Before we jump into technical writing tips, you might be wondering what is technical content writing?
Let’s understand it through three situations:
Situation # 1: You have bought a new gadget, but you don’t know how to use it. So what do you do?
I can’t say anything if you are a Google freak who loves Googling to find the answer to their ‘how-to’ queries.
But most people look up to ‘instruction manuals’ that come along with these gadgets.
Situation # 2: You want to bid for the next tender of bridge construction. How do you bid?
You write a ‘proposal,’ detailing all points that help you get the tender.
Situation # 3: You have achieved a milestone in your industry, and you want to tell others how you did it.
Obviously, you can’t stand at the top of your building and yell on the loudspeaker.
You write a ‘case study’ so that others can know about your achievements.
So what are instruction manuals, proposals, and case studies?
They are types of technical content writing that, according to US News and World Report, is one of the ‘50 Best Careers’ in the world.
Here you might question: Can every writer, who has a thing for writing, and know about grammatical rules, do technical writing?
Or you have to do a technical content writing course?
Well, people’s opinions may vary while answering these question, but one thing is sure:
Technical content writing is a unique kind of writing.
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It is a fusion of writing as well as technical knowledge of anything – that makes it one of the hardest types of writings.
The reason is pretty simple:
It is not your usual kind of writing medium.
You don’t only need to be a great writer. Well, every writing style demands great writing skills; there isn’t anything new here. But what makes it different is the way you handle it.
You don’t have too much margin of flair, yet you have to make it engaging.
You not only have to cover the topic but also have to keep the technical essence alive.
Extensive knowledge of the subject matter is essential, but you also need to know how to deliver this knowledge.
See? Writing technical content is not easy! But before we dig out how to do technical writing, let’ see some experts’ definitions of technical writing.
Technical Content Writing Defined
Content management in technical writing is nothing like literature, where you take the help of metaphors and creative expressions to tell the story of a distant land.
Technical writing is also not information delivered to break the news.
You also can’t tag it as an essay because we don’t explore and investigate aspects of any topic in it.
So what do people in technical content writing services do?
According to The Society for Technical Communication, technical communication is a form of communication that includes one or more of the following characteristics:
- Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations;
- Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites; or
- Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is.
Whereas Phillip A. Laplante in ‘Technical Writing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists’ defines technical content writing by differentiating it from no-technical writing based on precision and intent.
To put it precisely:
“Technical writing is a type of writing where the technical writer gives instructions, directions, or explanation about a subject matter.”
But most people think that content writing and technical writing are two different things.
Latter is only writing about complex NASA’s satellite’s working, or computer language, or on a more lenient note, about complex government procedures.
But it is a lot more than that.
Kenneth G. Budinski in ‘Engineers’ Guide to Technical Writing’ gives a spectrum of technical writing.
According to this spectrum, technical writing can be divided into four types:
- Technical writing required in day-to-day business
- Technical content for purposes of education, teaching, and the sharing of information and knowledge
- Writing technical content for operational procedures
Now, we know what technical writing is and what are different technical content writing examples.
But what are the qualities of a technical document that separate it from non-technical write-ups?
What Makes Technical Content Writing One of a Kind Thing?
Here are a few key elements or traits of a technical document.
Let’s understand them through examples of technical content writing.
TRAIT # 1: It Solves Problems
Unlike literary writing or essays, you don’t write content in technical writing because you feel like writing something.
Technical documents are written when you want to solve a problem.
The problem solving can be for yourself and the readers, but the problem-solving factor remains there, regardless of who is the focus.
Like, if you want your employees to know about the working procedure of your company, you write SOP to guide them.
When you want to inform users about the working of the gadget, you write manuals.
Or when you want to pitch for a project, you write a proposal.
Whatever is the case, you are solving a problem in every type of document.
TRAIT # 2: It is Precise
Technical content writing is precise; each and every word, full stop, and pause count here.
For instance, if you are writing a procedure to perform a task, you simply have to show how to reach from point A to point B; you can’t talk about point C.
You have to tell everything exactly and accurately.
TRAIT # 3: It has a clear Intent
There are multiple types of documents, and every document is written with ‘intent’ to achieve a specific goal or purpose.
Like, you launch a website to give your business an online presence, and you want to sell your services through it.
So no matter you adopt an informative, motivating, or creative style, besides presenting your point with clarity, you never miss out on your main intent.
Similarly, other types of documents also have a clear intent or purpose, and your write up should reflect it.
TRAIT # 4: It uses Visual Aids to Enhance Readability
Mostly, technical documents take the help of visual aids to convey the information clearly.
