Defining technical writing

May 11, 2011 at 8:36 am 7 comments

“So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer”
“That’s cool, what do you write about?”
“Oh not like that, I’m a technical writer”
“Oh right, okay. So umm… what’s that?”

This is how the conversation usually starts. The next part varies depending on the most recent projects I’ve done. Sometimes I’m a website developer, other times I’m a trainer, but most of the time I’m just plain confusing. Technical writing just isn’t one of those jobs everyone has heard of. Not surprisingly either, considering I am one and don’t know how to really describe it.

So I did some research and it appears I’m not alone. In business terms, technical writers are traditionally bad at expressing their value. We’re even worse when it comes to defining the product we deliver. Businesses tend to hire us to create documentation because they see it as necessary evil, rather than an opportunity to add value. And ‘adding value’ is exactly what a good technical writer does.

But I can’t simply describe my job as ‘adding value’. That’s even more ambiguous than where I started.

What I mean is that when a user reads some documentation for the first time their experience has a flow on effect. A satisfied user will come back (loyalty). They will talk about it in a good way (promotion). And in work situations will be able to do their job faster (efficiency).

So, to put it simply and not sound too boring, next time I’m in the above conversation I think I’ll just say “I keep a business’s users happy by making things easy to read, easy to find and easy to understand”. If they’re not satisfied with that and ask how, I may have to give them the long-winded version…

Technical writing is about modifying language and structuring information specific to users’ needs. We technical writers are communicators, and we have the ability to work directly with users and subject matter experts not only to extract information, but to learn directly from their perspective. This approach allows us ask the right questions, pinpoint assumptions and above all, tailor the information in a way that will be easiest for users (especially new ones) to understand.

We often take our language skills for granted (I really should stop generalising, but I’m sure I’m not alone here), which is a key element of being a technical writer. We don’t take long to figure out how to put something in words, editing time is minimal, content is clean and consistent, and more often than not we’re so used to typing that we do it at an alarming speed. I know this is starting to sound like a pitch, but I’m still on my ‘adding value’ tangent.

Do we have any other technical writers reading this? How do you describe what you do to friends? Do you actually call yourself a technical writer? Or are you a documentation developer, instructional designer, or something similar? And more importantly, have I completely overlooked the easiest way to answer the “what do you do” question?



Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Shorten those words! Or just spell them wrong… Using social networking for documentation

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dorit  |  May 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I tried ‘documentation developer’ over here and got nothing but blank looks…

    Especially at netowrking events, I try to ask others first what they do, and when they ask me, I respond and give them examples. The tricky bit with that is to keep it short and precise.

    • 2. tacticsinnz  |  May 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm

      I think it’s a good idea to give examples.People are usually interested to hear what you have achieved, and often when you give examples you find you have things in common with the person you’re talking to.


  • 3. Rona  |  May 12, 2011 at 9:32 am

    As a marketing person your definition fits well with adding value. What I’d like to know is, how do you become a technical writer?

    I diligently read the instructions that come with new products, especially slightly technical items and shake my head in despair at how companies let themselves down. Any faith in the reputation of the organisation, the quality of the product and idea that there might be customer service backing the product, is immediately quashed. Unreasonable, perhaps but consumers are a fickle bunch. Of course this total lack of useful instructional information isn’t new – that’s the shame – it’s still out there.

    I feel a need to help these people, they need help but they just don’t realize how much. How to begin?

    • 4. tacticsinnz  |  May 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Hi Rona,

      It’s hard to say exactly how one ‘gets into’ technical writing. Our consultants at TACTICS come from a wide range of backgrounds, with some of us having never studied an English or writing degree. Like you, the thing that unites us all is an inherent desire to make information clear and concise.

      The best way to start technical writing is to just start doing it! Perhaps you can write procedures for tasks that you do in your job, or update existing documentation. Once your managers realise how good you are at writing, you could encourage them to let you do more of that kind of work.

      At TACTICS, we teach workshops in Information Mapping, which is an international industry standard for technical writing. In the workshops, you will learn how to structure and present information so that it’s easy for readers to read and understand. If you are serious about wanting to become a technical writer, I’d recommend that you attend a workshop.


  • 5. tacticsinnz  |  May 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I recently found a really interesting line of reasoning for justifying the need for technical writers. It was written by a man who writes documentation for some scientific software.

    “We have a community of about a thousand scientists. Suppose that each of them loses thirty minutes a week due to bad documentation. This sums up to 500 hours a week, or about twelve full-time workers. Now, suppose that by hiring two technical authors you end up reducing the weekly wasted time from thirty to fifteen minutes per capita. It would be like creating six new full-time scientists out of thin air. It might not seem much, but it’s like hiring eight people for the price of two.”


  • 6. Emma  |  May 13, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I do a few different things in my role; however, my usual response to this question is “I develop training material”. I really like your response though James, and may have to adopt a similar approach!


  • 7. Maryanne  |  June 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I don’t do it so much these days, although that may change at any time! But yup, noone knows what I’m talking about. No elevator pitch for me! I also don’t want to attract boring shaggy dog stories about bad instructions and documentation.
    I say that I write instructions, work out how best to deliver them to the user, make that happen and constantly look for better ways to do all of this. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Information Mapping Partner

Recent Posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16 other followers

%d bloggers like this: