In all types of technical writing, including end-user documentation, data sheets, and product specifications, the end product is a tool to do a job. Technical writing presents information as simply as possible to help the reader do something specific. This kind of writing isn’t easy, especially for writers who are used to being more stylistic. Even so, technical writing can be satisfying and lucrative.
This niche profession pays quite well and usually only requires a bachelor’s degree. It’s a fast- and ever-growing field. You need to keep developing your technical writing skills if you want to compete.
Whether you already have experience or just dipping your toes in the tech-writing water, this overview of the concept and 10 tips to improve technical writing skills will get you set up for success.
Basics That Every Technical Writer Should Know
So what is technical writing? This genre of writing is concerned with conveying information in the clearest way possible. It is highly specialized in nature, meaning you may use industry terminology. It can describe a process or procedure for a business, outline how a system works, provide an instruction manual for operating machinery, or sum up research on a given topic.
What Is the Goal of Technical Writing?
The benefits of technical writing are many. You, the writer, achieve new skills and have more opportunities to earn money. But the primary goal of this type of writing is to teach the reader something.
For example, user guides or manuals for a car are booklets of technical writing that specifically outline how to work the vehicle. They include all the car’s specifications and meanings behind symbols and controls. Writing this type of content requires keeping in mind the audience reading it (car owners) and cars in general.
Crafting the content of technical writing requires a lot more research and precision than other types of writing. This is why improving technical writing skills goes beyond having a firm grasp of language and sentence structure. It takes understanding sometimes dry subjects to explain things clearly.
What Are the Types of Technical Writing?
Even though technical writing is a genre within the professional writing sphere, it also serves as an umbrella term for subsequent types of writing. Here are the main types of technical writing to know:
- Documentation for processes or products: Every organization has a set of rules and policies employees or clients must follow. Write this documentation to reflect procedures correctly and in a way everyone can understand. Similarly, you must document product operations and instructions so everyone understands how to use the product.
- Marketing copy: Businesses produce a range of documents to attract leads and build brand awareness. These pieces of content may include a case study, a technical white paper guide, e-books, or product pages that summarize product or service details or other information related to the industry.
- Research: Many organizations conduct research and create reports to identify trends, collect data, summarize information, and communicate findings. These documents are often very technical and range from healthcare to engineering to artificial intelligence.
Each type of technical writing requires the writer to understand the material, which is often complex. They must do their own research to craft an end product that is accurate and easy to read. They also need the right tone to keep the content informative and professional.
10 Ways to Improve Technical Writing Skills
Improving your tech writer skills goes beyond taking a grammar course. You need to understand how this type of writing differs from the rest and how to break down a complex topic in concise sentences and with an active voice. These 10 technical writing tips will help you keep improving:
1. Define Your Target Audience
Knowing your audience means identifying what they care about, their industry, and what content they need. Clearly define the demographic you’re targeting with any work you do as a technical writer. You will then be able to deliver content conveying information correctly to satisfy the reader.
2. Explore the Subject or Product in Depth
Even if you’re assigned a piece of technical writing covering the basics of a topic, you still need to do your due diligence. You may need to fully understand an industry or concept just to write about the basics.
Always explore the subject before trying to educate others about it. If you’re writing about a product, find out how to use it and even practice using it yourself. This will make your writing on the topic more interesting and engaging, not to mention accurate.
3. Establish a Consistent Logical Sequence
Unlike creative writing, technical writing doesn’t need a lot of experimentation. You wouldn’t write a how-to guide by putting the steps out of order. Craft technical writing in logical sequences.
There shouldn’t be any confusion about the order of information. Technical writing is all about breaking down complex topics in understandable, common-sense ways.
4. Structure Your Technical Document for Readability
A technical document always needs to be readable. This means bringing in strategies like the following:
- Breaking up content with visuals
- Keeping sentences short
- Using lists and bullets to summarize key points
- Avoiding long paragraphs of text
Make it as easy as possible for someone to process the information. Consider the format in which they’ll read it, too.
5. Ensure You Use Only Authentic Data
Data is a recurring component of technical writing. This style is more fact-based and may discuss research and studies. This requires writers to dig deep to ensure that any data they use is authentic, accurate, and up to date. It needs to be relevant to the topic at hand and should come from a trustworthy source.
For example, you wouldn’t cite a Wikipedia link when discussing national health data. You would instead use a reputable source like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. You also wouldn’t use a study from 1999 to talk about children’s mental health trends in 2023.
6. Consider the 7 Cs of Communication
When you pick up the user guide for your new coffee maker, you’re not looking to have a fulfilling literary experience or see an issue in a new way. You want to know how to set up the machine, fill it, and make some coffee.
The first question you should ask yourself when creating technical content is, “What do I want the person reading this to do?” This is where the 7 Cs of Communication come into play:
- Clear: Don’t beat around the bush. Provide the information right away.
- Concise: Say what needs to be said in as few words as possible.
- Concrete: Avoid abstract language that doesn’t serve the main point.
- Correct: Ensure accuracy and relevancy.
- Coherent: Never leave the reader guessing.
- Complete: Don’t leave out any necessary steps or details.
