Technical writing is a specialized form of writing where the writer creates documentation for a certain kind of technology. There are several different fields a technical writer can be tasked to write about, including computer software and hardware, biotechnology, consumer electronics, chemistry, and many others. Often, companies will have one or more technical writers on staff to document their products, such as software modules or new drug types. Other times, companies like this will outsource the technical writing to freelancers or hire an outside firm to handle the documentation.
As this type of writing is so specialized, a normal, everyday writing style won’t cut it in the technical writing world, and there are several keys to success in this field.
Understand the Product
Technical writers will often use subject matter experts (SMEs) to help them with the details of the product, whether it’s a piece of software or a new MP3 player. These SMEs are invaluable tools to the technical writer, as they have in-depth knowledge of the subject, and can thus lend lots of expertise. This, however, is not enough, as the writer himself needs to know as much as he can about the subject. When the technical writer has no understanding of the product, two things will often happen: the writer will just take the preliminary documentation from the SME and turn it in with no edits, or the writer will just write down everything the SME says about the product, without rewording it into a viable document. It takes a good understanding of the product in order to take the information garnered from the SME and turn it into a quality piece of work, utilizing the writing skills that make the technical writer necessary in the first place.
A good technical writer will come up with a plan for numbering revisions to the document. Just like a piece of software will have versions like 1.0, 2.0, etc., a piece of technical documentation should have similar numbered versions to reflect the changes the document has gone through. It’s never a good idea to just keep rewriting over the same electronic document, because there may have been something in one of the earlier versions that will serve useful down the road. Or, if the actual product has to be backtracked to an earlier version because the developer went down the wrong path with it, it’s much easier to just pull up an earlier version of the documentation than to try and recreate it from memory.
A well-designed template can be a great tool for the technical writer, as it can save a lot of time and maintain consistency among all related documentation in the company. This template should contain the layout for each element on the page, including headings, paragraphs, sidebars, tables, etc. The time spent designing templates will be made up very quickly. Much time will be saved throughout the duration of the project, and this will also result in much better looking work.
These are just some of the keys to success of a technical writer, as there are many other techniques and shortcuts to make the job easier and produce the best possible documentation. But through a good understanding of the subject matter, a revision plan, and the creation and use of templates, a technical writer will be well on his way to success in this challenging field.