the document flow well. Once each idea is organized, the writer organizes the document as a whole—accomplishing this task in various ways:
- Chronological: used for documents that involve a linear process, such as a step-by-step guide that describs how to accomplish something
- Parts of an object: Used for documents that describe the parts of an object, such as a graphic showing the parts of a computer (keyboard, monitor, mouse, etc.)
- Simple to complex (or vice versa): starts with easy ideas and gradually goes into complex ideas
- Specific to general: starts with many ideas, then organizes the ideas into sub-categories
- General to specific: starts with a few categories of ideas, then goes deeper
After organizing the whole document, the writer typically creates a final outline that shows the document structure. Outlines make the writing process easier and save the author time.
Writing the first draft
After the outline is complete, the writer begins the first draft, following the outline's structure. Setting aside blocks of an hour or more, in a place free of distractions, helps the writer maintain a flow. Most writers prefer to wait until the draft is complete before any revising so they don't break their flow. Typically, the writer should start with the easiest section, and write the summary only after the body is drafted.
The ABC (abstract, body, and conclusion) format can be used when writing a first draft of some document types. The abstract describes the subject, so that the reader knows what the document covers. The body is the majority of the document and covers topics in depth. Lastly, the conclusion section restates the document's main topics. The ABC format can also apply to individual paragraphs—beginning with a topic sentence that states the paragraph's topic, followed by the topic, and finally, a concluding sentence.
Revising and editing
Once the initial draft is laid out, editing and revising can be done to fine-tune the draft into a final copy. Four tasks transform the early draft into its final form, suggested by Pfeiffer and Boogard:
Adjusting and reorganizing content
In this step, the writer revises the draft to elaborate on topics that need more attention, shorten other sections—and relocate certain paragraphs, sentences, or entire topics.
Editing for style
Good style makes writing more interesting, appealing, and readable. In general, the personal writing style of the writer is not evident in technical writing. Modern technical writing style relies on attributes that contribute to clarity:
- Headings, lists, graphics
- Generous white space
- Short sentences
- Present tense
- Active voice (though some scientific applications still use the passive voice)
- Second and third person as required
Technical writing as a discipline usually requires that a technical writer make particular use of a style guide. These guides may relate to a specific project, product, company or brand and in general they ensure that technical writing is devoid of a personal style. In the United States, the Chicago Manual of Style is the bible for general technical communication. Other style guides have their adherents, particularly for specific industries—such as the Microsoft Style Guide in some information technology settings.
Editing for grammar and punctuation
At this point, the writer performs a mechanical edit, checking the document for grammar, punctuation, common word confusions, passive voice, overly long sentences, etc.
- Defining Technical Communication at the STC official website. Accessed February 28, 2013.
- Thinking of a career in technical communication? at the ISTC official website. Last updated May 2012. Accessed February 28, 2013.
- What is Technical Communication? at the official website of the Technical Communicators Association of New Zealand. Accessed February 28, 2013.
- Duffy, T M (1985), Technical Manual Production: An Examination of Four Systems, CDC Technical Report No. 19. Carnegie- Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA., retrieved June 2012
- Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing, pg. 63. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0020130856