The Very Precise ‘Art’ of Technical Writing

Within the many ecosystems of the written word, be it on internet forums, blogs or within paperbacks, there exists a diversity of styles. The typical ‘Crazy’ and eccentric fiction author may find success within underground magazines, but I doubt if he/she would ever make it as a technical writer with such techniques.

What Technical Writing is not: the case of the Fiction Writer

Think of writing as being a left-to-right spectrum ranging from artistic expression to a practical description of something. Fiction authors are not concerned with the constraints of reality because they aren’t writing in the context of reality. Writing fiction entails the use of narrative prose; to express the subjective thoughts of the writer, through a story. Therefore, such literary rascals can get away with using confusing, reality-muddling practices such as poetry, rhythm and wit, which is nonsense, but completely fine as long as it is entertaining, well-crafted, and beautifully stated nonsense. The main point is that it can be viewed as art, whereas an instruction manual or a research paper, cannot.

But, what if the author is trying to describe something technical in nature? Say, the steps involved in rewiring a computer, or the seasonal mating behavior of certain arthropods? Such styles are used in almost every facet of life. From the words typed out on your CV to legal and technical documents, all such styles include a precise explanation of their written subject. For professional documentation, its style must communicate readability.

technical writing

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The Principles Technical Writing

So, what is the first rule of technical writing? Technical writers should inform readers about their specialty. By using their knowledge in their respective technical fields, technical writers translate their ‘higher level’ skills into understandable content to inform the untrained reader. In this sense, to ‘inform’ means to write clearly, not poetically.

Specifically, rather than having a razor sharp ‘wit’, writers on the technical side of the spectrum must have razor sharp analytical skills. Further, because both fiction and technical writing use the same medium, it is painful to read flowery vocabulary where it does not belong. Simple and descriptive language always trumps long-winded fancy- sounding babble, which defeats the purpose of an effective explanation. For example: you wouldn’t write ‘The individual in question must extract the liquid contents of the glass device into the appropriate apparatus’; you would write ‘Pour the water into the bowl’. Why? Because ‘Clarity’, that why.

The Importance of using Diagrams and Screenshots

Technical writers deal with complex systems, and unfortunately, communicating a 125 page document describing these systems is usually difficult, even for those with the technical know-how. This is because ‘technical proficiency’, and the ability to ‘type words on a keyboard’ is not enough. The writer must reinforce hard-to-grasp concepts with visuals such as screenshots and diagrams. This dissuades a reader (‘Potential Employers’, I’m looking at you) from merely glancing at your work, and makes actually understanding technological concepts easier. In this sense, it is crucial that Technical Writers put themselves in the shoes of their readers. They should realize that people generally are not habitual readers, and become burdened when presented with brick-like paragraphs.

Because the primary concern of Technical Writing is to convey technical information, the use of page design, screenshots and infographic data are all commonly used practices. This is because the main goal is not in the service of the craft of ‘writing,’ (Though its important!) it’s main concern is to communicate technical information to otherwise untrained readers.

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