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What Is a Technical Writer? (And Why You May Need One)

Shaun Connell
June 9, 2022

Different writers fill different roles. Some are generalists, while others specialize. Some focus on writing for consumers, while others write for businesses. Depending on how you classify writers, there can be many categories, such as bloggers, content writers, copywriters, marketers, authors, and technical writers. Most kinds of writers can then specialize in specific industries, like medical writers, business writers, or even fiction writers.

Among these, one of the most commonly misunderstood writing roles is the technical writer. "Technical writer" has a fixed definition, but many individuals either don't know it or misuse it, so it can be worthwhile to review the role and see what these specialized writers do.

What is a Technical Writer, Anyway?

Technical writers are the people who write documentation. Whenever you open up a new piece of hardware or software, a tool, new technology, or assembly instructions, that documentation was likely made by a technical writer.

Solution Instruction manuals, product usage guides, care and safety instructions, end-user instructions, operating guides, white papers, specialized product descriptions, and other documentation is all under the purview of a technical writer.

Technical writing can be made for both internal and external use. Internal use cases include documentation for processes, user manuals and guides, care and service documents, internal reports, specialized guides, and other forms of documentation meant to be used inside a business.

Meanwhile, external use cases are things like usage and repair guides, installation or assembly instructions, knowledge bases, customer service information, and any documentation a company prepares to hand to clients and customers.

Technical Writer Producing Documentation

Everything from your employee handbook to your company policies to your knowledge bases to the reports delivered to your executive team are usually prepared by technical writers, though writers with more expertise in persuasive copy might review or produce some of it.

Unlike many other forms of writer, technical writers are often not ghostwriters. Ghostwriters are "ghosts" because they don't have a byline on the finished product and sell the rights to the writing to whoever ends up putting their name on it. With technical documentation, there is no byline; technical writers are generally hired to write with no expectations of a byline and thus no need to sell rights.

That said, technical writers don't have to be employees. They can be employed full-time (and often are for companies that have a consistent need for documentation), or they can be long-term contractors or per-project freelancers. It all depends on what the business needs in terms of technical documentation.

What Are the Duties of a Technical Writer?

Technical writing might seem like a single specialization, but there's actually quite a bit of variation within the specialty.

Solution No two technical writers will have the same set of roles and duties.

A generalized set of job duties might include:

  • Performing research to understand a process, system, product, or department, to more fluently write about it.
  • Develop and outline a plan for documentation in a logical order.
  • Understand the target audience, and know what is and isn't necessary to include in technical documentation (including stripping fluff and filler, and including content that is mandated by law or regulation.)
  • Create the content, copyedit it, and polish it to include everything it needs and nothing it doesn't.
  • Create or work with graphic designers to create images and illustrations where necessary.
  • Build and maintain a glossary or dictionary of relevant terminology, as necessary.
  • Create reports, white papers, proposals, and other highly technical documentation for use at high levels in organizations.

Typically, a good technical writer will either have experience (and certification) as a technical writer, writing various kinds of documentation over the course of years. They will typically work in low-pressure areas before moving on to creating documentation from scratch.

Alternatively, some technical writers start as employees in the field and transition to writing documentation instead of producing items themselves. For example, engineers and software developers may grow frustrated with the condition of documentation in their area, and will become technical writers to create it to their satisfaction.

Technical Writer Fulfilling Duties

Technical writing is everywhere. Everything from the assembly instructions for an Ikea dresser, to the Facebook Help Center, to the detailed Haynes car repair manuals, are all examples of technical writing. Likewise, things like care instructions for new electronics, health and safety warnings, and even case studies can all be technical writing.

Note that sometimes this kind of technical writing may need to be produced or reviewed by lawyers. Things like EULAs, for example, may be considered technical writing but are a specialized form of contract and thus need legal review. A technical writer is probably not actually creating these.

Above all, technical writers need to be experts in their field. They need to fully understand a product to write a guide about it, after all. That said, they don't necessarily need to understand the underlying software to write a usage guide. A technical writer doesn't need to understand the physics of air resistance to write a guide on how to replace a car windshield, after all. The area of knowledge differs from that of the people designing the product, which is why the above example of developers writing documentation isn't always a good idea.

At the same time, technical writers will often be subject to review by other subject matter experts. When a mistake in documentation can cause problems in the usage or repair of a product, it's important to have multiple sets of eyes on it to make sure it's done right. Likewise, legal review is common to ensure nothing in the documentation opens the company up to liability. There may also be a layperson review to ensure that the instructions are acceptably usable by the target audience of the documentation.

What to Look for in a Good Technical Writer

If you're considering looking for a technical writer to hire or contract, you need to know what skills and abilities to seek. Here's a quick list.

