In all types of technical writing—end-user documentation, data sheets, product specifications, and so on—the end product is a tool. It’s information, presented as simply as possible, to help the reader do a job. Producing this kind of work isn’t easy, especially for writers who are used to more stylistic writing, but it’s satisfying and lucrative.
Tech writing pays an average of $72,850 a year—about $35 an hour—and you can get into it with only a bachelor’s degree. It’s a fast-growing field, but to compete, you need to develop and keep developing your technical writing skills. Whether you’re already experienced or just dipping your toes in the water, here’s what you need to know to succeed.
1. Write for maximum usability.
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.
That’s why technical writing has to be concise and effective. It’s not just a matter of removing words, but about using just the right ones so that your message is absolutely clear.
The first question you should ask yourself any time you create technical content is “What do I want the person reading this to do?”
Imagine that you’re on the phone with someone, trying to talk them through the process. What do you say? Choose your words accordingly and, again, eliminate anything that doesn’t contribute to the end result.
When in doubt, give your writing to a member of your target audience and ask them to follow your instructions. If you’re a beginning tech writer, plan to do this every time.
2. Be concise.
Technical writers need to get straight to the point. There’s no room in technical writing for the literary version of small talk—no rambling introductions, side notes, or commentary.
While training as a technical writer, practice eliminating all words that aren’t absolutely necessary. If you’re a marketing writer by trade, that might mean turning this:
If you wipe down your coffee pot after every use, you’ll be one step closer to having the sparkling appliance of your dreams.
Wipe down the coffee pot after use.
The rule of thumb for writing documentation is that the less you say, the better. This is a difficult lesson to learn for many people who come into tech writing from an academic or literary background rather than a technical one. In technical writing, words are a means to an end, rather than an art.
3. Think visually.
If you’re new to technical writing, one thing that might surprise you 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. A document has to be laid out logically so someone can pick it up and find what they need without wasting time searching. Diagrams and images have to be placed correctly and labeled so that 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 logically laid out, sections are well-labeled, and images are clearly annotated. Take out everything but the words, and it would be hard to make your way through the setup process.
Because design is so important 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 so you can start working with images, diagrams, and layout.
4. Use terminology carefully.
As a technical writer, you might create one document for software engineers about how to use 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 right 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 that 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:
This is a good example of why diagrams are important in tech writing. Can you imagine describing a debris shield using only words?
Think about what terms you can reasonably expect your reader to understand. Explain the rest, ideally with a picture.
Developing as a Technical Writer
To make it in freelance technical writing, you have to refine the skills that are unique to this particular profession. You have to learn to identify excess words in your writing (there are more than you think) and only say what’s absolutely necessary to help your audience do what they want to do. Use visuals to make your point clear and define any terms that aren’t obvious.
The best way to develop your technical writing skills is through hands-on practice. 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. The Society for Technical Communications has online courses for all levels, including three levels of certifications, and many colleges and universities have certification programs as well.
Shop around, read reviews, then invest in a program that suits your needs. When you’re ready, you can launch your freelance technical writing career or apply for a salaried job.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Laura DeCesare.