Technical Writing: What and How?
Writing is a great way to consolidate knowledge for yourself and others through your words.
Technical writing, though primarily concerned with sharing technical knowledge and experience to help others, also helps to reinforce your knowledge on the topic you're writing about while still demonstrating your technical ability and level of talent.
In this article, I will explain the concept of technical writing, the skills you need to become a technical writer, how to get started, and career opportunities for technical writers.
Table of contents
- What is technical writing?
- What are the skills a technical writer should have?
- How to get started.
- Career opportunities.
What is technical writing?
Technical writing has been defined differently by various authors and writers but I found the definition by Grammar very interesting. According to Grammar, "Technical writing is a type of writing where the author is writing about a particular subject that requires direction, instruction, or explanation. It is an efficient and clear way of explaining something and how it works."
Technical writing involves organizing the most important facts and explaining complex problems in a very efficient way that's easy to understand by the audience.
What are the skills a technical writer should have?
A common assumption among many would-be writers is the thought of not being able to write because they were not born with the gift or skill of writing. Which raises the question: Are writers born or made?
I was curious to know what other people thought about this popular myth so I made a tweet about it. I was amazed at the fact that some people thought writers were born, others thought writers were made and another set of people thought writers were both born and made as well.
I personally believe that anybody, whether born with the skill or not, can learn how to become a great writer. I wasn't born with the gift of writing, but I decided to be intentional about learning how to write and the rest is history.
The technical writers you see today had to develop or learn certain skills to become good at writing. Here are 5 important skills needed to be a successful technical writer:
The first and most important skill every technical writer needs is writing. I know it might be confusing to see that writing is one of the skills required to be a technical writer because you probably think technical writing and writing are the same but they are not.
Writing is the process of using symbols (letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and spaces) to communicate thoughts and ideas in a readable form while Technical writing is the process of communicating or conveying one's ideas, views, instructions, and suggestions more logically and technically.
Therefore, you must first understand how to write before going ahead to explain that topic or concept clearly and technically.
Another important skill technical writers need is the ability to identify their target audience. To know who's your target audience, ask yourself the following questions before you start writing:
- Who are they?
- What do they need?
- Where will they be reading?
- When will they be reading?
- Why will they be reading?
- How will they be reading?
When you get the answers to the aforementioned questions, it will help you tailor your writing to that audience which will in turn help you pass the message effectively.
The goal of a technical writer is to enable readers to understand a highly complex process or concept clearly. For this to be achieved, technical writers need to be well familiarized with the topic they are about to write on.
If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself. - Albert Einstein
The quote above by Albert Einstein echoes the need to understand the technicalities of something before explaining it to someone else.
The importance of understanding how to carry research as a technical writer cannot be overemphasized because researching on the topic will equip you with a broad understanding of the subject. This broad understanding will ensure that your text is accurate and communicates the necessary data most efficiently. Simply put, Google the hell out of things.
A unique voice
We are all unique and that is why it is important to sit alone with your thoughts and let your mind flow freely as a writer instead of copying other authors' content.
It ain't whatcha write, it's the way atcha write it. - Jack Kerouac, WD
This is extremely important because people learn in different ways & your content (voice) might be what someone out there is hoping to read before they finally understand that concept.
How to get started
Deciding to become a technical writer is great but putting in the necessary work to get started is even greater. Here are four important things you need to do to become a technical writer;
Take a course in technical writing
Technical writing is an in-demand skill and employers want to hire the best writer on their team. Taking a course on technical writing is highly underrated but it is very important because you will discover diverse tips that will help you become a better writer. My technical writing skills significantly improved after I took a technical writing course by Google and I highly recommend you take the course as well.
Read books and articles
Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river. - Lisa See
Reading is very essential because it will help to enrich your vocabulary, keep you abreast of current trends, discover what's going on in the writing world, and also helps keep the spirit to write alive.