Recall all the times when you read a manual.
What if your bicycle assembling manual didn’t have images to support the instructions? Would you ever be able to get the end product without messing up things so many times?
Hopefully, your answer is ‘no.’
In the above example, just imagine if there wasn’t any picture of the watch, then how on earth would you be able to identify what are buttons A and B for?
But because there is a visual presentation of the written instruction, you can easily understand instructions.
Similarly, websites’ also use a beautiful combination of visuals and words to deliver the information because people following written instructions with illustrations do 323% better than those reading instructions without visual illustrations.
Now, consumers are also demanding visual content more than ever before. So, you should provide them!
TRAIT # 5: It is Audience Directed
Every document has a particular readership, and the document is written according to the targeted audience.
In other words, you can’t write a technical document randomly; it should be focused on informing or educating a particular audience.
Your focused audience helps in defining the use of language and style of the document.
Like, if you are writing for your office employees, then you might not need to define some things in detail that employees already know.
But if you are writing something for amateurs, you need to go for an in-depth explanation so that there is no confusion and ambiguity.
Now, this is an example of an employee newsletter, and you can see that the newsletter doesn’t mention the details of events because the employees would already know about them.
But if this newsletter would have been ‘directed’ to address another audience, the content would have been detailed.
Here are some specific elements of a technical content writing document.
ELEMENT # 1: It is Concise
Technical content writing is also concise.
You can take it more like a formal dinner rather than a brunch with your friends.
You convey your message without using extra words and pointless sentences.
Obviously, you are not going to write about a weeping girl in technical writing, but it surely gives you an idea of how concise your work should be.
Cut on extra words.
If there is an alternative simple word, go with it rather than using difficult vocabulary.
You also don’t have the margin to show verbosity and language antics.
Like, if you are writing a manual to assemble a microscope, you neither use metaphors to talk about its different parts nor describe the procedure in a poetic form.
You use the exact and simple words so that the readers understand it without feeling confused.
Convey your message, and leave!
ELEMENT # 2: It is Simple
Try to describe your point or deliver information in the simplest possible language.
- Avoid difficult words and phrases
- Avoid jargons
- Avoid haughty words
- Avoid word stuffing
- Avoid repetition
ELEMENT # 3: It has Accuracy
You don’t have a margin of inaccuracy in a technical document.
Not only because you have to deliver the right information to inform and educate readers, but also because it can…
Cast a bad impression on readers.
Be threatening and dangerous.
Also, be fatal.
Yes, accuracy is that essential in technical writing.
ELEMENT # 4: It has Sameness
Using one word to describe a phenomenon might seem dull in essays, creative writing, and pros. But in the world of technical content writing, sameness is always welcomed.
In fact, using the same word to describe a phenomenon in technical writing samples makes it easier for people to understand things.
Readers are not going to give you bounty points to show the wideness of your vocabulary.
They will only feel confused if you use multiple different words to describe anything.
Like if you are describing road safety rules that go like:
You should always stop at the red light while driving. An accident might occur if you don’t follow road safety rules while being behind the wheel.
Now, here ‘behind the wheel’ also means driving, but it can be confusing for the reader. So, always write driving while describing the process of driving a vehicle.
You should always stop at the red light while driving. An accident might occur if you don’t follow road safety rules while driving.
What Makes a Good Technical Writer?
Krista Van Laas in Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing describes qualities of a technical writer as one who is proficient in:
- User, task, and experience analysis
- Information design
- Process management
- Information development
Well, Mike Markel takes on a simpler approach as he describes the abilities of a good communicator as:
ABILITY # 1: Research Abilities
The communicator must be proficient in research.
Having Google as our favorite go-to pal for information, people think that you don’t need special skills to research. It is not true.
Even if you have Google, and its algorithm updates are becoming smarter in understanding a search query, you still need to know which information you should be searching for.
Moreover, aside from secondary information, collecting primary information is also essential.
But obviously, not everyone is good at conducting experiments, observations, surveys, interviews, etc.
It requires a whole set of skills that a successful content design technical writing writer should have.
ABILITY # 2: Information Analyzing Abilities
Just collecting information is not the work.
Deriving meanings from the collected information, turning the derived meanings into the solution and then presenting it effectively also matters.
In other words, the communicator should have the know-how of…
- Separating what is important from what is not.
- Understanding why something is important.
- Delivering the right information at the right place.
ABILITY # 3: Problem Solving Abilities
Information presented without any direction and the focused goal is nothing more than a mass of words that strikes readers’ minds without leaving behind any meaningful impact.
So a good communicator should also have problem-solving abilities.