- Courteous: Be professional and consider the target audience thoroughly.
Technical writing must be effective, and the 7 Cs are good guidelines. It’s about using the right words so your message is unmistakable.
7. Write with SEO in Mind
When users seek guidance or steps for how to do something, they use SEO keywords to find content. Make sure your technical writing factors in keywords and other SEO tactics, like using anchor text for online writing, including metadata (title and description), and linking to other reputable sources in the content.
All of these strategies are pretty basic, yet they help the technical writing get connected to the right people who need it.
8. Don’t Overuse Technical Terms
As a technical writer, you might create one document for software engineers about using your product’s application programming interface (API) and then turn around and write a piece about the same product for a layperson with no technical background. Your job is to use the correct language for the right audience, not over-explaining to the internal person or under-explaining to the layperson.
When you know you’re writing peer-to-peer — meaning you’re addressing people with expertise in the technology you’re describing — you can use jargon more freely. For example, if you’re writing API documentation for developers, you probably don’t have to explain that API means “application programming interface.” Your readers might even find it insulting if you do.
On the other hand, if you’re creating a manual for a weed whacker, you can’t just tell people to “attach the debris shield to the motor housing.” You have to define the terms, ideally with diagrams like the following:
(Image credit: Weedeater Featherlite)
Think about what terms you can reasonably expect your reader to understand. Explain the rest, ideally with a picture.
9. Include Diagrams and Images in Your Technical Content
If you’re new to the field, among the most essential technical writer tips is how visual and design-oriented it is. Career writers get used to focusing purely on content, letting more qualified colleagues handle issues of layout and design.
With technical writing, design is part of the job. Lay out a document logically so someone can pick it up and find what they need without wasting time searching. Place and label diagrams and images correctly so the reader knows what step an image describes and what the parts of the image are.
Look at this example of a quick-start guide:
This single page offers very clear instructions about how to set up and use a Flip video camera, and it’s not just because of what words the writer chose. It’s laid out logically with well-labeled sections and annotated images. Take out everything but the words, and it would be hard to navigate the setup process.
Because design is so crucial to technical writing, both beginner and experienced professionals have to keep their skills sharp. That’s especially true for those of us whose backgrounds are more writing-oriented and less on the technical side of things.
The best thing to do is to look at many examples like the one above and consider what makes the design effective. Make sure to get hands-on practice, too. Invest in software tools like Microsoft Visio or Adobe InDesign to start working with images, diagrams, and layouts.
10. Leverage Peer Reviews To Edit and Test Your Content
Experienced writers know the value of an editor. Writers can’t always see when something doesn’t work, and they can easily miss mistakes. It’s wise to bring in the value of peer reviews when creating technical content. They can edit for you and test the content to see how it performs.
Pursuing advice from subject matter expert reviews is an excellent way to ensure your content is clear enough and resonates. Ask professionals in the given industry to take a look. They can provide valuable feedback about what the audience may find lacking.
Challenges Technical Writers Face and How To Overcome Them
Even with the best intentions and outstanding technical copywriting skills, challenges specific to this realm do arise. Here are a few common issues and how to overcome them.
Last-Minute Product Changes
You may have spent a lot of time parsing the details and writing clear steps for a new product, only for the company to say it’s changing. This creates frustration and adds more work.
It’s always beneficial to stay open-minded and as flexible as possible. Researching the product and understanding its importance can help you change content when something changes.
Lack of Information About Target Users
Maybe you’re writing content about a new type of machine, but you have no information about who will be using it. It’s good practice to ask for this information from the client at the beginning of the project so you can start researching. Emphasize that you need to know who the targets are to ensure you are using the right voice.
If there is still no information provided, try to write in a general, relatable tone that seems appropriate for the industry and knowledge level for the product.
Difficulty Accessing Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
SMEs are excellent resources to review a technical writing style and content for guidance. However, it’s not always possible to access these experts. It may take asking around a company for someone who can help or even researching online to find someone at the top of the game.
Balancing Technical Accuracy with Simplicity
Some people may be surprised that a tenant of technical writing is simplicity. Aren’t these topics often dense and complex?
While that may be true, technical writing is all about breaking down complicated, jargon-filled topics and making them understandable. But that still means finding the right balance to include technical details required for a thorough understanding while ensuring language is easy to digest and follow.
Discover Why Compose.ly Is the One Stop for Technical Writers
To make it in freelance technical writing, you have to refine the skills unique to this particular profession. You must learn to identify excess words in your writing (there are more than you think) and only say what’s necessary to help users do what they need to. Use visuals to make your point clear, and define any terms that aren’t obvious.
Practice makes perfect, and the same is true for building your technical writer skills and writing prowess. Keep writing technical documentation—for pay if you can get it, but there’s something to be said for creating user guides for household appliances, even if it’s just for you and your visitors’ use.
You can also take a course or pursue a certification. Shop around, read reviews, then invest in a program that suits your needs. Learn what the most common technical writer requirements are by browsing job postings. When you’re ready, you can launch your freelance technical writing career or apply for a salaried job.
Start with Compose.ly. Apply to be a writer to find your next project.