Technical Writing is The Opposite of Writing Technically

A mug with five words that will help you with technical writing: thingamabob, dealie, whatsit, plug thing and electrocution

When you think of technical writing, do you think of big words and bigger equations, text that could put a person drowning in Red Bull to sleep and a complete lack of anything resembling creativity?

If so, then you’ve been exposed to bad technical writing.

Good technical writing is the opposite of all that. It has to be, or it’s not really doing its job.

What is technical writing and why is it so in demand?

Techwhirl provides a bang-on definition of technical writing: the practice of putting technical information into easily understandable language. It’s in high demand for two polar opposite reasons: too many experts and not enough experts.

Let’s look at both.

Too many experts means not enough understanding

The age of the generalist has gone the way of the dodo. Today, everyone is a specialist, sub-specialist or sub-sub-specialist. They know more about their narrow field of expertise than anyone else, and that knowledge acts as a bottleneck to understanding for everyone else.

Oftentimes, when one of these specialists attempts to explain what they know, it’s wrapped up in far too much jargon and inside information for anyone without their level of learning in the field to have any idea what it means.

And you can hardly fault the expert for that. After all, they understand the material perfectly well, and they probably spend most of their time with people who understand it too. To them, the complexity of the material is what makes it simple; they have no need to simplify further and no practice doing it.

This is where a good technical writer comes in. A technical writer worth his or her weight can read through the text and find the key messages or benefits that would impress a reader who needs to understand what the specialist is saying but doesn’t.

Served up simply, a layperson can understand what the material means, but more importantly, they can understand what it means for them.

Not enough experts means too much misunderstanding

Think about the typical business unit and how many roles are represented: technicians, operators, analysts, communicators, sales reps, account managers and lord knows how many more disciplines. Each of these people have a client they have to answer to, and the only thing more frustrating to a client than having to wait for answers from their suppliers or vendors is getting the wrong answers.

The problems with big multi-role teams is that (a) no one can be an expert in everything, (b) not everyone is available to answer technical questions about their part of the job when a client needs those answers and (c) if an expert is available to answer the question, it might not be satisfactory for the client (see previous section).

For this reason, big companies will invest in technical writing to put everyone on the same page. They’ll deliver what amounts to cheat sheets for everyone on the team that clearly and simply outlines the features and benefits of everyone else’s contributions so anyone can speak to anything confidently and accurately. 

Technical Writing Isn’t Creative? Ha!

Anyone can drop a zinger or throw some sarcastic shade at someone else. But only a highly creative person can pour through reams of information about hot mold injections, Copper Beryllium and Titanium-Zirconium Molybdenum and come back with something that a plant manager who dropped out of high school would understand, while at the same time pleasing the Double-PhD in Physics and Chemistry who created the technology.

And only a truly gifted creative writer can teach a boomer to program an iPhone.

Two old people trying to work an iPhone. They could us a good technical writer.

4 qualities to look for in a technical writing vendor

 1. A diverse portfolio

You want a technical writer with demonstrated comfort in a variety of material. This shows you they know how to read and research, and they’re not reliant on their background for knowledge.

2. A universally easy writing style

You want anyone who picks up your material to be able to get it. And you don’t want them to have to work too hard.

3. Attention to detail

Technical writing is about getting the facts right and you want people who respect that. These are people who check, double-check and triple-check their work ¾including their emails to you.

4. Respect for deadlines

Technical writing is often associated with a presentation, launch, pitch or another time-sensitive event. Your technical writer should be consistent in delivering ahead of schedule.

Willy Wonka meme: You say you're a technical writer...tell us about your last installation guide.

Content Writer or Copywriter: Which Do You Need?

The difference between a content writer and a copywriter is the difference between a fast food joint and a Michelin restaurant. Both have their place in the world, but their value depends on the appetite of the people in the room.

Content vs copy, displayed as a short order cook vs a high-end chef

A content writer deals in quantity

Content writers churn. And they do it well. Give a content writer a hundred topics and they’ll come back to you with 100 pieces of writing that hit all the SEO benchmarks, meet the minimum-word requirements and deliver the information well enough.