Well, you don’t have to solve a mathematical equation, but you should know how to turn collected information into meaningful solutions.
From a mass of information that you can put on the paper, you should determine which information you should actually select.
Picking the best-suited information to fit in a particular solution so that it gives the most precise and clear meaning to a situation is also part of problem-solving abilities.
ABILITY # 4: Point-of-view Expressing Abilities
No matter how in-depth information you have in your hand, it is useless if you don’t present it powerfully and effectively.
Just as Gorge Gopen says in ‘The Science of Scientific Writing’:
“The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind.”
So the written document should be:
- Understandable (Both for experts and amateurs)
- Professionally written
A communicator can bring all these attributes in the document only if he has the ability to express the point-of-view.
After all, it is a matter of turning geek information into digestible and understandable information for everyone.
You see? Before jumping into technical content writing, you should have pretty clear and comprehensive writing skills.
So yes, a writer needs to have all these qualities to become a ‘good’ writer because ‘bad’ is not acceptable here.
Writing technical documents is not only tricky, but it can also fall you into trouble.
That’s the major difference in content writing versus technical writing.
Like, if someone gets injured because of your poorly written instruction manual, the injured party can sue you.
Not to forget that NASA Mariner 1 Venus Satellite got lost just because a dude forgot to put a hyphen in the written program.
Surprised? Well, it’s true that minor mistakes can lead to a major disaster in the world of technical writing.
So it is always better to read a few technical writing rules before diving into this dense category of writing.
What is the Process of Technical Content Writing?
If you think that the technical writing process only involves: getting information and penning it down, you are missing out on the key to technical content writing.
A practical and perfect technical writing is powered by a detailed process that involves a combination of research, writing skills, objectives, and readers’ analysis and design to produce something that achieves goals.
So, you can say the essential thing in the ‘how to do technical writing’ equation is the process of technical content writing.
It defines whether the outcome will be effective or not.
So the content strategy for technical writing goes like…
- Editing & Proofreading
Creating technical documents is a full-fledged project.
Can you start working on any construction project after getting up in the morning, doing breakfast, and…start? No – right?
You do full homework before working on a project.
Similarly, every technical writing project needs robust planning that becomes the basis of your writing.
In this section, focus on four important things:
- Why are you writing this document: Purpose?
- Who is going to read it: Audience?
- What are you going to write about: Product?
- Where is it going to be published: Medium?
STEP # 1: Analyze the Purpose
You don’t write technical documents just for the sake of writing, or you feel like writing something.
It is not poetry or literary work that you do because you feel like doing it. You write it because you have a solid purpose behind it.
You want to inform and educate the audience.
- Progress reports
- Software documentation
- Terms and conditions
- Policy documents
- Feasibility study
- Safety analysis report
- Product descriptions
- Year-end report
- Planning documents
You want to give them guidelines.
You want to impress them.
- Cover Letter
- Website Content
These are a few purposes of technical writing projects, and entertainment is not part of it.
So, you should be very clear about the purpose of all your efforts.
The purpose is usually clear and to-the-point.
For a project proposal, the purpose statement is:
To inform selectors why you are the best option for the bridge construction project.
Sometimes, along with the primary purpose, there is also the secondary purpose.
In the above given example, its secondary purpose can be:
To inform how much budget you would require accomplishing the bridge construction.
It is better to consider a secondary purpose to broaden your horizon, but don’t let your secondary purpose stray you from the main focus point.
STEP # 2: Assess your Audience
Once you are clear about your purpose, assess your audience.
Whether you are going to inform, educate, guide, or impress, you should know who is all this directed to?
You might be thinking that does it matter who is the focus when you only need to fulfill the purpose?
The answer is: yes.
Readers not only read but also interpret the content according to their understanding.
If 5 people are going to read content, they will interpret it in 5 different ways. Though you can’t write different content for different people, you can at least write content that fits a broad audience.
Your audience defines your selection of the words, style, and tone of your write up.
Like, if you are going to write for an audience who is aware of the subject matter, you can easily use jargon.
However, if your audience is amateurs, you should use simple words and language.
See? Audience assessment matters a lot.
While assessing your audience, focus on these questions:
- Who is your audience?
It can include their demographic information, including age, education, job responsibilities, income, etc.
You also assess their interests, expectations, and attitude towards your subject.
- What do they know about your subject/product?
Like, are they already familiar with the topic or going to know about it for the first time?
- How are they going to conceive and use the provided information?
When you understand the way your audience will use information, you write it in a way that is readable, appealing, and understandable for them.
And you adjust your writing so that they stay motivated to read it and pay attention to your point.
