It's easy to take good technical writing for granted. When done well, tech communications make complex tools appear easy to use and maintain. But that polished veneer is the result of high-level skill and hard work.
What is technical writing? Read on for a definition and examples.
What Does a Technical Writer Do?
Technical writing, also called technical communication, conveys information about technology clearly and understandably. Some technical writing serves a specialized audience and uses high-level industry terminology. Some documents address a general audience by boiling down complex information.
This kind of writing is a crucial communication tool for many industries, from software development to manufacturing. It's present in all aspects of a company's operations, from business plans to project management.
Types of Technical Writing
Tech companies and product manufacturers create many types of documents. Some, like user manuals and quick-start guides, are familiar to the general public. Other kinds of technical writing, like case studies and white papers, don't appear technical at all — and that's what makes them valuable.
Below you'll find an introduction to the most common content categories, along with technical writing examples to help you picture them.
Also called technical documentation, product documentation is what most people picture when they imagine technical writing. It explains how the product works and/or how to use it — two very different goals for the technical writer.
A product manual, sometimes called a user or owner's manual, is a comprehensive overview of a technical product. When written well, it's the only document a user needs to work with a product on a day-to-day basis.
If you're a car owner, you probably have an example of a product manual in your glove compartment. Car user manuals describe every component a driver would need to access, from the tires to the onboard diagnostic (OBD) signal system. They also include instructions for at-home maintenance like checking tire pressure:
- Remove the tire valve cap.
2. Press the tip of the tire pressure gauge onto the tire valve.
3. Read the pressure using the gauge gradations.
4. If the tire inflation pressure is not at the recommended level, adjust the pressure. If you add too much air, press the center of the valve to deflate.
5. After completing the tire inflation pressure measurement and adjustment, apply soapy water to the valve and check for leakage.
6. Put the tire valve cap back on.1
Car manuals are designed for consumers. Thus, they use everyday language and non-technical diagrams. A product manual designed for an industrial user would look very different.
While a consumer manual should be jargon-free, an industrial manual can use terminology a professional would understand:
Connect the exhaust line to an abatement system with sufficient throughput, if required by the process. The DRYVAC pumps will be switched off because of overpressure if the abatement system is too small.2
Users of this industrial vacuum pump would understand the terminology. There's no need for definitions.
People often debate the difference between a manual and a guide, even within the technical communication industry. The general consensus is that a guide is a broader term, encompassing any kind of instructional documentation intended for the user.
Most importantly, a user guide doesn't have to be a long, detailed technical document. It can be an instructional video targeting a particular feature or an insert that explains the buttons on your new watch.
One example is the quick-start guide, which you'll find in the retail packaging of most consumer electronics. Today, many quick-start guides are illustration-heavy and only include text as necessary. Others include basic instructions alongside illustrations, as in this guide for the Ninja Coffee Bar:
- Twist the Water Reservoir counter-clockwise and remove for easy filling.
- Fill with fresh, filtered water up to the carafe line, marked on the outside of the Water Reservoir. Auto-iQ™ knows just the right amount of water to draw from it for the size and brew you select. Before you brew, always be sure the Water Reservoir is filled above the minimum fill line for your desired size.
- Twist the Water Reservoir clockwise to lock into place.3
Notice that the guide doesn't explain how to repair the reservoir or what to do if your coffee maker isn't working. For that, you'd need the complete product manual.
Application programming interface (API) documentation is everywhere in today's hyper-connected world.
An API is a set of functions and instructions that allows one program to talk to another. An API is behind the "pay with PayPal" option in your favorite online store. It powers the "login with Facebook" function that simplifies sign-in on various apps.
For APIs to work, developers have to work those interactions into their code. API documentation walks the developer through that process. It also provides troubleshooting tips, user experience design information, and instructions for solving user problems.
Because it's designed for developers and coders, API documentation is highly technical. API writers should have a background in software or coding.
Process documentation is a set of detailed, step-by-step instructions for executing a task. It differs from product documentation, which covers how to use or fix a technical item. Instead, process documentation describes work procedures. Here are a few examples.
Standard Operating Procedure Documents
Standard operating procedure (SOP) documents define an organization's expectations around a specific process. They may also be called standard work instructions, business standards, or policy documents.
