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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
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What Is Technical Writing?

The traditional definition of technical writing is discourse that uses the terminology or jargon of a particular field or industry and treats the information in a way that helps readers accomplish certain goals or tasks. Technical writing is especially important in businesses like computer software companies, though technical documents can be found everywhere, such as the owner’s manual for a home appliance. In an increasingly technological world, good technical writers are needed to write clear, readable technical documents. Medical, scientific, and engineering businesses employ technical writers to translate complex ideas into reader-friendly prose.

The Modern Technical Writing Definition

Modern technical writing includes visuals.

Woman using a sophisticated screen

With the rise of digital communication, a more current definition of technical writing must consider how readers access technical information through social media and other digital platforms. Thus, in the modern digital world, technical writing is discourse that not only uses the terminology and treats the subject of a particular field to help readers accomplish a goal or task, but also delivers information through a variety of media. Often, the delivery method of technical information is through an interactive medium that allows users to decide and select which information is most important to them.

Because technical writing is so important in the world of business and industry, companies hire technical writers to produce a variety of specialized documents in businesses, such as aerospace engineering firms, biomedical research labs, computer software design companies, and electronics firms.

How Is Technical Writing Used?

Technical writers create a variety of documents.

  • White papers inform readers about a complex topic and sometimes outline a course of action. Government agencies often issue white papers, such as the one issued by Great Britain on the effects of energy drinks. The report proposed legislation to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors.
  • Government reports, including conference and meeting reports, relate the latest findings of agency investigations. The Office of Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, might issue the latest safety test of airbags. A report on airbags would be read by workers in the auto industry and families who are considering the purchase of a new car.
  • Proposals, or a recommendation for a course of action, are, perhaps, the most common kind of document prepared by technical writers. Proposals offer reasons why a company needs to make a change or prepare for a future course of action or launch a new initiative. Hospitals often require detailed proposals to initiate new methods of medical treatment. Medical personnel and technical writers collaborate to prepare detailed documents. For example, in 2021, The Mayo Clinic proposed a new approach to preventing breast cancer, published in The Journal of Clinic Oncology Practices.
  • User Manuals and User Guides help readers become familiar with a new product or a new procedure. A good example of a user manual is the documentation that accompanies a new camera. In the manual, readers learn about all the camera’s functions.

Features of Technical Writing

Although technical writers create a variety of documents, certain features of technical writing are common. The main features of technical writing are the use of specialized terminology or jargon and the detailed presentation of material, often in the form of schematics or diagrams or drawings and photographs. Technical writers understand the importance of document design for conveying information in a visual form. Page design includes shading, fonts, color coding, and layout. All of these design features are indirect methods technical writers use to convey important details.

Technical Writing Style

Because technical subjects can be complex, technical writers rely on clear, concise prose style when they write. The history of technical writing style dates back to the emergence of technical writing as a distinct genre following the development of the printing press. With the ability to disseminate information through books came the need for writers who could convey information in simple sentences and unambiguous prose. Ever since the Renaissance, technical writers have favored clear, denotative prose and simple syntax in the form of Subject-Verb-Object.

The Purpose of Technical Writing

Although the approaches of technical documents may vary from informing to persuading to guiding, the overall purpose of technical writing is to help readers acquire and use information effectively. In other words, technical writers produce functional documents. A good example of technical documents designed to help users gain proficiency in a subject is the series entitled Peterson Field Guides. Some of the titles include Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, Peterson Field Guide to Birds, and Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. Each guide is written by an expert and includes detailed diagrams and photographs to help readers become acquainted with species of birds or positions of galaxies.

Technical Writing Audience

A writer working for a high-tech company creates documents that speak to the members of the company–members who understand the terminology of experts. The terminology used by medical professionals, for example, is different from the special language used in an electronics firm. While technical writers use the terminology for their expert readers, sometimes they must take a complex topic and make it accessible to a non-technical audience.

Technical Writing Examples

Technical writing can take many forms

Technical documents on a desk

Technical writing can take many forms.

Legal Documents

Legal documents are examples of technical writing that clarify how various parties are bound by law. When preparing legal documents, technical writers strive for clarity to avoid ambiguity that may bring about litigation. Readers of legal documents often lament the verbiage of these documents–the legalese. Although legal jargon is daunting, it is possible to write legal documents in a plain style, though it requires practice and attention to the purpose of each document.

Medical Documents

Technical writers who prepare documents for the medical field must have specific domain knowledge, or proficiency in the specialized community of medicine. When preparing documents like a clinical study report, medical writers strive for precision and accuracy.

User Manuals

A classic example of technical writing is the user manual. The owner’s manual for a car, for instance, informs the owner of the car’s automotive systems, their maintenance requirements, and warnings about their misuse. User manuals present visual and verbal details in clear, precise language.

Press Releases

Another example of technical writing is a press release, or documents released by an organization to a news agency for the purpose of informing the public about the latest developments in the company, for instance. Press releases can be considered technical documents because they inform the public about community events and conditions.

Lesson summary

Technical writing is a practical art that uses special language to inform, persuade, and guide readers to complete a goal or task. The modern definition of technical writing has expanded to include the method of presenting technical information, especially through digital media. Some examples of technical writing include white papers, proposals, government reports, and user manuals. The features of technical writing include attention to special language or jargon used by experts in a field as well as to the design and layout of information. Technical writing can take many forms, including field guides, legal documents, medical reports, user manuals, and press releases. Technical writers write in a clear prose style using simple syntax.

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