Technical Writing

A few days ago, I was chatting with the woman sitting next to me on the Red Line. She was obviously a writer (that’s for a different post). We got talking about what she writes, and, of course, as it seems to be with everyone lately, she writes “science fiction.” I politely asked her what she defines that as, and she told me “you know, writing about technology that doesn’t totally exist yet, and its impact on society.” I offered that I do the same type of writing, but call it “technical writing.”

Technical Writing is a broad category that includes how-tos, instructions, installation guides, user manuals, FAQ, and yes, even PR and marketing pieces. I would say that technical writing involves (1) technology (of some sorts) and (2) its impact on humans (of some sorts).

A good technical writer includes, in relatively simple terms, not only the hows, the whys, and the what-abouts, but also the WIIFM of the reader. Usually a reader of technical writing is reading this piece of – errr… writing – not for enjoyment, but to figure something out. Yes, there is the how-do-I-do-this component. There is also the element of “what options do I have?” and “why would I do this verses that?” In other words, how the technology affects (impacts) the reader / user.

“For best results, wash in cold water separately, hang-dry and iron with warm iron. For not so good results, drag behind car through puddles, blow-dry on roof rack”

-care instructions from Heet (Korean sport-shirt company)

A really good technical writer includes acknowledgment of any particularly obtuse steps, likely frustration experienced by the reader, or, gods forbid, something kind of neat (unique, surprisingly amusing, intriguing) about the process.

Within reason, make typefaces and formatting your ally. Draw attention to cause and effect. If there is a specific order, make that clear. If things can be done in almost any order, then make that clear, also. Do not assume understanding. All that said, a technical writer should be aware of “over-explaining.”

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

-Albert Einstein

Technical writers should always be aware that each medium has its advantages and disadvantages. You can’t explain how to fix a car’s transmission over email. While you could, technically, explain sign language in writing, a video would probably be more effective. Leaving driving directions on a voice-mail is just mean…

I discussed this article with the Logan Square team of editors, and one of the points made was the ethical responsibility of technical writers. If the technology is not-quite-there-yet or there are some -ahem- “cautions” that the reader need to consider, those elements should be communicated. Otherwise, the technical writer is, indeed, just writing science fiction…

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