Technical writers must be excellent communicators. Many technical writers start off having gone through communications programs in school for this reason. Technical writing is very much a skill, and it requires being able to take highly complex and technical information, understand it, and convey it in a simple way to people who are very much not experts in the subject.

For example, a technical writer creating a manual for a car will need to know what information to include, such as documenting what every button and indicator on the dashboard does and means. They will, conversely, be able to leave out information about the kind of LEDs in the panel or the model numbers of the buttons, should they need replacement.

Communication also goes both ways. If a technical writer needs to contact a developer or designer, they need to know how to ask a question that gets them the answer they need.

Technical writers must be fluent in their language. We've all experienced times where a new product arrives with a manual that was very clearly Chinese run through Google Translate; technical writers must convey enough fluency in their language to remove that level of ambiguity. Rough translations can be fine for something like a fidget toy or a knife; it's much less satisfactory for more complex or expensive products.

Incidentally, this is why many companies are shifting towards more visual documentation. Ikea instructions rarely use words at all, for example.

Interviewing a Candidate

Technical writers must be able to write to their target audience. This isn't actually different from any other form of writing; however, the specific audience may have different definitions. Technical writers need to know things like whether they're writing to an end-user, a developer, a mechanic, or a craftsman, whereas a copywriter might be concerned with things like geolocation, income level, or education level.

Generally, technical writers assume the least common amount of knowledge. Any detail they leave out or gloss over is a detail that a user might need, so if they skip it, they create dissatisfied users. It's always better for an educated user to need to skip over information than for a novice user to be left confused.

Technical writers must be logical and systematic. They need to understand what they're writing about so they can provide instructions in a logical order.

Common examples might include:

  • Assembly instructions for furniture. There's no reason to add shelf pegs before the frame is built.
  • Recipe instructions. Preheating an oven more than ten minutes or so before it's needed wastes time and energy.
  • Car manuals. A car user manual will likely start with things surrounding the driver, then move into things a passenger would be concerned about before proceeding to maintenance and troubleshooting.

Now, this isn't exclusive to technical writers. Developing a logical outline is important for even just general blogging, but where a blog can be excused from a misplaced section, a piece of technical documentation may be unusable if it's in the wrong order.

Technical writers must be able to create multiple kinds of documentation from a single source. This is a process called single sourcing. Vehicle manuals are a good example; a detailed maintenance and repair guide like a Haynes manual and a general user guide that comes with the car are both information about the same vehicle from the same source, but with different purposes for different audiences.

Overall, while technical writers, bloggers, copywriters, and other specialists are all writers, the deep differences in their goals and their finished products mean that technical writers are specialists that don't have much crossover with other kinds of writing. Technical writers may be able to "let their hair down" and write casual blogs, but bloggers rarely can operate in the reverse, for example.

Does Your Company Need a Technical Writer?

This is a difficult question to answer.

Most companies have need of some kind of documentation. It could be anything from a style guide for copywriters, to a usage guide for a piece of software, to a guide for a business process like a password reset for company computers and accounts.

Technical Writer Producing Content

Do you need to hire a technical writer to produce this documentation? Maybe, maybe not. If your needs are small and relatively informal, you generally don't need to hire a dedicated technical writer to produce the content for you. You can create it, and as questions or concerns arise, edit and refine it.

Solution When the stakes are higher and the number of people using a piece of documentation is larger, the requirement to have a technical writer (and subject matter expert, and lawyer) increases. An internal process that affects ten people might not need one, but if that process affects a hundred people, it should be held to a higher standard. A usage guide for a single item in a single office isn't high-stakes; a usage guide for a product you sell millions of copies of around the world very much is.

Good technical writers can also be expensive. The average technical writer earns $75k per year, with highly-skilled, specialized, or experienced technical writers earning $100k or more. They're worth every penny of that in the right situations, but not all businesses have that much need.

Generally, if you're not sure you need a technical writer, you can consult with a technical writer as a freelancer and see if they can help you. Freelancers for temporary projects are cheaper than hiring writers as employees, and if it turns out you don't need them for much, then you don't need to retain their services.

One thing you probably shouldn't do is try to hire a generalist writer and train them as a technical writer. Technical writing often involves either deep subject experience, certification, courses for a technical writing degree, or some combination of the above. Many of the habits that make for compelling blogging need to be turned off for technical documentation, and many bloggers and generalist copywriters don't thrive in that kind of dry, factual environment.

Do you have any questions about what a technical writer is, what exactly it is that they do, or if your company needs one? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below! We'll gladly answer any of your questions and assist you further however we possibly can!

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Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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