I recently took on a large-scale technical writing project. There’s a huge market for this kind of writing, which makes it a good opportunity for going full-time. It’s not what most people think of when they say “I want to be a writer” — you’re not creating fictional masterpieces, or breaking a major case with investigative journalism. But you are making peoples’ lives easier while honing your writing chops.
For folks who don’t know, technical writing means documenting some kind of process. The name implies writing instructions for some kind of gadget, but it applies just as much to assembly directions for Christmas gifts, employee manuals and how-to pieces.
Successful technical writing requires a few skills that aren’t necessarily part of other kinds of writing.
The key process in technical writing is taking information out of somebody’s head, then putting it on paper. This means you need to be able to effectively interview that person. Active listening, leading questions and reviewing answers for completeness are all parts of this skill.
You will have to understand how the human mind learns and takes in information. Without this basic knowledge, you won’t be able to structure and organize the instructions in a way that makes sense. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or therapist, but you do need a basic understanding of learning and decision science.
Clear, concise writing is the hallmark of good technical copy. You have to be able to write in a way that leaves no room for doubt or error, while also keeping the instructions accessible and interesting. This can sometimes make technical writing less fun than other kinds. There’s little room for clever prose or flights of fancy.
All writing requires fact checking. In fiction, you have to review your work to make sure of a minor character’s name, or whether a specific location has features you want to use. In non-fiction, you check the accuracy of what you’re reporting. Technical writing goes a step further, needing you to double- and triple-check the steps and flow of the process you’re documenting. This is one reason technical writers often work in teams, so they can help check one another’s work.
The bad news is not everybody comes to the table with these skills. The good news it that they’re skills everybody can learn.
Thanks for listening.