What is it? Well, it is a bit of a challenge to define technical writing and we have many definitions of what technical writing is. Anyway, the most common definition of technical writing is communicating technical information to technical or non-technical audience to help them achieve whatever they are trying to achieve. This could be communicating how X-ray works or assembling a wardrobe you buy at a furniture store. However, that is not what technical writing is. Technical writing is not about the subject, the tools used to produce the content, or content produced by engineers. It is more about the techne – the technique of writing. The attributes of the content such as sentence construction, the choice of words, what to include, and more importantly judge what to exclude to adapt the content to your audience.
How difficult is that? It can be as difficult as you want it to be. Foremost, we cannot say we are writers just because we can form a syntactically correct sentence. I am not a football professional just because I can put my foot on the ball and run with the ball from one goal post to another. What is all this leading to is that there are multiple considerations that a technical writer makes before creating a document. But then, nothing is easy and we need to slog for hours before we can call ourselves professionals.
Technical writing is exciting, that is if you like to understand people, observe how they work, investigate what their needs are. Technical writing draws on many different knowledge areas. Having good English language skills is only the tip of the skills you want to have as a technical writer. Having the ability to write syntactically correct English is akin to a child filling indicated colors in an illustration. The beauty of the picture comes from the designer of the illustration who can envision how these colors will look.
To communicate information to our audience we must understand how people process information and assign meaning to words and sentences. We need to understand what part of the information is new and what is old. What is it that the audience knows that we can use to explain new information. For example, I can explain some device as “spherical with rough surface. The roughness is not consistent and the loss of material in certain places is more than other”. Or, I can simply say that the device is like the moon and has a moon-like surface. We can say this because we are sure that the audience, both technical and non-technical, knows what the moon is like. A technical writer, therefore, must choose her words carefully. Using vocabulary that the audience does not know will leave the reader confused and searching for an answer.
Do I need to know the domain? Well, yes and no. You will definitely have an advantage if you are familiar with the domain. I believe a Finance major will understand financial products than an arts graduate or an engineer. This familiar background will help in two things: to understand the needs of the audience (financial software application), and become the audience and ask the right questions. But, we surely have good technical writers who are writing majors, who have acquired interviewing skills to understand what to ask. These skills can help you ask the right questions to the right people and document the correct information suitable for the audience.
Is Technical Writing Hard?