If your aim is to flood the web with drivers to your website and establish your business as one with an interest in (or even a passion for) something, a content writer can do the job amicably. Will you compel real action? No. But that’s not the point. The point is presence, awareness and page ranking.

A copywriter deals in quality

Copywriters persuade. And they do it equally well. Give a copywriter a desired business outcome and they’ll come back with two or three versions of a message that hit all the right emotional and psychological tones, and drive real-world results.

If your goal is to drive sales or sign-ups by establishing your business as the unmistakably right choice and a leader in your industry, you want a copywriter on the case. You’ll pay more for a copywriter’s time and expertise, but you’ll get more than just a pair of eyeballs. You’ll get more feet moving and more wallets opening.

All copywriters write content. Not all content writers write copy.

Content has become this catch-all term to connote the consumable information we find online. And since content has become THE currency of choice in the new economy, people who can produce it en masse have become among the most sought-after folks by ad agencies and marketing departments.

And because so much content has to be created on a regular basis (consumers today will look at three to fivepieces of a company’s content before reaching out for a quote), it makes financial sense to bring in a content writer to pump it out quickly and regularly.

But here’s the question you have to ask yourself: what good is an investment in content if no one wants to read it?

It’s a fair question, especially given how much content you’ll compete with for every keyword and every subject.

This is why, as a marketer, you always want a copywriter

Like a short-order cook, a content writer will fill you up. But like an award-winning chef, a copywriter will make it an experience. They’ll make your reader feel differently about a topic or force them to question their stance on an issue. A content writer can present the facts about an issue. But a copywriter will force you to take a side (and more often, the side that leads to an action). They’ll present the argument in a voice that speaks to readers instead of speaking just to the subject matter. And they’ll get you real results.

An eCard that talks about the benefits of copy over content

Language Legends — Cicero

As copywriters, copyeditors, proofreaders and translators, our heroes are people with a gift for words. In this new regular addition to our blog, we’ll be looking at the men and women whose voices transcend their industries and whose words are quoted, remembered and revered. Today, we’re looking at Cicero.

Cicero —The Original Public Speaker

Marcus Tullius Cicero (or “The Big Cis” as we would’ve called him) was a lawyer, politician and incredibly gifted public speaker. He lived from 106 BC to 43 BC in Rome and is generally credited with writing the rules for effective public speaking: docere, delectare, et movere. This essentially translates to prove your point, make ’em smile and drive action.

A statue of Cicero

But what made Cicero a language legend in our mind wasn’t so much his gift as it was his purpose. He believed that anyone could excel at public speaking, and more importantly, that everyone should speak publicly.

 The right man for the right time

Cicero lived during the reign of Julius Caesar, and it was an interesting time in the history of Rome because Caesar, much to the chagrin of the Roman senators, thought it necessary to greatly expand the rules of citizenship and grant status to infinitely more people. With citizenship came rights, and one of those rights was the right to be heard. The problem, though, was that few of these new citizens had the first clue about how to have their voices heard. They were used to being serfs or slaves or second class.

His book, conveniently titled Orator,was essentially a how-to for the masses. He envisioned a world in which anyone could stand on the senate floor, make his case to the powers-that-be and effect real change.

 The Godfather of Plain Language

A big sticking point at the time was the educated class’s instance that big ornate wording and pretentious construction denoted intelligence. Cicero thumbed his nose at this ridiculous assertion, preferring a return to the Attic style of speech, which is rooted in simplicity and respect for the reader or listener. Incidentally, a short 750 years prior, Atticism was the order of the day, as illustrated in the works of Homer. In fact, many scholars argue that Homer’s work stood the test of time for precisely that reason: he was an educator for all of Greece.

Cicero encouraged people to find their own style of speaking, and that by being true to themselves, they would have a much better chance of being heard.

Many argue that we live in an age where Cicero’s principles have run amok ¾that too many people feel far too comfortable sharing their opinions. And if you read through the comments section of any news article, you may agree.

 But we’d argue that the opposite would be much worse. If our right to speak is sacred, so too should be our ability to speak well.

 For stressing the importance of having a voice and learning how to use it, for believing that everyone deserves to be heard and for legitimately putting his money where his mouth was, Cicero is a language legend.

Cicero in the senate