Introduction to Technical Writing

Lead Writer: Amanda Butler | Peer Reviewer/s: Felicity Brand, Kieran Morgan | Expert Reviewer/s: Saul Carliner | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

Welcome to the rewarding world of technical writing—a profession that marries technical expertise with the art of clear communication. This chapter will welcome you into the universe of technical writers, providing insights into their role, the history of the craft, and the pathways into this career. Whether you’re at the start of your career, contemplating a shift, or simply curious about the domain, the chapters in this part will provide you with a holistic view of what it means to be a technical writer. Dive in to discover if technical writing is for you.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: About This BookNext: Chapter 2: Technical Writing Roles and Responsibilities

1. Introduction

Technical writing can be an incredibly intellectually and emotionally satisfying, as well as financially rewarding, career. One of the great benefits of working as a tech writer is that as your reputation and experience grow, so do your options to work flexibly and craft your own work-life balance. Whether you’re working on-site, remotely, or even venturing into freelance work, the world is your oyster.

This part discusses technical writing as a career. It explains what a technical writer does—and how to become one. We’ll walk you through the process of applying for technical writing roles, discuss qualifications and skills, describe typical tasks, and detail possible career paths as well as flexible working options.

We’ll share what to expect from a technical writing career—and help you figure out if that will suit you. Technical writing is different from almost all other forms of writing, whether that’s fiction, marketing, or journalism. The point of technical writing is to teach your audience how to do a specific task, such as execute a process or use a product. Technical writing doesn’t require specific qualifications or degrees, but it does require certain skills. If you want to improve your skills, we recommend the types of courses and classes to look for.

The application process for technical writing roles requires a résumé or LinkedIn profile, a cover letter, and writing samples. The hiring team uses these materials, a writing test, and interviews to evaluate your skills and determine whether you’re a good fit for the role.

As you progress in your role, you’ll have opportunities to further develop your skills. You’ll get to choose between continuing to contribute as a technical writer, managing other writers, or branching into a related field, such as design, marketing, or product management. Each option provides a path for learning and growth.

Insight Icon Insight
Insider Perspectives: Technical Writer Interviews
When we wrote this book, we interviewed over twenty technical writers at all stages of their careers—from interns with only a month’s experience to senior writers with over thirty-five years, reflecting on long and successful careers. We talked with documentation managers responsible for leading teams across continents and aspiring technical writers wishing to break into the industry. We asked questions about every aspect of their careers—from the tools they use to their advice for newcomers to the profession and what they think the future holds. You’ll see snippets from these interviews used throughout the book, which we’ve collected in Interviews.

2. What Is a Technical Writer?

A technical writer is someone who explains technical concepts to an audience, traditionally through written text, and these days also through images, charts, and even videos. The goal is to help the audience understand the concept as quickly and fully as possible for the purpose of achieving some goal,1,2 such as using a new gadget or software product. The goal is not to show off how smart you are by using complicated words—if you’re trying to sound smart, you’re doing it wrong! If you’re trying to help your audience learn by using straightforward language that’s appropriate for their level of education, you’re doing it right.

The type of person who’s drawn to tech writing is the type of person who’s drawn to things that tech writers infuse in their work: a love of structure and information, a desire to empathize with their audience, and of course a technical focus. Great technical writers have an innate sense of curiosity that drives them (beyond monetary reward) and a passion for communicating their understanding to others. Technical writing, therefore, is a job for people who are passionate about building information and communicating that to others as knowledge.

If this sounds like you, you’re in the right place—or at least reading the right book!

Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Senior Technical Writer with more than 25 years of experience
Location: Sydney, Australia
Expertise: Process, procedure, and software documentation
“I did a librarianship graduate diploma thinking I’d become a librarian. But I couldn’t get a librarian job—in the early 1980s, jobs were a bit tight. So I got a job proofreading Braille books, using computers to produce Braille. Eventually I became the manager in the production unit, where I wrote documentation on how it worked. I thought, ‘This is pretty interesting. How can I find a job that combines computers and writing?’ And I found out there was a job called technical writing. It suited me—it had everything that I enjoyed doing, and for the last twenty-five years, technical writing has been the perfect job for me.”