SOP documentation comes in multiple forms, including:
- Operations checklists
- Illustrated instructions
- Scripted videos
The more technical the process, the more detailed the SOP document will be. Consider this document that describes safety procedures for a lathe in a university machine shop:
Before starting the lathe, ensure the spindle work has the cup center imbedded [sic]; tail, stock and tool rests are securely clamped; and there is proper clearance for the rotating stock. 4
Documents like these require an in-depth knowledge of the procedure. The writer may gain that knowledge from direct industry experience, interactions with subject matter experts, or hands-on time with the product.
Business Process Outlines
This type of process documentation may be less technical, though technical knowledge may be required depending on what's involved.
For example, a software startup may create process documentation to organize the development process. The document would lay out what happens at each stage, from planning to release.
Test schedules are a common type of process documentation for software developers. They create a stepwise plan for testing software, including who is responsible for which step and what equipment is required.
Because these are internal documents, they tend to be highly technical, as in this example of a course registration prototype:
The purpose of assembling the architectural prototype was to test feasibility [sic] and performance of the selected architecture. It is critical that all system and subsystem interfaces be tested as well as system performance at this early stage. Testing of system functionality and features will not be conducted on the prototype.5
The plan also includes task descriptions, milestone dates, and a list of deliverables.
Sales and Marketing Content
Companies depend on technical writers to help sell their products. Developers understand the details of a products' features and capabilities. Sales and marketing teams need to communicate those features in an enticing way.
Technical writers can close that gap. They can take highly technical product documentation including detailed specifications and make it relevant to a potential buyer. This requires a knowledge of sales best practices and an understanding of the technology involved.
Shorter marketing assets like product descriptions are usually the copywriter's domain. But when the content is more in-depth and requires more detailed descriptions of the product's functions, it takes a technical writer to do the job.
White papers are in-depth reports or technical articles about a common pain point or industry problem. They're educational and persuasive, usually centering on a company's products as a proven solution to the issue.
Businesses produce white papers to demonstrate expertise and thought leadership. A white paper needs to be thoroughly researched and packed with valuable information, including facts and statistics that go beyond the obvious.
Most white paper readers are familiar with the industry in question. They expect the material to offer them new insight into a problem and go deeper than a typical online article.
Skilled technical writers can offer that depth while keeping the piece readable and interesting. A technical white paper is fact-dense, but it should still engage the reader with a cohesive narrative. For example, this white paper explains the benefits of a new technology that efficiently troubleshoots software:
Because probes are written in C or Java, you can write probes to do anything that these languages can do, including calling functions in your own application, calling functions in third-party applications or shared applications—even examining and modifying the computer’s registers. This means you can examine or change the contents of buffers, get and set properties, trigger exceptions or error conditions, gather timing statistics, start threads and processes, and so forth. 6
Writing a white paper like this requires technical knowledge and the ability to present that knowledge concisely. Even tech professionals engage better with a story versus a list of technical specifications. A good technical white paper achieves that.
Case studies showcase how a company's product solved a problem or met a need. They tell the story of a customer's journey from beginning to end, starting with the pain point that brought them to the sponsoring company's doorstep. The structure covers:
- A description of the problem
- Other solutions the client attempted and why they didn't work
- What brought the client to the sponsoring company
- How the company approached the problem
- Measurable results
- Why the solution worked
Case studies are geared toward potential clients with similar problems. When written well, the case study helps the reader see how they could benefit from the company's products or services.
Like white papers, case studies need writers who understand the industry, problem, and solution. The writer needs to understand the process and be able to identify the important points, as in this example:
Simultaneous to the application migration, DPS designed and deployed an Azure Cloud environment to host the client’s domain, print, and file servers. While this solution was in Azure, DPS still designed it to include appropriate backups and disaster recovery solutions. The move to the Azure cloud was also seamless because the Azure environment was built and tested while the staff utilized their on-premise system.7
This highly technical content demonstrates the service's value concisely and meaningfully. The reader steps away trusting the sponsoring company's expertise and ability to solve their problem.
