A technical writer is a professional writer who engages in technical writing and produces technical documentation that helps people use a product or service. This documentation includes online help, user guides/manuals, white papers, design specifications, system manuals, project plans, test plans, business correspondence, etc. Technical writers create documentation in many forms, such as printed, web-based, or other electronic means.
- "...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 produce technical writing, but often hand it off to a professional technical writer for developmental editing, proofreading, editing, and formatting.
In addition to solid research, language, writing, and revision skills, a technical writer may have skills in:
- Information design
- Information architecture
- Training material development
- Illustration/Graphic design
- Video Editing
- Website Design/Management
- Localization/Technical translation
- User Interfaces
- Business Analyst
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.
A proficient technical writer has 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 organisation, which can range from developers to marketing departments.
Roles and functions
Effectively analyze the rhetorical situation Creating effective technical documentation is driven by the writer’s analysis of three elements that comprise the rhetorical situation of a particular project: audience, purpose, and context.
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.
When analyzing an audience the technical writer typically asks:
- Who is the intended audience?
- What are their demographic characteristics?
- What is the audience’s role?
- How does the reader feel about the subject?
- How does the reader feel about the sender?
- What form does the reader expect?
- What is the audience’s task?
- What is the audience’s knowledge level?
- What factors influence the situation?
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.
Purpose refers to the function of a particular communication. A technical writer analyzes the purpose 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 means 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 the communication. This knowledge significantly influences how the writer formats the 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.
Document design is a component of technical writing that affects 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.
- Arrangement: refers to the order and organization of visual elements so that readers can see their structure—how they cohere in groups, how they differ from one another, how they create layers and hierarchies. When considering arrangement technical writers look at how to use headings, lists, charts, and images to increase usability.
- Emphasis: refers to how a document displays important sections through prominence or intensity. When considering emphasis technical writers look at how they can show readers important sections, warning, useful tips, etc. through the use of placement, bolding, colour, and type size.
- Clarity: refers to strategies that “help the receiver decode the message, to understand it quickly and completely, and, when necessary, to react without ambivalence.” When considering clarity the technical writer strives to reduce visual noise, such as low contrast ratios, overly complex charts or graphs, and illegible font, all of which can hinder reader comprehension.
- Conciseness: refers to the "visual bulk and intricacy" of the design—for example, the number of headings and lists, lines and boxes, detail of drawings and data displays, size variations, ornateness, and text spacing. Technical writers must consider all these design strategies to ensure the audience can easily use the documents.
- Tone: means the sound or feel of a document. Document type and audience dictates whether the communication should be formal and professional, or lighthearted and humorous. In addition to language choice, technical writers set the tone of technical communication through the use of spacing, images, typefaces, etc.
- Ethos: - The degree of credibility that visual language achieves in a document. Technical writers strive to create professional and error-free documentation to establish credibility with the audience.
Technical writers can have various job titles, including technical communicator, information 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.
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.
Methodology (document development life cycle)
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:
- Phase 1: Information gathering and planning
- Phase 2: Content specification
- Phase 3: Content development and implementation
- Phase 4: Production
- Phase 5: Evaluation
The document development life cycle typically consists of six phases (This changes organization to organization, how they are following).
- Audience profiling (identify target audience)
- User task analysis (analyse tasks and information based on target audience)
- Information architecture (design based on analysis, how to prepare document)
- Content development (develop/prepare the document)
- Technical and editorial reviews (review with higher level personnel—managers, etc.)
- Formatting and publishing (publish the document).
This is similar to the software development life cycle.
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 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 Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications 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 with expertise in writing skills can join printed media or electronic media companies, potentially providing an opportunity to make more money and/or improved working conditions.
The U.S Department of Labor expects technical writer employment to grow 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. They expect job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, to be good.
Notable technical writers
- Gordon Graham, expert on white papers and former writing professor.
- Dan Jones, university professor and fellow with the Society for Technical Communication.
- Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote technical manuals for IBM, while working on the bestselling book.
- Thomas Pynchon, American author of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), and Mason & Dixon (1997), among others, wrote his first novel, V. (1963), while employed as a technical writer for Boeing from 1960-1963.
- George Saunders, American author of Tenth of December: Stories as well as other short story collections, essays, and novellas, wrote his first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, while working as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, New York.
- Marcia Wilbur, American author of A Decade of the DMCA wrote technical documentation for Microchip, while working on the book.
- Collaborative editing
- Software documentation
- Technical communication
- Technical communication tools
- Technical writing
- David Farbey, Technical writer career information at the official website of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
- Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing, pg. 3. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0020130856
- What Does a Technical Writer Do? Wisegeek, Copyright © 2003 - 2013. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
- Kostelnick, Charles (2011). Designing Visual Language. New York, NY: Longman. p. 400. ISBN 978-0-205-61640-4.
- Riordan, Daniel (2005). Technical Report Writing Today. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 606. ISBN 978-0-618-43389-6.
- Hackos, JoAnn T. (1994). Managing Your Documentation Projects. Wiley. p. 630. ISBN 0-471-59099-1.
- Tarutz, Judith A. (1992). Technical Editing. New York: Perseus Books. p. 456. ISBN 0-201-56356-8.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Technical Writers, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/technical-writers.htm (visited February 22, 2013).
- International standards for technical writers
- Descriptions and links to standards for technical writers
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