3. A Brief History of Technical Writing

Technical writing has roots as ancient as civilization itself. Wherever there were technical subjects needing explanation, some form of technical writing existed. The earliest humans created cave paintings and passed on oral instructions for making tools and hunting animals. Ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Aztecs, Babylonians, and Egyptians recorded numerous technical details—everything from the movements of the stars to lists of supplies needed for military campaigns. Great minds such as Aristotle, da Vinci, and Chaucer contributed to the field through history, turning their technical understanding into written knowledge and “infographics” passed on for the benefit of humanity.3

Insight Icon Insight
Insight: How Ancient Is Technical Writing?
Geoffrey Chaucer, known for The Canterbury Tales, wrote a detailed technical guide to the astrolabe in the late 1300s, considered the first English technical manual.4 This instrument was crucial for determining a ship’s position at sea. About a century later, Leonardo da Vinci filled notebooks with sketches and detailed descriptions of innovative technical devices, one of which resembled a helicopter.5 Not long after, pioneering European scientists such as Galileo, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton significantly influenced technical communication. They didn’t just invent devices, such as Boyle’s air pump, but also thoroughly explained their construction, usage, and the underlying theories.6

Technical writing today is a balance between science and storytelling, a combination of technical accuracy and persuasive prose. The best technical writers are capable of straddling both worlds—clearly communicating technical concepts through their mastery of language.

However, this wasn’t always the case. In the early twentieth century, technical writing was mostly the domain of engineers and scientists. Their writings were seen not just as instructions, but contributions to the greater pool of humanity’s knowledge, pushing progress ever onward. But in the first half of the twentieth century, with the turbulence that resulted from the technological progress and devastation of the two world wars, there was a rapid increase in new technologies that needed to be documented. Managers quickly realized the value of separating the “technical” from the “writing” and allowed engineers to focus their scarce time on science and engineering rather than writing reports.7

Thus the modern profession of technical writing was born and the first official job titles of “technical writer” appeared. Technical writing became more official in the 1950s with professional associations for technical writers being formed, technical communication journals being established, and later the first technical writing academic programs in the United States. The field exploded in the 1980s and 1990s when personal computers hit the market. The digital revolution changed the landscape of technical writing, leaping from the printing press and bound-and-printed manuals to online help and video tutorials. The change exponentially increased the demand for technical writers.8

For today’s technical writers, that tension between the “technical” and the “writing” sometimes endures. The best technical writers combine a deep curiosity about the technical with a passion for the writing and embrace the richness of both worlds.

Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Principal Content Strategist with 35+ years’ experience
Location: California, United States 
Expertise: Software documentation

“When I started in ’86, there wasn’t a clear career path for technical writing. But now technical writing is critical—it’s the translation layer between the software and the customer. I think tech writers tend to bury their light a little. I’d say carry yourselves with pride and be full partners in a cross-functional team. The software can’t survive without the nexus that tech writers provide with the customer.”

4. Joys and Frustrations of the Technical Writing Life

To give you a taste of the technical writing life, here are some joys and frustrations that many technical writers commonly experience.

  1. Gales, C., & Splunk Documentation Team. (2020). The Product is Docs: Writing Technical Documentation in a Product Development Group (2nd ed.), p. 121. ↩︎
  2. Schlotfeldt, J and Bittner, C. (2018, September). How Can You Leverage Data to Know You Have Effective Content? Intercom, 65(5), pp. 16-19, at p. 19. ↩︎
  3. MacKenzie, E. (2022, May 6). Guide to Technical communication: history, products, skills, education. ↩︎
  4. The Way to the Stars: Build your own Astrolabe | St John’s College, University of Cambridge. (n.d.). ↩︎
  5. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks · V&A. (n.d.). Victoria and Albert Museum. ↩︎
  6. MacKenzie, E. (2022, May 6). Guide to Technical communication: history, products, skills, education. ↩︎
  7. Longo, B. (2002). Who Makes Engineering Knowledge? Changing Identities of Technical Writers in the 20th Century United States. International Conference on Professional Communication (IPCC), Proceedings of IPCC 97. Communication., p. 61. ↩︎
  8. Longo, B. (2002). Who Makes Engineering Knowledge? Changing Identities of Technical Writers in the 20th Century United States. International Conference on Professional Communication (IPCC), Proceedings of IPCC 97. Communication., p. 62. ↩︎
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