Proposals and Requests for Proposals
When a company has an upcoming project, the proposal process helps it find the right partner. The company running the project will issue a request for proposals (RFP), which describes the project and its scope. This example requests a contractor for an information systems security risk assessment:
It is anticipated that an assessment will occur annually, with the initial assessment covering the complete SSP (18 control groups). This initial assessment will utilize the penetration testing performed in Q1 2020. Subsequent annual assessments will include an identified sub-set of the control groups contained in the SSP to allow a complete control group assessment to be completed over a 3-year period. Penetration testing will occur annually as a portion of the ongoing assessments. This is a preferred approach, with the vendor submission specifying the proposed solution.8
The audience for an RFP is knowledgeable, so the document can be highly technical. If a reader feels qualified to apply, they respond to the RFP with detailed proposals. Successful proposals include:
- Plans for meeting the requester's needs
- Advantages of choosing the proposer
- A list of services offered and corresponding costs
The proposal is a persuasive document. It needs to earn the potential client's trust and present the proposing company as the best possible choice.
Often, a technical company will need to propose its services to a client in another industry. The proposal needs to demonstrate expertise without intimidating or confusing the reader. A technical writer is uniquely qualified for this challenging task.
Research and Reports
Technical writers also work with academic researchers in fields like science, engineering, and medicine. These professionals are experts in their fields but may not be adept at communicating what they know.
Technical writers are experts at synthesizing high-level complex material. They read through the researchers' findings and use what they learn to produce clear informative content. That content may appear in academic journals or be geared toward a more general target audience.
For example, colleges and universities often report on key faculty or student research. Technical writers can describe that work in a way that non-tech readers understand without "dumbing it down" or losing the impact of impressive discoveries. Here's one example of a new robotic gripper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
The gripper consists of two flexible fin ray fingers that conform to the shape of the object they come in contact with. The fingers themselves are assembled from flexible plastic materials made on a 3D printer, which is pretty standard in the field. However, the fingers typically used in soft robotic grippers have supportive cross-struts running through the length of their interiors, whereas Liu and Adelson hollowed out the interior region so they could create room for their camera and other sensory components.9
Writers may also help tech companies describe their work to a business audience. Technical writers can communicate that work in a way that gets funding and keeps projects on an executive's radar.
The Importance of Quality Technical Writing
Technical writers are essential in today's hyper-connected world. They teach people how to use their favorite electronics and make machinery usable for its intended audience.
For businesses, technical writers are essential go-betweens between developers and audiences. Their technical writing skills put products in users' hands and increase each product's usability, making it more valuable for consumers and the company. Consider these important benefits:
Reliable User Success
Quality documentation helps users achieve their goals, reducing confusion and the need to ask for help. Instead of wasting time figuring out how something works, the user can complete their task quickly and accurately. Users feel more successful, which improves the product's reputation and improves marketability.
Less Costly Tech Support
When users can operate a product independently, they spend less time on the phone with the manufacturer or developer. This saves money on both sides. The user gets things done faster and the company loses less of its support budget to troubleshooting. That money can go instead toward innovating new features or advancing customer success.
Stronger Safety Records
Product documentation often includes safety recommendations and warnings. They help manufacturing and warehouse professionals safely operate complex machinery, reducing the likelihood of injuries. When effective, these safety warnings reduce costly lawsuits and workers' compensation claims.
Safety warnings also help consumer companies avoid lawsuits and bad press. Here's one example of a consumer warning from the 2021 RAV4 Prime instruction manual:
Operate the power window or the moon roof or panoramic moon roof after checking to make sure that there is no possibility of any passenger having any of their body parts caught in the window or the moon roof or panoramic moon roof. Also, do not allow children to operate the mechanical key. It is possible for children and other passengers to get caught in the power window or the moon roof or panoramic moon roof.10
Warnings like these keep families safe.
Bigger Audiences and Better Sales
You know your product can transform users' lives. Technical writers get that message across with maximum impact, helping you reach more customers.
New Ideas Realized
Investors and executives don't fund technical specifications. They fund user benefits that inspire purchases. Technical writers can describe projects in a way that resonates with non-technical audiences, helping developers get funding.
Complex Technology Simplified
No matter the project, technical writers take the mystery out of technology. They wade through specifications and reports, pulling out the information that matters to buyers and funders. By communicating that information in a way that readers can understand, tech writers make products feel more approachable and strengthen customer connections.
Finding the Best Technical Writers
A skilled technical writer is worth their weight in gold, but they're not always easy to find. Companies can spend hours poring over resumes for in-house positions or checking out freelancers' portfolios. That time is much better spent advancing innovative products or making sales.
Don't spend another minute searching for the perfect writer. Compose.ly offers pre-vetted technical writers matched specifically to your project, so you get the best fit without the stress. You get top-quality content without the logistical hassle so you can focus on your business.