6 tips to make you a great technical writer
Explain complex concepts without putting your readers to sleep
Technical writing is a difficult discipline. By definition, technical writing is producing instruction manuals, how-to guides and supporting documents to communicate technical information. It tries to put highly technical subject matter into a format that readers can easily understand. For a writer, this is no easy feat.
But technical writing is a great industry for talented writers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a technical writer is $71,850 USD per year.
Technical writing is a growing field as well. The demand for technical writers is projected to grow by 11% by 2026. If you're a professional writer, using your skills as a technical writer can lead to a lucrative career.
Getting into technical writing can seem intimidating. Disseminating complicated information for easy digestion is difficult. But if you follow these tips, you can produce engaging copy that helps and informs your readers.
1. Know your audience
First and foremost, think about who will be reading the materials you produce. Try to understand the audience you're writing for. This will determine how you write the materials.
For example, if the training manuals you're producing will be used by software engineers, it's likely you won't have to spend time defining concepts like code linting or integrated development environments. You'll be able to assume a certain base level of knowledge and can focus on explaining unfamiliar concepts rather than retreading already familiar ground.
You also need to understand how your audience will be using the document. What goal will they be trying to accomplish by reading your documentation? What questions will they be asking? When will they be reading the document, and why? Knowing how your document will be used dictates how it will be written.
2. Map out your piece
Mapping out your work is crucial in technical writing. You're trying to explain a process or use case. This means you have to think about the order in which information must appear.
Break down the goals of the document into individual tasks. What tasks must the reader perform in order to master the concept or process you're communicating? What information will they need to perform these tasks? Structure your document to flow in the order in which an actual reader will have to perform tasks.
3. Talk to experts
One of the biggest challenges in technical writing is gaining an understanding of the subject matter. You can't very well explain a process or concept to a reader if you don't understand it yourself. This is why consulting experts is invaluable.
Talk to the people who actually designed the process you're trying to explain. Find out why they designed it the way they did, and how they envisioned others using it. If possible, watch them actually use the product or platform you're writing about. Think about the questions you have after watching them. If you have these questions, it's likely your readers will too.
4. Be clear and specific
Don't leave room for doubt when describing a task or process. For instance, rather than writing "hold the power button down until the light flashes," write, "hold the power button down firmly for five seconds until the green power light flashes three times."
Technical writing is not the place for ambiguity. Use measurable terms and specify quantities and times.
5. Be concise
Try to explain concepts using as few words as possible. Write in simple, declarative sentences and use active rather than passive voice. Remember that you're trying to simplify a concept or process. When this is your goal, success is measured in using as few words as possible to do this.
Think about the information that's vital for your reader to achieve their goal. Narrow down your document to include only this information and get rid of anything extraneous.
6. Use plain English
This might be the single most important skill to master in technical writing. After all, the purpose of technical writing is to make complex concepts and processes easy to understand. If the language you use is overly obtuse, you'll only succeed in confusing your audience further.
This doesn't mean you have to avoid jargon altogether. What it does mean is that you need to understand the jargon with which your audience will be immediately familiar, and avoid any that will be unfamiliar to them. When in doubt, err on the side of using layman's terms.
Define any unfamiliar terms or acronyms the first time they appear in the text. Use familiar and common words in place of longer or more complicated words. While your instincts as a writer may drive you towards impressing the reader with your vocabulary, keep your hands off the Thesaurus. In technical writing, loquaciousness is not a virtue.