Your audience analysis can make or break your project.
Like, if you are sending the newsletter to inform the audience about your new product: pig cutlets. Then you must know that you shouldn’t send this newsletter to a Muslim audience because it is prohibited in their religion, and they might feel offended.
STEP # 3: Understand Your Product/Subject
You must have a full understanding of your product only then you will be able to explain it properly.
You must know…
- What is the product?
- What is its purpose?
- How does it work?
- Why should people use it?
- How can people benefit from it?
Unless you don’t have the answer to these questions in your kitty, you can’t write a comprehensive technical document.
Like, if you are writing Website Content for a company that gives SEO services, you should first dig out the core of SEO to know what you are going to write.
STEP # 4: Choose the Medium
Next, you should be pretty sure what kind of medium you are going to use to disseminate your message.
You can use various forms of media for information dissemination, including electronic media, like websites, email, blogs, video-conferencing, and fax and traditional media, like books, journals, letters, reports, telephone calls, and face-to-face meetings.
But all this depends on:
#1: The Purpose
If you want to make SOPs available to your employees all the time, then publishing them on an online employee portal is a better option.
If you need to give operational instructions of a product to buyers, a written manual will be the best option.
Similarly, if you have other purposes, you can choose medium accordingly.
#2: The Audience
Choose the medium which your audiences are available on, can use, and have access to.
If your audience is poor, they might not have digital gadgets to read the blog.
If your audience is senior citizens, they might like face-to-face communication.
If your audience has a tight schedule, they might not be able to read emails; a voice message might be a better option.
Remember that your selection doesn’t depend on one factor. Usually, you have to consider multiple factors to choose the best medium to disseminate the message.
If planning makes the base of your work, then research is its soul.
Instead of digging out journals and magazines, start research from your own self.
Ask yourself 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) because usually brainstorming gives answers to many questions.
If you think that your brain can’t answer all the possible answers you need to address in the document, kick start your research.
The point is to make your work accurate, complete, coherent, and clear.
So research as much as you can until you feel that you have gathered enough information to achieve these benchmarks.
The level of research required also depends on your technical content writing topics.
Basically, you practically implement the planning phase here. Find out all the planned things about your audience and product.
You can conduct primary research, secondary research, or depend on the requirements.
Primary research means going directly to the source and getting information from it.
For audience research, you can do:
- Analysis of online reader’s comments and reactions
- Survey (Physical or online)
- Interviews (telephonic or face-to-face)
- Focus group
And for product research, you can ask management and manufacturers to tell you about the product.
Whereas secondary research involves taking help from already gathered and compiled information by other researchers.
After collecting information, it’s time to join the chunks and organize them in a meaningful way.
Without organizing the information, you might forget to mention an important point or produce something that has weak links and incomplete information.
Before sitting down to pen the document, compile the data, and bring it in a ready to write form.
This way, you will not lose important information, fit in information in your document at the right place, and save your time that you might have to spend finding the information while writing.
You can organize your information in…
# 1: Sequential Method
Sequence means order or succession.
In the sequence method, the document is written in the way ideas transits from one point to another.
There should be a logical coherence in the written work that shows fair transition among ideas.
#2: Chronological Method
Chronological word is made of two Latin words; CHRON means time, and LOGOS means logic. It means the method that is knitted according to the timely order.
To put it precisely, this method starts with the beginning and then comes down to the present.
For instance, if you are writing a Case Study, you will not start with the results. You will begin it with how things started coming together, and then mention how things progressed, and then finally talk about the results.
#4: Cause-effect Method
This technique begins with the cause of any issue and then brings down the writing to its effects.
It can take on two forms:
- First, you can write down all the possible causes and then all the possible effects.
- Second, the approach is a bit more systematic; you can write one effect and then its cause, then second cause and its effect, and so on.
Whether you go with the first approach or the second depends on the document’s nature or the way you want to carry it.
To write causes, you can begin with 5Ws and 1H model.
#4 General-to-specific Method
The General to specific method begins with the general statement about the problem and then brings it to a specific area of the underlying issue.
You can also take it as a broad observation about a topic and then supporting it with specific details.
Your drafting stage is powered by your plan and research, but here you need to be very careful.
There can be three kinds of documents:
You definitely want to avoid the last category, and no one likes to be mediocre as well.
But how can you tell what type of technical document you produced?
Well, one way is to wait until you get the readers’ response.
But until then, it will be too late.
What if readers didn’t give the desired action? Things will be out of your hand until then.
So it is always better to play the best cards while writing when things are still in your hand.
