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?
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.
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.