You learn to write by writing, and by reading and thinking about how writers have created their characters and invented their stories. If you are not a reader, don't even think about being a writer. - Jean M. Auel
Even when you take all the technical writing courses and reading all the books in the world, that doesn't make you a writer. The only time you can and will be classified as a writer is when you write. So you need to let your thoughts flow freely while you put them down. Here are some things to take note of before and after you've completed the first draft of the topic you decide to write about.
- Learn to follow a style guide when writing. It helps you stay on track and follow the best writing principles.
- Make your paragraphs support a single idea. Don't cram everything within one paragraph.
- Write short, clear, and precise sentences because simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
- After writing your first draft, read your content out loud while assuming you are the reader. This will help you spot words that can be rephrased.
- Edit your first draft only when you are focused.
- Seek feedback by consulting with experts in the field you are writing about because no technical writer knows every technical detail.
You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. - Octavia E. Butler
Just like every other skill, you get better at writing when you keep writing consistently. Aim to write at least one article every month and you will be shocked at the way your writing skills will improve if you keep doing it consistently.
Technical writing is a prized and profitable skill. It is a valuable title whether you are interested in making a career shift or adding this ability to your current role. Remember, any employee who can convey technical information at work is very valuable to a company.
According to Glassdoor, technical writers make between 50,000$ to 100,000$ annually and some companies pay between 100$ to 500$ per article published on their platform. You can find some of those paid community writing programs here.
Google started a Season of Docs program to connect technical writers to open source organizations because they realized documentation played an important role in the use of open source projects. In this Season of Docs program, technical writers get paid stipends as well. You can get more information about the Google Season of Docs in this article.
Technical writing continues to be a highly coveted skill in the professional workplace. Demand is expected to grow at 10% from 2014 to 2024.
Writing, like many other crafts, takes years of practice to hone. The best part of writing is that the improvement is detectable. You can look at your previous works and see visible improvement(s) over time.
Technical writers have the great benefit of becoming lifelong learners because they need to be well-versed in that field they are writing about in order to communicate the content clearly to readers. I strongly encourage you to not just start this journey but also stay consistent as well.
That's all folks! I hope this was helpful. If so, like this article and follow me on Twitter.
Thanks! Really that’s a nice read.
This is indeed something we really miss in all the teams I’ve been part of, and I wasn’t aware of the Google course.... that’s something I’m so happy you shared.
Even if my goal is not to become one, since we don’t have one and we need to write docs, that’s an important skill to have! I’ll look into this course for sure!
If this can also help other readers, one resource I shared with my teammates (because we don’t have a technical writer to help us with this) was this great talk by Daniele Procida at Pycon Australia 2017, but there’s nothing specific to Python there:
It’s really a great introduction into documentation writing and organization. It’s only the beginning, but if you’re like us and don’t have a real technical writer, I found this really helpful.
Wow! This was an excellent read! Thank you so much for writing this. While I primarily want to work in development, this article has convinced me that being a skilled technical writer could add value to that. Once again, great article!
I work for Red Hat Enterprise Linux as a curriculum writer/developer, I am a tech organizational flow philosopher. A follower of DevOps
We have to use active voice when writing our curriculum books. I feel that even though this is an easy way to serialize and make a uniform style across several technical writers working on the same project, that having my one "flair" better markets myself. I like to read certain bloggers because of the way they write and the way their style comes across in their writing. Good article Didi I like following up on writing keynotes and courses so thanks for the links.
I know I'd love writing but I just believed I didn't have the skills. Didi, Thank you for this article. It's timely, I hope to go on with my plan to publish something by Friday.
Thank you very much for this. Before now i find it hard putting my thoughts to words but after reading your post and taking the google technical writing course, i realised that my problem was a knowledge gap. I am now getting better at writing and also composing work emails, however i still need something to practise with consistently, don't know if you have got any ideas. Technical writing unbelievably improves coding skills in the area of areas of methods, parameters, and variable naming.
This is literally one of the best things I have read today. Thank you for sharing how my article helped you improve your writing skill.
If you are looking for something to help you write consistently then you should participate in the #2Articles1Week challenge by Hashnode.