STEP # 1: Maintain the Accuracy
Nothing ruins a technical document more than inaccurate information.
Well, the nature of technical types of documents varies, and some types of documents demand more accurate information than others.
Like, inaccurate information in the airplane repair manual can bring dire consequences than a mistake in newsletter content.
But whatever is the case, the accuracy of information is essential if you want to bring the best results.
Here are some tips for maintaining the accuracy:
- Before penning down any subject, you should have a firm grip on the subject. You should know what you are writing.
- Refer to your gathered notes while writing so that you know that everything is in the loop.
- Take the advice or the help of someone throughout the writing process who knows things better than you.
STEP # 2: Keep an Eye on the Usability of the Document
Besides accuracy, you should also ensure the usability of the document.
Usability means how easily readers can use this document?
Obviously, you are creating this document for readers, so create it from their perspective.
So how can you ensure the usability of a document?
It is simple:
- Match your documents with the needs and expectations of your readers.
- Readers should easily find the required information.
- Ideas, information, and data are presented clearly.
- Words should be carefully selected so that they enhance the meaning and readability of the document.
STEP # 3: Hold on to Clarity
Your writing should be precise and clear.
No flowery writing style, vague jargon, or complex variations that might confuse or misguide readers.
Your purpose is not to show how beautifully you can write but how effectively you can deliver information.
So make sure to:
#1: Eliminate Unimportant Words
Your rule should be: less is more.
Instead of writing: Push ‘Enter’ command in order to start the process.
Write: Push ‘Enter’ to start the process.
See? It is easy to read and deliver the information in an instant when you remove unnecessary words.
#2: Avoid Long Noun Strings
The purpose is to make sentences as short as you can.
So long noun strings don’t fit into this idea.
Instead of writing: Programme to aware people about culture
Write: Culture awareness programme
#3: Avoid Passive Voice
Try to stick with the active voice. Passive voice not only makes sentences longer, it also decreases the readability of the sentence.
Instead of writing: After downloading, the file should be saved with a proper name.
Write: Give a proper name to the file after downloading.
The passive voice sentence has 10 words; whereas, the active voice sentence delivers information in 8 words.
So it is needless to say which one is better.
#4: Write in Gender-Neutral Language
Technical content writing should be gender-neutral.
Reason? Because most of the time, you are writing for an audience that includes both males and females.
Most of the time, things go smoothly because you don’t need to address singular pronouns ‘he/she’ that are the core of the problem.
You usually write a second person singular pronoun.
But in case you have to write in the third person, you can make the sentence object-oriented rather than a person.
Instead of writing: Let the user modify his/her document.
Write: The user should be able to modify the document.
#5: Avoid Using Negative Words
Don’t confuse readers. You have to eliminate the possibility of confusion as much as you can.
Using negative words not only creates confusion it also hinders people’s processing ability. So be positive.
Instead of writing: The light does not turn off if you don’t switch off the light.
Write: Switch off the light to turn off the light.
STEP # 4: Use Appropriate Templates & Style
Template and style are two different things, but both lead towards one thing:
Making information delivery and understanding easier for the end-user.
Template means the overall formatting structure and pattern of the content.
Whereas style means the design elements, like heading, subheadings, and bullet points.
Make sure your selected template and style should reflect your brand’s voice and image.
This is the user manual of Huawei Y-530 mobile.
Whereas this user manual is for Samsung Galaxy S-GT mobile.
You can see that both manuals talk about the same thing, but the way this information is presented and styled differently.
That’s because they reflect the brand identity of different companies.
Proofreading & Revising
Once you are done with the drafting, it is time for proofreading and revising your written content.
Your focus should be to check…
- Word errors
- Eliminating repetition of words and ideas
- Checking the flow of thoughts
- Seeing if sentence length is varied
The best practice is to ask another expert to do the proofreading and editing for you.
It helps you get a third party’s perspective on your written content. And also, two experts’ touch can bring better results.
But make sure that you and the proofreader are on the same page.
- He is clear about the niche.
- He knows about the goal.
- He is aware of the unique document requirements.
- He has prior experience in handling such documents.
- And above all that, he should know the proofreading and editing skills.
Seriously, technical writers earn a lot.
And it is one of the most paying types of writing. If you get a grip on it, you can earn like crazy.
And it is not difficult at all. If you have good writing skills, understand technical things, and have basic analyzing and delivering skills, you can get on track in no time.
Just remember that technical content writing is not a path for jaywalkers.
You have to be very committed and dedicated to your work because your carelessness can cost someone a lot, even life.
So once you have decided to become a technical writer, be true to your profession!